Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 78

   

“Good,” said Jamie, smiling from face to face, and seeing them all lighten in turn as the dawn touched them. “Mr. Whelan, Mr. Maddox, Mr. Hebden—ye’re all well in yourselves this morning, I hope?”

“We are,” they murmured, looking shyly gratified that he knew their names. He wished he knew them all, but had had to do the best he could, learning the names and faces of a handful of men in each company. It might give them the illusion that he did know every man by name—he hoped so; they needed to know he cared for them.

“Ready, sir.” It was Captain Craddock, one of his three captains, stiff and self-conscious with the importance of the occasion, and Judah Bixby and Lewis Orden, two of Jamie’s lieutenants, behind him. Bixby was no more than twenty, Orden maybe a year older; they could barely repress their excitement, and he smiled at them, feeling their joy in their young manhood echo in his own blood.

There were some very young men among the militia, he noticed. A couple of half-grown boys, tall and spindly as cornstalks—who were they? Oh, yes, Craddock’s sons. He remembered now; their mother had died only a month ago, and so they had come with their father into the militia.

God, let me bring them back safe! he prayed.

And felt—actually felt—a hand rest briefly on his shoulder, and knew who the third man was who walked with him.

Taing, Da, he thought, and blinked, raising his face so the tears in his eyes might be thought due to the brightness of the growing light.

I TIED CLARENCE to a picquet and made my way back into the tent, less troubled, though still keyed up. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen fast, and likely with little warning. Fergus and Germain had gone to find breakfast; I hoped they would show up before I had to leave—because when the time came, I would have to leave, no matter my reservations about abandoning a patient. Any patient.

This particular patient was lying on his back, under the lantern, his working eye half closed, singing to himself in German. He desisted when I came in, and turned his head to see who it was, blinking at sight of my armament.

“Are we expecting imminent invasion and capture?” he asked, sitting up.

“Lie back down. No, this is Jamie being provident.” I touched one of the pistols gingerly. “I don’t know if they’re loaded yet.”

“Certainly they are. The man is nothing if not thorough.” He eased himself back down, groaning slightly.

“You think you know him awfully well, don’t you?” I asked, with an edge that rather surprised me.

“Yes, I do,” he answered promptly. He smiled slightly at my expression. “Not nearly as well as you do in some matters, I’m sure—but perhaps better in others. We are both soldiers.” He tilted his head, indicating the military racket going on outside.

“If you know him that well,” I said, nettled, “you should have known better than to say whatever you did say to him.”

“Ah.” The smile disappeared and he looked up at the canvas overhead in contemplation. “I did. Know better. I just said it anyway.”

“Ah,” I replied, and sat down next to the pile of bags and supplies that had made it thus far. Much of this would have to be abandoned. I could take a good deal in Clarence’s packs and saddlebags, but not everything. The army had been instructed to abandon almost everything they carried, save weapons and canteens, in the interests of speed.

“Did he tell you what it was?” John asked after a moment, his voice elaborately casual.

“What you said? No, but I could very likely guess.” I compressed my lips and didn’t look at him, instead lining up bottles on top of a chest. I’d got salt from the innkeeper—not without trouble—and had made up a couple of bottles of crude saline solution, and there was the alcohol . . . I picked up the candle and began to dribble wax carefully over the corks, lest they loosen and the bottles discharge their contents along the way.

I didn’t want to pursue the history of John’s eye any further. Other considerations aside, any discussion might lead a little too close to Wentworth Prison for comfort. However close a friend Jamie might have considered John during the last few years, I was positive that he’d never told John about Black Jack Randall and what had happened at Wentworth. He’d told his brother-in-law Ian, many years ago—and therefore Jenny must know, too, though I doubted she’d ever spoken of it to Jamie—but no one else.

John would likely assume that Jamie had hit him purely from revulsion at something overtly sexual from John—or from jealousy over me. It was perhaps not quite fair to let him think that—but fairness didn’t come into it.

