Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 83

   

“Aye, tell him if ye see him before ye see me—tell the marquis, too, should ye come within reach of him—but find me, regardless, aye?”

Ian grinned at him and slung the canteen over his pommel.

“Good hunting, a Bhràthair-mathàr!”

Jamie had had two companies blooded by midmorning, skirmishing near Monmouth Courthouse, but no one killed yet and only three wounded badly enough to retire. Colonel Owen had requested cover for his artillery—only two cannon, but any artillery was welcome—and Jamie had sent Thomas Meleager’s Pennsylvanians to deal with that.

He’d sent one of Captain Kirby’s companies to reconnoiter toward what he thought was the creek and kept back the rest, waiting for orders from La Fayette or Lee. La Fayette was somewhere ahead of him, Lee well behind and to the east with the main body of his troops.

The sun stood just short of ten o’clock when a messenger appeared, crouched dramatically in his saddle as though dashing through a hail of bullets, though in fact there was not a British soldier in sight. He pulled his lathered horse to a stop and gasped out his message.

“There’s dust clouds in the east—might be more redcoats comin’! And the marky says there’s redcoat cannon in the cider orchard, sir, and will you do summat about it, please.”

The sweating messenger gulped air, loosening his rein in obvious preparation for dashing off again. Jamie leaned over and seized the horse’s bridle to prevent it.

“Where is the cider orchard?” he asked calmly. The messenger was young, maybe sixteen, and wild-eyed as his rawboned horse.

“Dunno, sir,” he said, and began glancing to and fro, as though expecting the orchard to materialize suddenly out of the meadow they were standing in. A sudden distant boom reverberated in Jamie’s bones, and his horse’s ears pricked up.

“Never mind, lad,” he said. “I hear them. Breathe your horse, or he’s like to die under ye before the sun’s high.”

Letting go the bridle, he waved to Captain Craddock and turned his own horse’s head toward the sound of cannon.

THE AMERICAN ARMY had several hours’ lead on him, and the British army very much more—but a man alone could move a great deal faster than even a company of light infantry. Neither was John burdened with weapons. Or food. Or water.

You know perfectly well that he’s lying to you.

“Oh, be quiet, Hal,” Grey muttered to his brother’s shade. “I know Percy a great deal better than you do.”

I said, you know perfectly well . . .

“I do. What am I risking if he is lying—and what am I risking if he’s not?”

Hal was high-handed, but logical. He was also a father; that shut him up.

What he was risking if Percy was lying was being shot or hanged out of hand if anyone recognized him. Anyone. If the Americans found him out before he reached the British lines, they’d arrest him for breaking his parole and promptly execute him as a spy. If the British didn’t recognize him in time, they’d shoot him on sight as Rebel militia. He put a hand in the pocket where he’d wadded the LIBERTY OR DEATH cap and debated the wisdom of throwing it away, but, in the event, kept it.

What he was risking if Percy wasn’t lying was Willie’s life. No great effort required to call the odds.

It was midmorning, and the air was like treacle, thick and sweet with flowers, sticky with tree sap, and completely unbreathable. His good eye was beginning to itch from the floating pollen grains, and flies were buzzing interestedly round his head, drawn by the scent of honey.

At least the headache had gone away, dispelled by the burst of alarm—and a brief flare of lust, might as well admit it—occasioned by Percy’s revelation. He wouldn’t begin to speculate as to Percy’s motives, but . . .

“‘For your beautiful eyes,’ indeed!” he muttered, but couldn’t help smiling at the impudence. A wise man would not touch Percy Wainwright with a ten-foot pole. Something shorter, though . . .

“Oh, do be quiet, will you?” he murmured to himself, and made his way down a clay bank to the edge of a tiny creek, where he could throw cold water on his heated face.

IT WAS PERHAPS eight o’clock in the morning when we reached Free-hold, where Tennent Church was to be established as the main hospital. It was a large building, set in the midst of a huge, sprawling churchyard, an acre or more of ground whose headstones were as individual as doubtless their owners had been in life. No neat aisles of uniform white crosses here.

