Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 88

   

The one good thing was that neither of them seemed to have either a gun or a bow; must have left those with their horses, up above. They couldn’t do anything but throw stones at him, and they seemed disinclined.

More noise from above—a lot of men up there; what were they shouting?—and the Abenaki abruptly abandoned Ian. They splashed back across the stream, their leggings clinging with water and streaked with black mud, paused briefly to turn William over and rummage his clothes—evidently he’d already been robbed, for they found nothing—and then untied Ian’s horse and with a last mocking call of “Mohawk!” disappeared with the mare into a growth of pu**y willows downstream.

IAN HAD DRAGGED himself one-handed up the slope, crawled some distance, and then lay for a while under a fallen log on the edge of a clearing, spots coming and going before his eyes like a swarm of midgies. There was a lot going on nearby, but none of it near enough to cause him immediate concern. He closed his eyes, hoping that would make the spots go away. They didn’t, instead turning from black to a horrid constellation of swimming pink and yellow blobs that made him want to vomit.

He hastily opened his eyes again, in time to see several powder-blackened Continental soldiers, stripped to their shirts, some bare to the waist, dragging a cannon down the road. They were followed in short order by more men and another cannon, all staggering with the heat and white-eyed with exhaustion. He recognized Colonel Owen, stumping along between the limbers, sooty face set in unhappy desperation.

Some sense of stirring drew Ian’s wandering eye away toward a group of men, and he realized with a faint sense of interest that it was a very large group of men, with a standard hanging limp as an unstuffed haggis against its pole.

That in turn stirred recognition. Sure enough, there was General Lee, long-nosed and frowning but looking very keen, riding out of the mass toward Owen.

Ian was too far away and there was too much noise to hear a word, but the trouble was obvious from Owen’s gestures and pointings. One of his cannon was broken, burst, probably from the heat of firing, and another had broken free of its limber and was being dragged with ropes, its metal scraping on the rocks as it juddered along.

A dim sense of urgency was reasserting itself. William. He needed to tell someone about William. Plainly it wasn’t going to be the British.

Lee’s brows drew in and his lips thinned, but he kept his composure. He had bent down from his saddle to listen to Owen; now he nodded, spoke a few words, and straightened up. Owen wiped a sleeve across his face and waved to his men. They picked up their ropes and leaned into the weight, disconsolate, and Ian saw that three or four were wounded, cloths wrapped round heads or hands, one half-hopping with a bloody leg, a hand on one of the cannon for support.

Ian’s wame had begun to settle now, and he was desperately thirsty, despite having drunk his fill at the creek only a short time before. He’d taken no notice where he was going but, seeing Owen’s cannon come down the road, knew he must be near the bridge, though it was out of sight. He crawled out of his hiding place and managed to stand up, holding on to the log for a moment while his vision went black and white and black again.

William. He had to find someone to help . . . but first he had to find water. He couldn’t manage without it. Everything he’d drunk at the creek had run off him as sweat, and he was parched to the bone.

It took several tries, but he got water at last from an infantryman who had two canteens hanging round his neck.

“What happened to you, chum?” the infantryman asked, eyeing him with interest.

“Had a fight with a British scout,” Ian replied, and reluctantly handed back the canteen.

“Hope you won it, then,” the man said, and waved without waiting for an answer, moving off with his company.

Ian’s left eye was stinging badly and his vision was cloudy; a cut in his eyebrow was bleeding. He groped in the small bag at his waist and found the handkerchief wrapped round the smoked ear he carried. The cloth was a small one, but big enough to tie round his brow.

He wiped his knuckles over his mouth, already longing for more water. What ought he to do? He could see the standard now being vigorously waved, flapping heavily in the thick air, summoning the troops to follow. Plainly Lee was headed over the bridge; he knew where he was going, and his troops with him. No one would—or could—stop to climb down a ravine to aid a wounded British soldier.

Ian shook his head experimentally and, finding that his brains didn’t seem to rattle, set off toward the southwest. With luck, he’d meet La Fayette or Uncle Jamie coming up, and maybe get another mount. With a horse, he could get William out of the ravine alone. And whatever else might happen today, he’d settle the hash of those Abenaki bastards.

