Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 74

   

“If I were you, sir, I would remove myself promptly from this animal’s presence. It is apparent that he dislikes you.”

The shouting and screaming had stopped, and this made several people laugh.

“Got you there, Belden!” a man near me called. “The mule dislikes you. What you think of that?”

The teamster looked mildly dazed but still homicidal. He stood with his fists clenched, legs braced wide apart and shoulders hunched, glowering at the crowd.

“What I think . . . ?” he began. “I think—”

But Percy had managed to get to his feet and, while still somewhat hunched, was mobile. Without hesitation, he walked up and kicked the teamster smartly in the balls.

This went over well. Even the man who appeared to be a friend of Belden’s whooped with laughter. The teamster didn’t go down but curled up like a dried leaf, clutching himself. Percy wisely didn’t wait for him to recover, but turned and bowed to Fergus.

“À votre service, monsieur. I suggest that you and your son—and the mule, of course—might withdraw?”

“Merci beaucoup, and I suggest you do the same, tout de suite,” Fergus replied.

“Hey!” shouted the teamster’s friend, not laughing now. “You can’t steal that mule!”

Fergus rounded on him, imperious as the French aristocrat Percy had implied he might be.

“I cannot, sir,” he said, inclining his head a quarter of an inch in acknowledgment. “Because a man cannot steal that which already belongs to him, is this not so?”

“Is that not . . . is what not so?” demanded the man, confused.

Fergus scorned to answer this. Lifting one dark brow, he strode off several paces, turned, and shouted, “Clarence! Écoutez-moi!”

With the teamster’s collapse, Germain had succeeded in getting Clarence somewhat under control, though the mule’s ears were still laid out flat in displeasure. At the sound of Fergus’s voice, though, the ears rose slowly upright and swiveled in his direction.

Fergus smiled, and I heard a woman behind me sigh involuntarily. Fergus’s smile was remarkably charming. He reached into his pocket and withdrew an apple, which he skewered neatly on his hook.

“Come,” he said to the mule, extending his right hand and twiddling the fingers in a head-scratching motion. Clarence came, disregarding Mr. Belden, who had now sat down and was clutching his knees, the better to contemplate his state of inner being. The mule ducked his head to take the apple, nudging Fergus’s elbow, and allowed his forehead to be scratched. There was a murmur of interest and approbation from the crowd, and I noticed a few censorious glances being shot at the groaning Mr. Belden.

The sense of being about to faint had left me, and now my insides began to unclench. With some effort, I slid the knife back into its sheath without stabbing myself in the thigh and wiped my hand on my skirt.

“As for you, sans crevelle,” Fergus was saying to Germain, with a low-voiced menace that he’d plainly learned from Jamie, “we have a few things to discuss presently.”

Germain turned a rather sickly shade of yellow. “Yes, Papa,” he murmured, hanging his head in order to avoid his father’s minatory eye.

“Get down,” Fergus said to him, and, turning to me, raised his voice. “Madame General, permit me to present this animal personally to General Fraser, in the service of liberty!”

This was delivered in such a tone of ringing sincerity that a few souls applauded. I accepted, as graciously as possible, on behalf of General Fraser. By the conclusion of these proceedings, Mr. Belden had got awkwardly to his feet and stumbled off toward the teamsters’ camp, tacitly ceding Clarence to the cause.

I took Clarence’s reins, relieved and glad to see him again. Apparently it was mutual, for he nosed me familiarly in the shoulder and made chummy huffing noises.

Fergus, meanwhile, stood for a moment looking down at Germain, then squared his shoulders and turned to Percy, who still looked a little pale but had straightened his wig and regained his self-possession. Percy bowed very formally to Fergus, who sighed deeply, then bowed back.

“And I suppose that we, too, have matters to discuss, monsieur,” he said, resigned. “Perhaps a little later?”

Percy’s handsome face lighted.

“À votre service . . . seigneur,” he said, and bowed again.

AN ALTERNATE USE FOR A PENIS SYRINGE

GERMAIN HAD, IN FACT, found some honey, and now that the excitement of recovering Clarence was over, he produced a large chunk of sticky honeycomb, wrapped in a dirty black kerchief, from the recesses of his shirt.