I spared a thought for the graves of Normandy and wondered whether those rows upon rows of faceless dead were meant to impose a sort of postmortem tidiness on the costs of war—or whether it was meant rather to underline them, a solemn accounting carried out in endless rows of naughts and crosses.

But I didn’t think long. Battle had been joined already—somewhere—and there were already wounded coming in, a number of men sitting in the shade of a large tree next to the church, more coming down the road, some staggering with the help of friends, some being carried on litters—or in someone’s arms. My heart lurched at the sight, but I tried not to look for Jamie or Ian; should they be among the early wounded, I’d know it soon enough.

There was a bustle near the church’s porch, where the double doors had been flung wide to accommodate passage, and orderlies and surgeons were coming and going in haste—but organized haste, so far.

“Go and see what’s happening, why don’t you?” I suggested to Denzell. “The girls and I will unload things.”

He paused long enough to unhitch his own two mules and hobble them, then hastened into the church.

I found the buckets and dispatched Rachel and Dottie to find a well. The day was already uncomfortably hot; we were going to need a good deal of water, one way or another.

Clarence was showing a strong urge to go join Denny’s mules in cropping grass among the headstones, jerking his head against the pull of his tether and uttering loud cries of annoyance.

“All right, all right, all right,” I said, hurrying to undo the packing straps and lift his burdens off. “Hold your—oh, dear.”

A man was staggering toward me, giving at the knees with every step and lurching dizzily. The side of his face was black, and there was blood down the facing of his uniform. I dropped the bundle of tenting and poles and rushed to catch him by the arm before he should trip over a headstone and fall face-first into the dirt.

“Sit down,” I said. He looked dazed and appeared not to hear me, but as I was pulling on his arm, he did go down, letting his knees relax abruptly and nearly taking me with him as he landed on a substantial stone commemorating one Gilbert Tennent.

My patient was swaying as though about to fall over, and yet a hasty check showed me no significant wounds; the blood on his coat was from his face, where the blackened skin had blistered and split. It wasn’t just the soot of black powder—the skin had actually been burned to a crisp, the underlying flesh seared, and my patient smelled appallingly like a pork roast. I took a firm grip on my lurching stomach and stopped breathing through my nose.

He didn’t respond to my questions but stared hard at my mouth, and he seemed lucid, despite his continued swaying. The penny finally dropped.

“Ex . . . plo . . . sion?” I mouthed with exaggerated care, and he nodded vigorously, then stopped abruptly, swaying so far that I had to grasp him by the sleeve and pull him upright.

Artilleryman, from his uniform. So something big had exploded near him—a mortar, a cannon?—and not only burned his face nearly to the bone but also likely burst both his eardrums and disturbed the balance of his inner ear. I nodded and set his hands to grip the stone he sat on, to keep him in place while I hastily finished unloading Clarence—who was making the welkin ring with frustration; I should have realized at once that the artilleryman was deaf, as he was taking no notice of the racket—hobbled him, and set him loose to join Denny’s mules in the shade. I dug what I needed out of the packs and set about to do what little I could for the injured man, this consisting mostly of soaking a towel in saline and applying it to his face like a poultice, to remove as much soot as I could without scrubbing.

I thanked God that I’d had the forethought to bring a jug of sweet oil for burns—and cursed my lack of it for not having asked for aloe at Bartram’s Garden.

The girls hadn’t yet returned with water; I hoped there was a well somewhere close at hand. Creek water so close to an army couldn’t be used without boiling it. That thought led me to look round for a spot where a fire could be lighted and to make a mental note to send the girls to look for wood next.

My mind was jerked from my rapidly expanding mental checklist, though, by Denny’s sudden emergence from the church. He wasn’t alone; he appeared to be having a passionate argument with another Continental officer. With a brief exclamation of exasperation, I dug in my pocket and found my silk-wrapped spectacles. With these on my nose, the face of Denny’s interlocutor sprang into clear focus—Captain Leckie, diplomate of the Medical College of Philadelphia.

My patient tugged at my skirt and, when I turned to him, apologetically opened his mouth and mimed drinking. I held up a finger, adjuring him to wait one moment, and went to see whether Denzell required reinforcement.

