“Sir!” John said, looking shocked at the mere idea.
“Mmphm,” Jamie said darkly, and left.
THE MULE DISLIKES YOU
I DIDN’T KNOW QUITE what to say to John, in the wake of recent events. He seemed similarly at a loss, but coped with the social awkwardness by closing his eyes and pretending to be asleep. I couldn’t leave him until Germain got back with the honey—assuming he found any, but I had a fair amount of faith in his abilities.
Well, no point in sitting about with my hands folded. I took out my mortar and pestle and set to work grinding gentian root and garlic for antibiotic ointment. This occupied my hands, but unfortunately not my mind, which was scampering in circles like a hamster on a wheel.
I had two main anxieties at the moment, one of which I could do nothing about: that being the escalating sense of oncoming battle. I knew it very well; I couldn’t be mistaken. Jamie hadn’t told me explicitly, perhaps because he hadn’t had written orders yet—but I knew as clearly as if it had been shouted by a town crier. The army would move soon.
I stole a glance at John, who lay like a tomb effigy, hands neatly crossed at his waist. All it wanted was a small dog curled up at his feet. Rollo, snoring under the cot, would have to do, I supposed.
John, of course, was the other anxiety. I had no idea how he’d come to be where he was, but enough people had seen him surrender that his presence would be common knowledge by nightfall. And once it was . . .
“I don’t suppose you’d consider escaping, if I left for a moment?” I asked abruptly.
“No,” he said, not opening his eyes. “I gave my parole. Besides, I wouldn’t make it outside the camp,” he added.
The silence resumed, broken by the brumm of a large bumblebee, which had blundered into the tent, and the more distant shouts and drumbeats of soldiers drilling and the low thrashing noises of daily camp life.
The only good thing—if one chose to regard it that way, and I might as well—was that the rising sense of battle urgency was likely to preclude official curiosity about John. What the devil would Jamie do with him when the army decamped in the morning? I wondered.
“Grand-mère, Grand-mère!” Germain burst into the tent, and Rollo—who had slept through Percy Beauchamp’s visit without stirring a whisker—shot out from under the cot with an explosive WOOF! that nearly overturned the cot and John with it.
“Hush, dog,” I said, seeing him glaring wildly round, and took a restraining grip on his scruff. “And what the he—I mean the dev—I mean what’s the matter, Germain?”
“I saw him, Grannie! I saw him! The man who took Clarence! Come quick!” And without waiting for response, he turned and raced out of the tent.
John began to sit up, and Rollo tensed under my hand.
“Sit!” I said to both of them. “And bloody stay!”
THE HAIRS ON my forearms were prickling, even as sweat streamed down my neck. I’d left my hat behind and the sun blazed on my cheeks; I was panting by the time I caught up with Germain, as much from emotion as from heat.
“Just there, Grannie! The big bugger wi’ the kerchief round his arm. Clarence must ha’ bitten him!” Germain added, with glee.
The bugger in question was big: roughly twice my size, with a head like a pumpkin. He was sitting on the ground under the shade of what I thought of as the hospital tree, nursing his kerchief-wrapped arm and glowering at nothing in particular. A small group of people seeking medical treatment—you could tell as much from their hunched and drooping attitudes—was keeping a distance from him, looking warily at him from time to time.
“You’d best keep out of sight,” I murmured to Germain, but, hearing no answer, glanced round to discover that he’d already faded artfully from view, canny child that he was.
I walked up, smiling, to the little group of waiting people—mostly women with children. I didn’t know any of them by name, but they clearly knew who and what I was; they bobbed their heads and murmured greetings, but cut their eyes sideways at the man under the tree. “Take him first before he does something messy” was the clear message. Just as clear as the sense of badly contained violence that the man was radiating in all directions.
I cleared my throat and walked over to the man, wondering what on earth I was to say to him. “What have you done with Clarence the mule?” or “How dare you rob my grandson and leave him in the wilderness alone, you bloody bastard?”
I settled for “Good morning. I’m Mrs. Fraser. What happened to your arm, sir?”
