Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 85

   

I could see a small party of wounded Continentals coming down the road, two on stretchers, and a few more stumbling, stripped to their bloodied shirts, coats in their hands being dragged in the dust. I reached for the bottle, intending to thrust it at the intruders, but a movement at the corner of my eye made me look toward the shade where the girls were tending prisoners. Both Rachel and Dottie were standing upright, watching the proceedings, and at this point, Dottie, with a strong look of determination on her face, began to walk toward us.

Denny saw her, too; I could see the sudden shift in his posture, a touch of indecision. Dorothea Grey might be a professed Quaker, but her family blood clearly had its own ideas. And I could—rather to my surprise—tell exactly what Denzell was thinking. One of the men had already noticed Dottie and had turned—swaying—in her direction. If she confronted them and one or more of them attacked her . . .

“Gentlemen.” I interrupted the hum of interest among our visitors, and three pairs of bloodshot eyes turned slowly toward me. I withdrew one of the pistols Jamie had given me, pointed it into the air, and pulled the trigger.

It went off with a violent jerk and a blam that momentarily deafened me, along with a puff of acrid smoke that made me cough. I wiped streaming eyes on my sleeve in time to see the visitors departing hastily, with anxious looks back over their shoulders. I located a spare handkerchief tucked into my stays and wiped a smear of soot from my face, emerging from the damp linen folds to find the doors of the church occupied by several surgeons and orderlies, all goggling at me.

Feeling rather like Annie Oakley, and repressing the urge to try to twirl my pistol—mostly for fear I would drop it; it was nearly a foot long—I re-holstered my weapon and took a deep breath. I felt a trifle light-headed.

Denzell was regarding me with concern. He swallowed visibly and opened his mouth to speak.

“Not now,” I said, my own voice sounding muffled, and nodded toward the men coming toward us. “There isn’t time.”

THE DANGERS OF SURRENDER

FOUR BLOODY HOURS. Hours spent slogging through an undulant countryside filled with mobs of Continental soldiers, clots of militia, and more bloody rocks than anyplace required for proper functioning, if you asked Grey. Unable to stand the blisters and shreds of raw skin any longer, he’d taken off his shoes and stockings and thrust them into the pockets of his disreputable coat, choosing to hobble barefoot for as long as he could bear it.

Should he meet anyone whose feet looked his size, he thought grimly, he’d pick up one of the omnipresent rocks and avail himself.

He knew he was close to the British lines. He could feel the tremble in the air. The movement of large bodies of men, their rising excitement. And somewhere, no great distance away, the point where excitement was turning to action.

He’d felt the presence of fighting since just past daylight. Sometimes heard shouting and the hollow boom of muskets. What would I do if I were Clinton? he’d wondered.

Clinton couldn’t outstrip the pursuing Rebels; that was clear. But he would have had time enough to choose decent ground on which to stand and to make some preparation.

Chances were, some part of the army—Cornwallis’s brigade, maybe; Clinton wouldn’t leave von Knyphausen’s Hessians to stand alone—would have taken up some defensible position, hoping to hold off the Rebels long enough for the baggage train to get away. Then the main body would wheel and take up its own position—perhaps occupying a village. He’d walked through two or three such, each with its own church. Churches were good; he’d sent many a scout up a steeple in his day.

Where’s William most likely to be? Unarmed and unable to fight, chances were that he was with Clinton. That’s where he should be. But he knew his son.

“Unfortunately,” he muttered. He would, without hesitation, lay down both life and honor for William. That didn’t mean he was pleased at the prospect of having to do so.

Granted, the current circumstance was not William’s fault. He had to admit—reluctantly—that it was at least in part his own. He’d allowed William to undertake intelligence work for Ezekiel Richardson. He should have looked much more closely into Richardson . . .

The thought of having been gulled by the man was almost as upsetting as what Percy had told him.

He could only hope to run across Richardson in circumstances that would allow him to kill the man unobtrusively. But if it had to be at high noon in full view of General Clinton and his staff—so bloody be it.

He was inflamed in every particular of his being, knew it, and didn’t care.

