Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 87

   

She glared at him, breathing slow and hard. After a moment, a thought crossed her face and she nodded a little and turned to me.

“You reckon the army might . . . pay me . . . a pension?” she asked.

I could see Denzell now, blood-splattered but collected, hurrying across the gravel with the box of surgical instruments. I would have sold my soul for ether or laudanum, but had neither. I took a deep breath of my own.

“I expect they will. They’ll give Molly Pitcher one; why not you?”

IN THE WRONG PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME

WILLIAM TOUCHED his jaw gingerly, congratulating himself that Tarleton had only managed to hit him in the face once, and it hadn’t been in the nose. His ribs, arms, and abdomen were another matter, and his clothes were muddy and his shirt rent, but it wouldn’t be apparent to a casual observer that he’d been in a fight. He might just get away with it—so long as Captain André didn’t happen to mention the dispatch to the British Legion. After all, Sir Henry had had his hands full during the morning, if half what William had heard along his way was true.

A wounded infantry captain on his way back to camp had told of seeing Sir Henry, in command of the rear guard, lead a charge against the Americans, getting so far out to the front that he was nearly captured before the men behind came up to him. William had burned, hearing this—he would have loved to be part of that. But at least he hadn’t stayed mewed up in the clerks’ tent. . . .

He was no more than a quarter mile along his way back to Cornwallis’s brigade when Goth threw a shoe. William said something very bad, pulled up, and swung down to have a look. He found the shoe, but two nails had gone and a quick search didn’t turn them up; no chance of hammering it back on with the heel of his boot, which had been his first thought.

He shoved the shoe in his pocket and looked round. Soldiers swarmed in every direction, but there was a company of Hessian grenadiers on the opposite side of the ravine, forming up at the bridgehead. He led Goth across, stepping gingerly.

“Hallo!” he called to the nearest fellow. “Wo ist der nächste Hufschmied?”

The man glanced indifferently at him and shrugged. A young fellow, though, pointed across the bridge and called out, “Zwei Kompanien hinter uns kommen Husaren!” Hussars are coming, two companies behind!

“Danke!” William called back, and led Goth into the sparse shade of a stand of spindly pines. Well, that was luck. He wouldn’t have to walk the horse a long way; he could wait for the farrier and his wagon to come to him. Still, he fretted at the delay.

Every nerve was keyed tight as a harpsichord string; he kept touching his belt, where his weapons would normally be. He could hear the sounds of musket fire in the far distance, but couldn’t see a thing. The countryside was folded up like a leporello, rolling meadow diving suddenly into wooded ravines, then springing back out, only to disappear again.

He dug out his handkerchief, so soggy by now that it served only to sluice the sweat from his face. He caught a faint breath of coolness wafting up from the creek, forty feet below, and walked nearer the edge in hopes of more. He drank warm water from his canteen, wishing he could scramble down and drink from the stream, but he daren’t; he might get down the steep slope without trouble, but coming back up would be an awkward climb, and he couldn’t risk missing the farrier.

“Er spricht Deutsch. Er gehört!” Heard what? He hadn’t been paying attention to the grenadiers’ sporadic conversation, but these hissed words came to him clearly, and he glanced round to see who it was they were saying spoke German, only to see two of the grenadiers quite close behind him. One of them grinned nervously at him, and he stiffened.

Suddenly two more were there, between him and the bridge. “Was ist hier los?” he demanded sharply. “Was machst Ihr da?” What is this? What are you doing?

A burly fellow pulled an apologetic face.

“Verzeihung. Ihr seid hier falsch.”

I’m in the wrong place? Before William could say anything more, they closed on him. He elbowed, punched, kicked, and butted wildly, but it didn’t last more than a few seconds. Hands pulled his arms behind him, and the burly fellow said once more, “Verzeihung,” and, still looking apologetic, bashed him in the head with a rock.

He didn’t lose consciousness altogether until he hit the bottom of the ravine.

THERE WAS THE devil of a lot of fighting, Ian thought—but that was about all you could say about it. There was a good deal of movement—particularly among the Americans—and whenever they met with a group of redcoats, there was fighting, often ferocious fighting. But the countryside was so irregular, the armies seldom came together anywhere in large numbers.