“Bleedin’ mule bit me to the bone, gaddamn his stinkin’ hide,” the man replied promptly, and glowered at me under eyebrows ridged with scar tissue. So were his knuckles.
“Let me see it, will you?” Not waiting for permission, I took hold of his wrist—it was hairy and very warm—and unwrapped the kerchief. This was stiff with dried blood, and no wonder.
Clarence—if it was Clarence—actually had bitten him to the bone. Horse and mule bites could be serious but usually resulted only in deep bruising; equines had powerful jaws, but their front teeth were designed for tearing grass, and as most bites were through clothing, they didn’t often break skin. It could be done, though, and Clarence had done it.
A flap of skin—and a good chunk of flesh—about three inches wide had been partially detached, and I could see past the thin fatty layer to the gleam of tendon and the red membranous covering of the radius. The wound was recent but had stopped bleeding, save for a little oozing at the edges.
“Hmm,” I said noncommittally, and turned his hand over. “Can you close your fingers into a fist?” He could, though the ring finger and little finger wouldn’t fold in completely. They did move, though; the tendon wasn’t severed. “Hmm,” I said again, and reached into my bag for the bottle of saline solution and a probe. Saline was a little less painful for disinfection than dilute alcohol or vinegar—and it was somewhat easier to get hold of salt, at least when living in a city—but I kept a tight grip on the enormous wrist as I poured the liquid into the wound.
He made a noise like a wounded bear, and the waiting onlookers took several steps back, as a body.
“Rather a vicious mule,” I observed mildly, as the patient subsided, panting. His face darkened.
“Gonna beat the gaddamn bastarding f**ker to death, soon as I get back,” he said, and bared his yellow teeth at me. “Skin him, I will, and sell his meat.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t advise that,” I said, keeping a grip on my temper. “You don’t want to be using that arm violently; it could bring on gangrene.”
“It could?” He didn’t go pale—it wasn’t possible, given the temperature—but I’d definitely got his attention.
“Yes,” I said pleasantly. “You’ve seen gangrene, I daresay? The flesh goes green and putrid—beastly smell—limb rots, dead in days . . . that sort of thing?”
“I seen it,” he muttered, eyes now fixed on his arm.
“Well, well,” I said soothingly, “we’ll do our best here, won’t we?” I would normally have offered a patient in such a case a fortifying draft of whatever liquor was available—and, thanks to the marquis, I had quite a good supply of French brandy—but in the present instance, I wasn’t feeling charitable.
In fact, my general feeling was that Hippocrates could turn a blind eye for the next few minutes. Do no harm, forsooth. Still, there wasn’t a great deal I could do to him, armed with a two-inch suture needle and a pair of embroidery scissors.
I stitched the wound as slowly as I could, taking care to slosh more saline over it periodically and glancing covertly round for assistance. Jamie was with Washington and the high command as they strategized the imminent engagement; I couldn’t summon him out to deal with a mule thief.
Ian had vanished on his pony, scouting the British rear guard. Rollo was with Lord John. Rachel had gone off with Denny and Dottie in the Quakers’ wagon, to look for supplies in the nearest village. And good luck to them, I thought; General Greene’s foragers had spread out like locusts over the face of the earth the moment the army halted, stripping farmsteads and storage barns in their path.
The patient was cursing in a rather monotonous and uninspired fashion, but showed no signs of keeling over in a convenient faint. What I was doing to his arm was unlikely to improve his temper; what if he actually did intend to go straight off and beat Clarence to death?
If Clarence was loose, I’d put good odds on the mule to win any such encounter, but he was very likely tied or hobbled. But then . . . a horrid thought struck me. I knew where Germain was, and what he was doing—or trying to do.
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I muttered, bending my head over the teamster’s arm to hide an undoubtedly appalled expression. Germain was an extremely talented pickpocket, but stealing a mule out of the middle of a gang of teamsters . . .
What had Jamie said? “He’d be taken up for theft and hanged or flogged within an inch of his life, and I couldna do a thing to stop it.” Teamsters being what they were, they’d likely just break his neck and be done with it, rather than waiting for any sort of military justice.
I swallowed hard and glanced quickly over my shoulder, to see if I could spot the teamsters’ encampment. If I could see Germain . . .