Still, I regretted the trouble between them. Beyond whatever personal awkwardness I found in the present situation, I knew how much John’s friendship had meant to Jamie—and vice versa. And while I was more than relieved not to be married to John anymore, I did care for him.

And—while the noise and movement all around urged me to forget everything else but the urgency of departure—I couldn’t forget that this might be the last time I ever saw John, too.

I sighed and began to wrap the waxed bottles in towels. I should add whatever I could find room for from my Kingsessing haul, but . . .

“Don’t be troubled, my dear,” John said gently. “You know it will all come right—provided that we all live long enough.”

I gave him a marked look and nodded toward the tent flap, where the clatter and clash of a military camp on the verge of movement was escalating.

“Well, you’ll likely survive,” I said. “Unless you say the wrong thing to Jamie before we leave and he really does break your neck this time.”

He glanced—as briefly as possible—toward the pale shaft of dust-filled light, and grimaced.

“You’ve never had to do it, have you?” I said, seeing his face. “Sit and wait through a battle, wondering if someone you care for will come back.”

“Not with regard to anyone other than myself, no,” he replied, but I could see that the remark had gone home. He hadn’t thought of that, and he didn’t like the thought one bit. Welcome to the club, I thought sardonically.

“Do you think they’ll catch Clinton?” I asked, after a moment’s silence. He shrugged, almost irritably.

“How should I know? I haven’t the slightest idea where Clinton’s troops are—I have no idea where Washington is, or where we are, for that matter.”

“General Washington would be about thirty yards that way,” I said, picking up a basket of bandages and lint, and nodding toward where I’d last seen the commander. “And I would be surprised if General Clinton is very much farther off.”

“Oh? And why is that, madam?” he asked, now half amused.

“Because the order came down an hour ago to jettison all unnecessary supplies—though I don’t know if he actually said ‘jettison,’ come to think; that may not be a word in common use now. That’s why we were inspecting the men, when we found you—to leave back any who aren’t capable of a long forced march on short rations, should that be necessary. Apparently it is.

“But you know what’s happening,” I added, watching him. “I can hear it. You surely can.” Anyone with ears or eyes could sense the nervous excitement in camp, see the hasty preparations being made, the small fights and outbreaks of cursing as men got in each other’s way, the bawling of officers, only a hair short of eye-rolling, horn-tossing violence, the braying of mules—I hoped no one would steal Clarence before I got back to him.

John nodded, silent. I could see him turning the situation over in his mind, along with the obvious implications.

“Yes, ‘jettison’ is certainly a word in common use,” he said absently. “Though you hear it more in terms of sea cargo. But—” He jerked a little, realizing the further implications of what I’d said, and stared hard at me with his uncovered eye.

“Don’t do that,” I said mildly. “You’ll hurt the other one. And what I am or am not isn’t important just now, is it?”

“No,” he muttered, and shut the eye for a moment, then opened it, staring upward at the canvas overhead. Dawn was coming; the yellowed canvas was beginning to glow, and the air around us was thick with dust and the odor of dried sweat.

“I know very little that would be of interest to General Washington,” he said, “and I would be surprised if he didn’t know that little already. I am not a serving officer—or . . . well, I wasn’t, until my bloody brother decided to reenter me on the rolls of his bloody regiment. Do you know, he nearly got me hanged?”

“No, but it sounds extremely like him,” I said, laughing despite my disquiet.

“What do you—oh, God. You’ve met Hal?” He’d reared up on one elbow, blinking at me.

“I have,” I assured him. “Lie down, and I’ll tell you.” Neither of us was going anywhere for a few minutes at least, and I was able to give him the entire story of my adventures with Hal in Philadelphia, while I wound up bandages, put my medical box in good order, and extracted what I thought the most important items from the supplies I’d brought. In an emergency, I might be reduced to what I could carry on my back at a dead run, and I made up a small rucksack with that contingency in mind, whilst regaling John with my opinions of his brother.