He had found his way around several companies of British infantry more or less lying in wait, though, and beyond this vanguard were a goodly number of British, regimental banners in the midst of them. Would it help to know who was in command here? He wasn’t sure he could tell, even if he was close enough to make out the details of the banners.

His left arm ached, and he rubbed it absently. The ax wound had healed well, though the scar was still raised and tender—but the arm hadn’t yet recovered anything like its full strength, and loosing an arrow at the Indian scouts earlier had left the muscles quivering and jumping, with a burning deep in the bone.

“Best not try that again,” he murmured to Rollo—then remembered that the dog wasn’t with him.

He looked up and discovered that one of the Indian scouts was with him, though. Or at least he thought so. Twenty yards away, an Abenaki warrior sat on a rawboned pony, eyeing Ian thoughtfully. Yes, Abenaki, he was sure of it, seeing the scalp shaved clean from brows to crown and the band of black paint across the eyes, the long shell earrings that brushed the man’s shoulders, their nacre glittering in the sun.

Even as he made these observations, he was turning his own mount, seeking shelter. The main body of men was a good two hundred yards distant, standing in open meadow, but there were stands of chestnut and poplar, and perhaps a half mile back the way he’d come, the rolling land dipped into one of the big ravines. Wouldn’t do to be trapped in the low ground, but if he had enough lead, it was a good way to disappear. He kicked his horse sharply and they shot off, turning abruptly left as they passed a patch of thick growth—and a good thing, too, because he heard something heavy whiz past his head and go crashing into the growth. Throwing stick? Tomahawk?

It didn’t matter; the only important thing was that the man who’d thrown it was no longer holding it. He did look back, though—and saw the second Abenaki come round the grove from the other side, ready to cut him off. The second one shouted something and the other answered—hunting cries. Beast in view.

“Cuidich mi, a Dhia!” he said, and jammed his heels hard into his horse’s sides. The new mare was a good horse, and they made it out of the open ground, crashed through a small copse of trees and out the other side to find a rail fence before them. It was too close to stop, and they didn’t; the horse dropped her hindquarters, bunched, and soared over, back hooves clipping the top rail with a solid whank! that made Ian bite his tongue.

He didn’t look back but bent low over his horse’s neck, and they ran flat out for the curving land he could see before him, dropping down. He turned and ran at an angle, not wanting to hit the edge of the ravine straight on, in case it should be steep just there. . . . No sound from behind save the rumble and clash of the army massing. No yelps, no hunting calls from the Abenaki.

There it was, the thick growth that marked the edge of the ravine. He slowed and now risked a look over his shoulder. Nothing, and he breathed and let the horse slow to a walk, picking their way along the edge, looking for a good way down. The bridge was just visible above him, maybe fifty yards distant, but no one was on it—yet.

He could hear men fighting in the ravine—perhaps three hundred yards from where he was—but there was sufficient growth that he was hidden from them. Only a scuffle, from the sounds—he’d heard or seen that a dozen times already today; men on both sides, driven by thirst down to the creeks that had carved the ravines, occasionally meeting and going for one another in a bloody splash among the shallows.

The thought of it reminded him of his own thirst—and the horse’s, for the creature was stretching out her neck, nostrils greedily flaring at the scent of water.

He slid off and led the way down to the creek’s edge, careful of loose stones and boggy earth—the creek bank here was mostly soft mud, edged with mats of duckweed and small reedbeds. A glimpse of red caught his eye and he tensed, but it was a British soldier, facedown in the mud and clearly dead, his legs swaying in the current.

He shucked his moccasins and edged out into the water himself; the creek was fairly wide here and only a couple of feet deep, with a silty bottom; he sank in ankle-deep. He edged out again and led the horse farther up the ravine, looking for better footing, though the mare was desperate for the water, pushing Ian with her head; she wouldn’t wait long.

The sounds of the skirmish had faded; he could hear men up above and some way off, but nothing in the ravine itself anymore.