There were men coming, rumbling up the road behind him. Americans, disorderly, with wagons or caissons. He stepped off the road and stood still in the shade of a tree, waiting for them to pass.

It was a group of Continentals, pulling cannon. Fairly small: ten guns, and only four-pounders. Pulled by men, not mules. It was the only artillery he’d seen in the course of the morning, though; was it all Washington possessed?

They didn’t notice him. He waited a few minutes, until they were out of sight, and followed in their wake.

HE HEARD MORE cannon, some way to his left, and paused to listen. British, by God! He’d had somewhat to do with artillery, early in his military career, and the rhythm of a working gun crew was embedded in his bones.

Sponge piece!

Load piece!

Ram!

Fire!

A single artillery unit. Ten-pounders, six of them. They had something in range but weren’t being attacked; the firing was sporadic, not that of hot combat.

Though, to be fair, any physical effort whatever had to be described as “hot” today. He lunged into a patch of trees, exhaling in relief at the shade. He was ready to expire in his black coat and took it off for a moment’s respite. Dare he abandon the bloody thing altogether?

He’d seen a band of militia earlier, shirtsleeved, some with kerchiefs tied over their heads against the sun. Coated, though, he might bluff his way as a militia surgeon—the beastly garment smelled badly enough.

He worked his tongue, bringing a little saliva to his dry mouth. Why the devil had he not thought to bring a canteen when he’d fled? Thirst decided him to make his move now.

Dressed as he was, he might well be shot by any infantryman or dragoon who saw him, before he could speak a word. But while cannon were very effective indeed against a massed enemy, they were almost useless against a single man, as the aim couldn’t be adjusted quickly enough to bear, unless the man was fool enough to advance in a straight line—and Grey was not that foolish.

Granted, the officer in charge of each gun’s crew would be armed with sword and pistol, but a single man approaching an artillery unit on foot could be no conceivable danger; sheer amazement would likely let him get within earshot. And pistols were so inaccurate at anything over ten paces, he wasn’t risking much anyway, he reasoned.

He hastened his step as much as he could, a wary eye out. There were a lot of Continental troops in his vicinity now, marching furiously. The regulars would take him for walking wounded, but he daren’t try to surrender to the British lines while combat was joined, or he’d be the walking dead in short order.

The artillery in the orchard might be his best chance, hair-raising as it was to walk into the mouths of the guns. With a muffled oath, he put his shoes back on and began to run.

HE RAN HEAD-ON into a militia company, but they were headed somewhere at the trot and gave him no more than a cursory glance. He swerved aside into a hedgerow, where he floundered for a moment before breaking through. He was in a narrow field, much trampled, and on the other side of it was an apple orchard, only the crowns of the trees showing above a heavy cloud of white powder smoke.

He caught a glimpse of movement beyond the orchard and risked a few steps to the side to look—then ducked back hastily out of sight. American militia, men in hunting shirts or homespun, a few shirtless and glistening with sweat. They were massing there, likely planning a rush into the orchard from behind, in hopes of capturing or disabling the guns.

They were making a good deal of noise, and the guns had stopped firing. Plainly the artillerymen knew the Americans were there and would be making preparations to resist. Not the best time to come calling, then . . .

But then he heard the drums. Well in the distance, to the east of the orchard, but the sound carried clearly. British infantry on the march. A better prospect than the artillery in the orchard. Moving, infantry wouldn’t be disposed or prepared to shoot a single, unarmed man, no matter how he was dressed. And if he could get close enough to attract the attention of an officer . . . but he’d still have to cross the open ground below the orchard in order to reach the infantry before they’d marched off out of reach.

Biting his lip with exasperation, he shoved through the hedgerow and ran through the clouds of drifting smoke. A shot cracked the air much too near him. He flung himself into the grass by instinct, but then leapt up and ran again, gasping for breath. Christ, there were riflemen in the orchard, defending the cannon! Jaegers.

But most of the riflemen must be facing the other way, ready to meet the gathering militia, for no more shots came on this side of the orchard. He slowed down, pressing a hand to the stitch in his side. He was past the orchard now. He could still hear the drums, though they were drawing away . . . keep going, keep going . . .