“Jesus, if he thinks he’s a chance in hell of preventing Dorothea from marrying Dr. Hunter . . . I believe I’d pay good money to overhear the conversation when he meets Denzell,” he remarked. “Who would you bet on—given that Hal hasn’t got a regiment at his back to enforce his opinions?”

“He likely has met him by now. As to odds—Denzell, three to two,” I said, after a moment’s consideration. “He’s got not only God but love—and Dorothea—on his side, and I do think that will outweigh even Hal’s brand of . . . of . . . autocratic conviction?”

“I’d call it undiluted bastardliness, myself, but, then, I’m his brother. I’m allowed liberties.”

The sound of voices speaking French announced the arrival of Fergus and Germain, and I stood up abruptly.

“I may not—” I began, but he raised a hand, stopping me.

“If not, then goodbye, my dear,” he said softly. “And good luck.”

A SINGLE LOUSE

IT WAS BARELY AN hour past dawn and it would doubtless be another beastly hot day, but for the moment the air was still fresh and both William and Goth were happy. He threaded his way through the boiling mass of men, horses, limbers, and the other impedimenta of war, quietly whistling “The King Enjoys His Own Again.”

The baggage wagons were already being readied; a great dust cloud rose, roiling and shot through with gold from the rising sun, from the teamsters’ park near von Knyphausen’s division, encamped a quarter mile away, on the other side of Middletown. They’d be off directly, heading for Sandy Hook—and Jane, Fanny, Zeb, and Colenso with them, he sincerely hoped. A brief sensory recollection of the skin inside Jane’s thighs sparked through his mind and he stopped whistling for an instant, but then shook it out of his head. Work to be done!

No one quite knew where the new British Legion was, though it was assumed to be somewhere in the vicinity of Clinton’s division, it being one of his personal regiments, raised only a month ago in New York. That might be chancy, but William was quite willing to wager that he could evade Sir Henry’s notice, under the conditions.

“Like picking one louse out of a Frenchie’s wig,” he murmured, and patted Goth’s neck. The horse was fresh and frisky, couldn’t wait to reach the open road and break into a gallop. Clinton’s division was holding the rear guard at Middletown—enough distance to take the edge off Goth’s bounciness. First, though, they’d have to get through the spreading mass of camp followers, struggling out of sleep into a desperate haste. He kept Goth on a short rein, lest he trample a child—there were dozens of the little buggers, swarming over the ground like locusts.

Glancing up from the ground, he caught sight of a familiar form, standing in line for bread, and his heart gave a small leap of pleasure. Anne Endicott, dressed for day but without her cap, dark hair in a thick plait down her back. The sight of it gave him a frisson of intimacy, and he barely stopped himself calling out to her. Time enough, after the fight.

FOLIE À TROIS

FERGUS HAD BROUGHT me a sausage roll and a cannikin of coffee—real coffee, for a wonder.

“Milord will send for you shortly,” he said, handing these over.

“Is he nearly ready?” The food was warm and fresh—and I knew it might be the last I got for some time—but I barely tasted it. “Have I time to dress Lord John’s eye again?” The pervading air of haste was clearly perceptible to me, and my skin had started twitching as though I were being attacked by ants.

“I will go and see, milady. Germain?” Fergus tilted his head toward the tent flap, beckoning Germain to go with him.

But Germain, out of what might have been either loyalty to John or fear of finding himself alone with Jamie—who had rather plainly meant what he said regarding the future of Germain’s arse—wanted to stay in the tent.

“I’ll be fine,” John assured him. “Go with your father.” He was still pale and sweating, but his jaw and hands had relaxed; he wasn’t in severe pain.

“Yes, he will be fine,” I said to Germain, but nodded to Fergus, who went out without further comment. “Fetch me some fresh lint, will you? Then you can come and help me while his lordship rests. As for you—” I turned to John. “You lie flat, keep your eye closed, and bloody stay out of trouble, if such a thing is possible.”

Loading...