There, that would do. He let the horse’s reins fall, and she lunged for the creek, stood with her forefeet sunk in mud but her hind feet solid on a patch of gravel, blissfully gulping water. Ian felt the pull of the water nearly as much and sank to his knees, feeling the blissful chill as it soaked his clout and leggings, that sensation fading instantly to nothingness as he cupped his hands and drank, and cupped and drank again and again, choking now and then in the effort to drink faster than he could swallow.

At last he stopped—reluctantly—and dashed water over his face and chest; it was cooling, though the bear grease in his paint made the water bead and run off his skin.

“Come on,” he said to the horse. “Ye’ll burst and ye keep on like that, amaidan.” It took some struggle, but he got the horse’s nose out of the creek, water and bits of green weed sloshing out of the loose-lipped mouth as the horse snorted and shook her head. It was while hauling the horse’s head round in order to lead her up the bank that he saw the other British soldier.

This one was lying near the bottom of the ravine, too, but not in the mud. He was lying facedown, but with his head turned to one side, and . . .

“Och, Jesus, no!” Ian flung his horse’s reins hastily round a tree trunk and bounded up the slope. It was, of course. He’d known it from the first glimpse of the long legs, the shape of the head, but the face made it certain, even masked with blood as it was.

William was still alive; his face twitched under the feet of a half-dozen black flies feeding on his drying blood. Ian put a hand under his jaw, the way Auntie Claire did, but, with no idea how to find a pulse or what a good one should feel like, took it away again. William was lying in the shadow of a big sycamore, but his skin was still warm—it couldn’t help but be, Ian thought, even if he was dead, on a day like this.

He’d risen to his feet, thinking rapidly. He’d need to get the bugger onto the horse, but maybe best undress him? Take off the telltale coat, at least? But what if he were to take him back toward the British lines, find someone there to take charge of him, get him to a surgeon? That was closer.

Still need to take the coat off, or the man might die of the heat before he got anywhere. So resolved, he knelt again, and thus saved his own life. The tomahawk chunked into the sycamore’s trunk just where his head had been a moment before.

And, a moment later, one of the Abenaki raced down the slope and leapt on him with a shriek that blasted bad breath into his face. That split second of warning, though, was enough that he’d got his feet under him and pushed to the side, heaving the Abenaki’s body over his hip in a clumsy wrestling throw that landed the man in the mud four feet away.

The second one was behind him; Ian heard the man’s feet in the gravel and weeds and whirled to meet the downward strike, catching the blow on his forearm, grabbing for the knife with his other hand.

He caught it—by the blade, and hissed through his teeth as it cut into his palm—and chopped down on the man’s wrist with his half-numbed arm. The knife jarred loose. Hand and knife were slippery with blood; he couldn’t get hold of the hilt but had got it away—he turned and threw it as far as he could upstream, and it plunked into the water.

Then they were both on him, punching, kicking, and tearing at him. He staggered backward, lost his balance but not his grip on one of his attackers, and succeeded in falling into the creek with the man atop him. After that, he lost track.

He had one of the Abenaki on his back in the water, was trying earnestly to drown him, while the other rode his own back and tried to get an arm around his neck—and then there was a racket on the other side of the ravine and everything stopped for a moment. A lot of men, moving in a disorganized sort of way—he could hear drums, but there was a noise like the distant sea, incoherent voices.

The Abenaki stopped, too, just for an instant, but that was long enough: Ian twisted, flinging the man off his back, and bounded awkwardly through the water, slipping and sinking in the muddy bottom, but made it to shore and ran for the first thing that met his eye—a tall white oak. He flung himself at the trunk and shinned up, grabbing at branches as they came in reach to pull himself higher, faster, reckless of his wounded hand, the rough bark scraping his skin.

The Indians were after him, but too late; one leapt and slapped at his bare foot but failed to get a grip, and he got a knee over a large branch and clung, panting, to the trunk, ten feet up. Safe? He thought so, but after a moment peered down cautiously.

The Abenaki were casting to and fro like wolves, glancing up at the noise above the rim of the ravine, then up at Ian—then across the creek toward William, and that made Ian’s wame curl up. God, what could he do if they should decide to go cut the man’s throat? He hadn’t even got a stone to throw at them.

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