HIGH NOON

ONE OF LA FAYETTE’S men came up at this point with orders to fall back, to rejoin La Fayette’s main body near one of the farms between Spotswood South Brook and Spotswood Middlebrook. Jamie was pleased to hear it; there was no reasonable way for half-armed militia companies to lay siege to the artillery entrenched in the orchard, not with rifles guarding the cannon.

“Gather your companies, Mr. Guthrie, and join me on the road up there,” Jamie said, pointing. “Mr. Bixby, can ye find Captain Kirby? Tell him the same thing; I’ll fetch along Craddock’s troops.”

Captain Craddock’s companies had been badly demoralized by his death, and Jamie had brought them under his own direct command to prevent them scattering like bumblebees.

They made their way across the fields, picking up Corporal Filmer and his men at the farmhouse—it was deserted; no need to leave anyone there—and across the bridge over one of the creeks. He slowed a little as his horse’s hooves thudded on the planks, feeling the blessed cool dampness coming up from the water thirty feet below. They should stop, he thought, for water— they hadn’t, since early morning, and the canteens would be running dry—but it would take too long for so many men to work their way along the ravine, down to the creek, and back up. He thought they could make it to La Fayette’s position; there were wells there.

He could see the road ahead and peeled an eye for lurking British. He wondered, with a moment’s irritation, where Ian was; he would have liked to know where the British were.

He found out an instant later. A gunshot cracked nearby, and his horse slipped and fell. Jamie yanked his foot free and rolled out of the saddle as the horse hit the bridge with a thud that shook the whole structure, struggled for an instant, neighing loudly, and slid over the edge into the ravine.

Jamie scrambled to his feet; his hand was burning, all the skin taken off his palm when he’d skidded on the splintered boards.

“Run!” he shouted, with what breath he had left, and waved an arm wildly, gathering the men, pointing them down the road toward a growth of trees that would cover them. “Go!”

He found himself among them, the surge of men carrying him with them, and they stumbled into cover, gasping and wheezing with the effort of running. Kirby and Guthrie were sorting out their companies, the late Captain Craddock’s men were clustering near Jamie, and he nodded, breathless, to Bixby and Corporal Greenhow to count noses.

He could still hear the sound the horse had made, hitting the ground below the bridge.

He was going to vomit; he felt it rising and knew better than to try to hold it back. He made a quick staying motion toward Lieutenant Schnell, who wanted to speak to him, stepped behind a large pine, and let his stomach turn itself out like an emptied sporran. He stayed bent for a moment, mouth open and forehead pressed against the rough bark for support, letting the gush of saliva wash the taste of it from his mouth.

Cuidich mi, a Dhia . . . But his mind had lost all notion of words for the moment, and he straightened up, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. As he came out from behind the tree, though, all thought of what might be going on and what he might have to do about it vanished. Ian had come out of the trees nearby and was making his way across the open space. The lad was afoot and moving slowly, but doggedly. Jamie could see the bruises, even from a distance of forty feet.

“That one of ourn or one of theirn?” a militiaman asked doubtfully, raising his musket to bear on Ian, just in case.

“He’s mine,” Jamie said. “Don’t shoot him, aye? Ian! Ian!” He didn’t run—his left knee hurt too much to run—but made his way toward his nephew as fast as possible and was relieved to see the glassy look in Ian’s eyes shatter and brighten into recognition at sight of him.

“Uncle Jamie!” Ian shook his head as though to clear it and stopped abruptly with a gasp.

“Are ye bad hurt, a bhalaich?” Jamie asked, stepping back and looking for blood. There was some, but nothing dreadful. The lad wasn’t clutching himself as though wounded in the vitals. . . .

“No. No, it’s—” Ian worked his mouth, trying to get up the spit to make words, and Jamie thrust his canteen into Ian’s hand. There was pitifully little water left in it, but some, enough, and Ian gulped it.

“William,” Ian gasped, lowering the empty canteen. “Your—”

“What about him?” Jamie interrupted. There were more men coming down the road, some of them half-running, looking back. “What?” he repeated, grasping Ian’s arm.