My appearance was greeted by an austere look from Captain Leckie, who viewed me rather as he might have looked at something questionable on the bottom of his shoe.

“Mrs. Fraser,” he said coldly. “I have just been telling your Quaker friend that there is no room inside the church for cunning-women or—”

“Claire Fraser is the most skillful surgeon I have seen operate!” Denzell said. He was flushed and fairly bristling with anger. “You will do your patients great harm, sir, by not allowing her to—”

“And where did you obtain your training, Dr. Hunter, that you are so confident of your own opinion?”

“In Edinburgh,” Denny said through his teeth. “Where I was trained by my cousin, John Hunter.” Seeing that this made no impact on Leckie, he added, “And his brother, William Hunter—accoucheur to the queen.”

That took Leckie aback, but unfortunately also got up his nose.

“I see,” he said, dividing a faint sneer evenly between us. “I congratulate you, sir. But as I doubt the army requires a man midwife, perhaps you should assist your . . . colleague”—and here he actually flared his nostrils at me, the pompous little swine—“with her seeds and potions, rather than—”

“We haven’t time for this,” I interrupted firmly. “Dr. Hunter is both a trained physician and a duly appointed surgeon in the Continental army; you can’t bloody keep him out. And if my experience of battle—which I venture to suggest may be somewhat more extensive than your own, sir—is anything to go on, you’ll need every hand you can get.” I turned to Denzell and gave him a long, level look.

“Your duty is with those who need you. So is mine. I told you about triage, did I not? I have a tent and my own surgical instruments and supplies. I’ll do triage out here, deal with the minor cases, and send in anyone requiring major surgery.”

I had a quick look over my shoulder, then turned back to the two fuming men.

“You’d best go inside and be quick about it. They’re starting to pile up.”

This was not a metaphorical expression. There was a crowd of walking wounded under the trees, a few men lying on makeshift stretchers and sheets of canvas . . . and a small, sinister heap of bodies, these presumably men who had died of their wounds en route to the hospital.

Fortunately, Rachel and Dottie appeared at this moment, each lugging a heavy bucket of water in each hand. I turned my back on the men and went to meet them.

“Dottie, come and put up the tent poles, will you?” I said, taking her buckets. “And, Rachel—you know what arterial bleeding looks like, I imagine. Go and look through those men and bring me anyone who’s doing it.”

I gave my burnt artilleryman water, then helped him to his feet. As he stood up, I saw behind his legs the epitaph carved into Gilbert Tennent’s headstone:

O READER HAD YOU HEARD HIS LAST TESTIMONY YOU WOULD HAVE BEEN CONVINCED OF THE EXTREME MADNESS OF DELAYING REPENTANCE.

“I suppose there are worse places to be doing this,” I remarked to the artilleryman, but, unable to hear me, he simply raised my hand and kissed it before swaying off to sit down on the grass, the wet towel pressed to his face.

THE CIDER ORCHARD

THE FIRST SHOT took them by surprise, a muffled boom from the cider orchard and a slow roll of white smoke. They didn’t run, but they stiffened, looking to him for direction. Jamie said to those near him, “Good lads,” then raised his voice. “To my left, now! Mr. Craddock, Reverend Woodsworth—circle them; come into the orchard from behind. The rest—scatter to the right and fire as ye can—” The second crash drowned his words, and Craddock jerked like a puppet with his strings cut and dropped to the ground, blood spraying from the blackened hole in his chest. Jamie’s horse shied violently, nearly unseating him.

“Go with the reverend!” he shouted at Craddock’s men, who stood there drop-jawed, staring at their captain’s body. “Go now!” One of the men shook himself, grabbed the sleeve of another, pulled him away, and then they all began to move as a body. Woodsworth, bless him, raised his musket overhead and roared, “To me! Follow me!” and broke into the stork-legged shamble that passed with him for running—but they followed him.

The gelding had settled but was moving uneasily. He was—supposedly—used to the sound of guns, but he didn’t like the strong smell of blood. Jamie didn’t like it, either.

“Shouldn’t we . . . bury Mr. Craddock?” a timid voice suggested behind him.

Loading...