“Hoy! You there!” He should have kept going but, short of breath and unsure who was calling, paused for an instant, half-turning. Only half, because a solid body hurtled through the air and knocked him down.

He hit the ground on one elbow and was already grappling the man’s head with his other hand, wet greasy hair sliding through his fingers. He jabbed at the man’s face, squirmed eel-like out from under his weight, kneeing the fellow in the stomach as he moved, and made it lurching to his feet.

“Stop right there!” The voice cracked absurdly, shooting up into a falsetto, and startled him so that he did stop, gasping for breath.

“You . . . no-account . . . filthy . . .” The man—no, by God, it was a boy!—who’d knocked him down was getting to his feet. He had a large stone in his hand; his brother—it had to be his brother; they looked like two peas in a pod, both half grown and gawky as turkey poults—had a good-sized club.

Grey’s hand had gone to his waist as he’d risen, ready to draw the dagger Percy had given him. He’d seen these boys before, he thought—the sons of the commander of one of the New Jersey militia companies?—and, rather clearly, they’d seen him before, too.

“Traitor!” One of them yelled at him. “Bloody f**king spy!” They were between him and the distant infantry company; the orchard was at his back, and the three of them were well within range of any Hessian rifleman who happened to look in their direction.

“Look—” he began, but could see that it was pointless. Something had happened; they were crazed with something—terror, anger, grief?—that made their features shift like water and their limbs tremble with the need to do something immediate and violent. They were boys, but both taller than he was and quite capable of doing him the damage they clearly intended.

“General Fraser,” he said loudly, hoping to jar them into uncertainty. “Where is General Fraser?”

THE PRICE OF BURNT SIENNA

“COMPANIES ALL present, sir!” Robert MacCammon rushed up, panting. He was a heavyset man, and even the gently rolling fields and meadows were hard on him; the dark stains in his oxters were the size of dinner plates.

“Aye, good.” Jamie glanced beyond Major MacCammon and saw Lieutenant Herbert’s company emerging from a small wood, glancing cautiously round, their weapons in their hands. They were doing well, untrained as they were, and he was pleased with them.

Lord, let me bring them through it as best I can.

This prayer barely formed in his mind, he turned to look toward the west, and froze. On the slope below him, no more than a hundred yards away, he saw the two Craddock boys, armed with a rock and a stick, respectively, menacing a man whose back was turned to him but whose bare, cropped blond head was instantly recognizable, even without the stained bandage tied round it.

Then he saw Grey put a hand to his waist and knew beyond the shadow of doubt that it was a knife he reached for.

“Craddock!!” he bellowed, and the boys both started. One dropped his rock and stooped to pick it up again, exposing his scrawny neck to Grey. Grey looked at the vulnerable expanse of flesh, glanced bleakly at the older boy, gripping his stick like a cricket bat, then up the slope at Jamie, and let both hands and shoulders drop.

“Ifrinn!” Jamie muttered under his breath. “Stay here,” he said briefly to Bixby, and ran down the slope, stumbling and pushing his way through a thick growth of alders that left sticky sap all over his hands.

“Where the devil is your company?” he demanded without preamble, breathing hard as he came up with the boys and Grey.

“Oh. Er . . .” The younger Craddock looked to his brother to answer.

“We couldn’t find ’em, sir,” the older boy said, and swallowed. “We were looking, when we run into a party of redcoats and had to scamper pretty quick to get away.”

“Then we saw him,” the younger Craddock said, thrusting out his chin at Grey. “Everybody in camp had said as how he was a redcoat spy, and, sure enough, there he was, makin’ for them, waving and callin’ out.”

“So we thought as how it was our duty to stop him, sir,” the older boy put in, anxious not to be eclipsed by his brother.

“Aye, I see.” Jamie rubbed the spot between his eyebrows, which felt as though a small, painful knot had formed there. He glanced over his shoulder. Men were still running up from the south, but the rest of Craddock’s company was nearly all there, milling anxiously and looking in his direction. No wonder: he could hear British drums, near at hand. Doubtless that was the company the boys had run into—the one Grey had been making for.

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