I didn’t see Germain. What I saw was Percy Beauchamp, regarding me thoughtfully from the shadow of a nearby tent. Our eyes met, and he instantly came toward me, straightening his coat. Well, I was in no position to look a gift horse—or mule—in the mouth, was I?
“Madame Fraser,” he said, and bowed. “Are you in need of some assistance?”
Yes, I bloody did need assistance; I couldn’t drag my surgical repairs out much longer. I darted a look at my massive patient, wondering whether he had any French.
Apparently my face was just as transparent as Jamie had always told me it was; Percy smiled at me and said conversationally in French, “I don’t think this clot of decaying menstrual blood is capable of understanding more English than it takes to hire the sort of poxed and imbecile whore who would let him touch her, let alone understand the tongue of angels.”
The teamster went on muttering, “Shit-fire, shit-fire, f**king shit-ass f**king-ass mule, that gaddamn hurts . . .”
I relaxed a little and replied in French. “Yes, I need help—with the utmost urgency. My grandson is trying to steal the mule this oaf stole from him. Can you retrieve him from the teamsters’ camp before someone notices?”
“À votre service, madame,” he replied promptly, and, clicking his heels smartly together, bowed and went off.
I TOOK AS long as I could over the final dressing of the wound, worried that should my foul-mouthed patient find Germain among the teamsters, Percy’s French manners might be unequal to the occasion. And I couldn’t really expect Hippocrates to continue turning a blind eye, were I compelled to do something drastic if the man tried to break Germain’s neck.
I heard a familiar loud braying behind me, though, and turned sharply to see Percy, flushed and a trifle disheveled, leading Clarence toward me. Germain sat atop the mule, his face set in lines of vindictive triumph as he glared at my patient.
I stood up hastily, groping for my knife. The teamster, who had been gingerly prodding the fresh bandage round his arm, looked up, startled, then surged to his feet with a roar.
“Shit-FIRE!” he said, and started purposefully toward them, fists clenched. Percy, to his credit, stood his ground, though he paled a little. He handed the reins up to Germain, though, and stepped firmly forward.
“Monsieur . . .” he began. I would have liked to know just what he had in mind to say but didn’t find out, as the teamster didn’t bother with colloquy, instead driving a hamlike fist into Percy’s belly. Percy sat down hard and folded up like a fan.
“Bloody hell—Germain!” For Germain, nothing daunted by the sudden loss of support, had gathered up Clarence’s reins and tried to lash the teamster across the face with them.
This might possibly have been effective, had he not telegraphed his intention quite so clearly. As it was, the teamster ducked and reached out, clearly intending to grab either the reins or Germain. The crowd around me had realized what was happening by now, and women started screaming. At this point, Clarence decided to become involved and, laying back his ears, curled his lips and snapped at the teamster’s face, coming within a toucher of taking off the man’s nose.
“SHIT-ASS FUCKING MULE!!” Deeply inflamed, the teamster leapt at Clarence and fixed his teeth in the mule’s upper lip, clinging like grim death to his neck. Clarence screamed. The women screamed. Germain screamed.
I didn’t scream, because I couldn’t breathe. I was elbowing my way through the crowd, fumbling for the slit in my skirt so I could reach my knife. Just as I laid my hand on the hilt, though, a hand came down on my shoulder, halting me in my tracks.
“Pardon me, milady,” said Fergus, and, stepping purposefully past me, walked up beside the lunging mass of mule, teamster, and shrieking child, and fired the pistol in his hand.
Everything stopped, for a split second, and then the shouting and screaming started again, everyone surging toward Clarence and his companions to see what had happened. For a long moment, it wasn’t apparent what had happened. The teamster had let go his grip in astonishment and turned toward Fergus, eyes bulging and blood-tinged saliva running down his chin. Germain, with more presence of mind than I would have had in such a situation, got hold of the reins and was hauling on them with all his strength, trying to turn Clarence’s head. Clarence, whose blood was plainly up, was having none of it.
Fergus calmly put the fired pistol back into his belt—I realized at this point that he must have fired into the dirt near the teamster’s feet—and spoke to the man.