“What are you going to do wi’ that, Grannie?” he asked, curious. I’d set the oozing chunk of comb in a clean pottery dish and was again employing the useful penis syringe—carefully sterilized with alcohol—to suck up honey, being careful to avoid bits of wax and noticeable pollen grains. Having been designed for irrigation rather than puncture, the syringe had a blunt, smoothly tapered tip: just the thing for dribbling honey into someone’s eye.

“I’m going to lubricate his lordship’s bad eye,” I said. “Fergus, will you come and steady his lordship’s head, please? Put your hand on his forehead. And, Germain, you’ll hold his eyelids open.”

“I can keep still,” John said irritably.

“Be quiet,” I said briefly, and sat down on the stool beside him. “No one can keep still while having things poked into their eye.”

“You were poking your bloody fingers into my eye not an hour since! And I didn’t move!”

“You squirmed,” I said. “It’s not your fault, you couldn’t help it. Now, be quiet; I don’t want to accidentally stab you in the eyeball with this.”

Breathing audibly through his nose, he clamped his mouth shut and suffered Fergus and Germain to immobilize him. I’d debated whether to dilute the honey with boiled water, but the heat of the day had made it sufficiently thin that I thought it better to use it at full strength.

“It’s antibacterial,” I explained to the three of them, using my cautery iron again to lift the eyeball and squirting a slow dribble of honey under it. “That means it kills germs.”

Fergus and Germain, to whom I had explained germs more than once, nodded intelligently and tried to look as though they believed in the existence of such things, which they didn’t. John opened his mouth as though to speak, but then shut it again and exhaled strongly through his nose.

“But the chief virtue of honey in the present instance,” I went on, anointing the eyeball generously, “is that it’s viscous. Let go now, Germain. Blink, John. Oh, very good!” The handling had of course made the eye water, but even dilute honey retains its viscosity; I could see the altered gleam of the light across the sclera, indicating the presence of a thin, soothing—I hoped—layer of honey. Some had overflowed, of course, and amber beads were sliding down his temple toward his ear; I stanched the flow with a handkerchief.

“How does it feel?”

John opened and closed his eye a couple of times, very slowly.

“Everything looks blurry.”

“Doesn’t matter; you aren’t going to be looking out of that eye for a day or two anyway. Does it feel any better?”

“Yes,” he said, in a distinctly grudging manner, and the other three of us made approving noises that made him look embarrassed.

“Right, then. Sit up—carefully! Yes, that’s it. Close your eye and hold this to catch the drips.” And, handing him a clean handkerchief, I unrolled a length of gauze bandage, thumbed a pad of lint carefully into the eye socket, and rolled the bandage round his head a few times, tucking in the ends. He strongly resembled a figure in an old painting titled The Spirit of ’76, but I didn’t mention it.

“All right,” I said, exhaling and feeling rather pleased with myself. “Fergus, why don’t you and Germain go and find some food? Something for his lordship, and something for the road tomorrow. I rather think it will be a long day.”

“This one’s been quite long enough already,” John said. He was swaying a little, and I pushed him gently back down with little resistance. He stretched his neck to ease it, then settled on the pillow with a sigh. “Thank you.”

“It was my pleasure,” I assured him. I hesitated, but, with Fergus’s departure, I didn’t think I’d have a better chance to ask what was in my mind. “I don’t suppose you know what Percival Beauchamp wants with Fergus, do you?”

The good eye opened and looked at me.

“You mean you don’t think he believes Fergus to be the lost heir to a great fortune? No, I don’t, either. But if Mr. Fraser will take a bit of unsolicited advice, I’d strongly suggest having as little as possible to do with Monsieur Beauchamp.” The eye closed again.

Percy Beauchamp had taken his leave—very gracefully—after Clarence’s rescue, explaining that he must attend le marquis but adding that he would seek out Fergus on the morrow.

“When things are quieter,” he’d added, with a genteel bow.

I regarded John thoughtfully.

“What did he do to you?” I asked. He didn’t open his eye, but his lips tightened.

“To me? Nothing. Nothing at all,” he repeated, and turned over on his side with his back to me.