“He’s alive,” Ian said at once, correctly gauging both intent and intensity of the question. “Someone hit him on the head and left him in the bottom of yon ravine.” He gestured vaguely toward the scouts. “Maybe three hundred yards west o’ the bridge, aye? He’s no dead, but I dinna ken how bad hurt he may be.”

Jamie nodded, making instant calculations.

“Aye, and what happened to you?” He could only hope that William and Ian hadn’t happened to each other. But if William was unconscious, it couldn’t be he who’d taken Ian’s horse, and plainly someone had, for—

“Two Abenaki scouts,” Ian replied with a grimace. “The buggers have been following me for—”

Jamie was still holding Ian by the left arm and felt the impact of the arrow and the shock of its reverberation through the lad’s body. Ian glanced unbelievingly at his right shoulder, where the shaft protruded, and gave at the knees, his weight pulling him from Jamie’s grasp as he keeled over.

Jamie launched himself over Ian’s body and hit the ground rolling, avoiding the second arrow; he heard it rip the air near his ear. Heard the militiaman’s gun speak just above him and then a confusion of screaming and shouting, a group of his men breaking, running toward the source of the arrows, bellowing.

“Ian!” He rolled his nephew onto his back. The lad was conscious, but as much of his face as showed under the paint was white and ghastly, his throat working helplessly. Jamie grasped the arrow; it was lodged in what Claire called the deltoid, the fleshy part of the upper arm, but it didn’t budge when he shook it gently.

“I think it’s struck the bone,” he said to Ian. “No bad, but the tip’s stuck fast.”

“I think so, too,” Ian said faintly. He was struggling to sit up, but couldn’t. “Break it off, aye? I canna be going about wi’ it sticking out like that.”

Jamie nodded, got his nephew sitting unsteadily upright, and broke the shaft between his hands, leaving a ragged stub a few inches long with which to pull the arrow out. There wasn’t much blood, only a trickle running down Ian’s arm. Claire could see to getting the arrowhead out later.

The shouting and confusion were becoming widespread. A glance showed him more men coming down the road, and he heard a fife signaling in the distance, thin and desperate.

“D’ye ken what’s happened up there?” he said to Ian, nodding toward the noise. Ian shook his head.

“I saw Colonel Owen comin’ down wi’ his cannon all in shambles. He stopped to say a word to Lee and then came on, but he wasna running.”

A few men were running, though in a heavy, clumsy way—not as though pursuit was close. But he could feel alarm beginning to spread through the men around him and turned to them at once.

“Stay by me,” he said calmly to Guthrie. “Keep your men together, and by me. Mr. Bixby—say that to Captain Kirby, as well. Stay by me; dinna move save on my word.”

The men from Craddock’s company who had run after the Abenaki—he supposed that to be the source of the arrows—had vanished into the woods. He hesitated for an instant, but then sent a small party after them. No Indian he’d ever met would fight from a fixed position, so he doubted he was sending his men into ambush. Perhaps into the face of the oncoming British, but if that was the case, best he knew about it as soon as possible, and at least one or two would likely make it back to tell him.

Ian was getting his feet under him; Jamie bent and gave the lad an arm under his good shoulder and got him standing. His legs shook in their buckskins and sweat ran in sheets down his bare torso, but he stood.

“Was it you who called my name, Uncle Jamie?” he asked.

“Aye, I did when I saw ye come out of the trees.” Jamie nodded toward the wood, keeping one eye out for anyone coming back that way. “Why?”

“Not then. Just before this—” He touched the ragged end of the arrow shaft gingerly. “Someone called out behind me; that’s what made me move, and a good thing, too. I’d ha’ taken this square in the chest otherwise.”

Jamie shook his head and felt that faint sense of bemusement that always attended brushes with ghosts—if that’s what this was. The only strangeness of it was that it never seemed strange at all.

But there was no time to think of such things; there were calls now of “Retreat! Retreat!” and the men behind him stirred and rippled like wheat in a rising wind.

“Stay by me!” he said, in a loud, firm voice, and the ones nearest him took a grip of their weapons and stood.

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