THREE HUNDRED AND ONE

THREE HUNDRED MEN. Jamie stepped into the darkness beyond the 16th New Jersey’s campfire and paused for a moment to let his eyes adjust. Three hundred bloody men. He’d never led a band of more than fifty. And never had much in the way of subalterns, no more than one or two men under him.

Now he had ten militia companies, each with its own captain and a few informally appointed lieutenants, and Lee had given him a staff of his own: two aides-de-camp, a secretary—now, that he could get used to, he thought, flexing the fingers of his maimed right hand—three captains, one of whom was striding along at his shoulder, trying not to look worrit, ten of his own lieutenants, who would serve as liaison between him and the companies under his command, a cook, an assistant cook—and, of course, he had a surgeon already.

Despite the preoccupations of the moment, the memory of Lee’s face when Jamie’d told him exactly why he didn’t need an army surgeon assigned to him made him smile.

“Indeed,” Lee had said, his long-nosed face going blank. Then he’d gathered his wits and gone red in the face, thinking himself practiced upon. But Jamie had pushed back his cuff and shown Lee his right hand, the old white scars on his fingers like tiny starbursts where the bones had come through, and the broad one, still red but neat, straight, and beautifully knit, running down between the middle finger and the little one, showing where the missing finger had been amputated with such skill that one had to look twice to see why the hand seemed strange.

“Well, General, your wife seems a most accomplished needlewoman,” Lee said, now amused.

“Aye, sir, she is,” he’d said politely. “And a verra bonny hand with a blade, too.”

Lee gave him a sardonic look and spread out the fingers of his own right hand; the outer two were missing.

“So was the gentleman who took these off me. A duel,” he added offhandedly, seeing Jamie’s raised brows, and curled up his hand again. “In Italy.”

He didn’t know about Lee. The man had a reputation, but he was a boaster, and the two didn’t often go together. On the other hand, he was proud as one of Louis’s camels, and arrogance sometimes did mark a man who kent his worth.

The plan to attack the British rear guard, at first intended as a quick strike by La Fayette and a thousand men—Lee scorning such a minor command—had grown more elaborate, as such things always did if you gave commanders time to think about them. Once Washington had decided that the expeditionary force should be five thousand men, Lee had graciously condescended to this more appropriate command—leaving La Fayette in charge of his own smaller force, for the sake of the marquis’s amour-propre, but with Lee in command overall. Jamie had his doubts, but it wasn’t his place to voice them.

He glanced to his left, where Ian and his dog were ambling along, the former whistling to himself and the latter a huge, shaggy shape in the dark, panting from the heat.

“Iain,” he said casually in Gàidhlig, “did your friends with the feathers have aught to say about Ounewaterika?”

“They had, Uncle,” Ian replied in the same language. “Not much, though, for they know him only by repute. He’s a most ferocious fighter, or so it’s said.”

“Mmphm.” The Mohawk were certainly ferocious and did set great store by personal courage—but he thought they had a negligible grasp of strategy, tactics, and judgment. He was about to ask about Joseph Brant, who was likely the closest thing to a general—in the formal sense—among the Mohawk, but was interrupted by a tall, gangling form stepping out in front of him.

“I beg your pardon, sir. Might I have a word?” the man said, and, looking right and left at Jamie’s companions, added, “A private word.”

“Certainly, Captain . . . Woodsworth,” he replied, hoping his hesitation in finding the man’s name was small enough to pass unnoticed. He’d memorized all the militia captains as he met them—and as many men as he could—but their names wouldn’t come easy to him for a bit yet.

After a moment’s further hesitation, he nodded to Ian to go on with Captain Whewell to the next fire.

“Tell them what’s afoot, Captain,” he said, for the next fire was one of Whewell’s assigned companies, “but wait for me there, aye?”

“What’s afoot?” Woodsworth repeated, sounding alarmed. “What’s happening? Are we to go now?”

“Not yet, Captain. Come aside, aye? Else we’ll be trampled.” For they were standing in the path that led from the fires to a set of hastily dug latrine trenches; he could smell the acrid tang of ordure and quicklime from here.

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