Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 89

   

William. Thought of his son sparked a flare of alarm in his bones. The arrow that had struck Ian had jolted the vision of William, sprawled and bloody in the mud, out of his head, but now . . . Christ, he couldn’t send men after the lad, not with half the army pouring back in this direction, and the British maybe on their heels. . . . A sudden ray of hope: if the British were headed this way, they’d maybe come across the lad and care for him.

He wanted badly to go himself. If William was dying . . . but he could in no circumstances leave his men, and particularly not in these circumstances. A terrible urgency seized him.

Christ, if I never speak to him—never tell him—

Now he saw Lee and his aides coming down the road. They were moving slowly, no air of haste about it, but deliberate—and looking back now and then, almost surreptitiously, glancing quickly again to the front, sitting straight in their saddles.

“Retreat!” The cry was springing up now all around them, growing stronger, and men were streaming out of the woods. “Retreat!”

“Stay by me,” Jamie said, softly enough that only Bixby and Guthrie heard him—but it was enough. They stiffened, stood by him. Their resolve would help to hold the rest. If Lee came even with him, ordered him . . . then they would have to go. But not ’til then.

“Shit!” said one of the men behind him, surprised. Jamie glanced back, saw a staring face, then whipped round to look where the man was looking. Some of Craddock’s men were coming out of the wood, looking pleased with themselves. They had Claire’s mare with them, and over her saddle was the limp body of an Indian, his long, greased scalp locks nearly dragging the ground.

“Got him, sir!” One of the men—Mortlake—saluted, grinning white-toothed from the shade of a hat that he didn’t think to remove. His face gleamed like oiled leather, and he nodded to Ian in a friendly fashion, jerking his thumb at the mare. “Horse—you?”

“It is,” Ian said, and his Scots accent made Mortlake blink. “I thank ye, sir. I think my uncle had best take the horse, though. Ye’ll need her, aye?” he added to Jamie, lifting an eyebrow toward the ranks of men behind them.

Jamie wanted to refuse; Ian looked as if he could barely walk. But the lad was right. Jamie would have to lead these men, whether forward or back—and he’d need them to be able to see him. He nodded reluctantly, and the body of the Abenaki was dragged from the saddle and tossed carelessly into the brush. He saw Ian’s eyes follow it, dark with dislike, and thought for a split second of the smoked ear his nephew carried in his sporran, and hoped that Ian wouldn’t—but, no, a Mohawk took no trophies from another’s kill.

“There were two of them, ye said, Ian?”

Ian turned from contemplation of the dead Abenaki and nodded.

“Saw t’other one,” Mortlake answered the implied question. “Ran when we shot this villain.” He coughed, glancing at the increasing streams of men coming down the road. “Beg pardon, sir, but oughtn’t we be moving, too?”

The men were fidgeting, craning their necks to see, murmuring when they spotted Lee, whose aides were spreading out, trying to marshal the swarming men into some kind of orderly retreat but being roundly ignored. Then something, some change of atmosphere, made Jamie turn, and half the men with him.

And here came Washington up the road on Jamie’s erstwhile white stallion, galloping, and a look on his big, rough face that would have melted brass.

The incipient panic in the men dissolved at once as they pressed forward, urgent to learn what was afoot. There was chaos in the road. Some companies scattered, stopping abruptly to look round for their fellows, some noticing Washington’s sudden appearance, others still coming down the road, colliding with those standing still—and, in the midst of it, Washington pulled his horse up beside Charles Lee’s and leaned toward him, flushed like an apple with heat and anger.

“What do you mean by this, sir?!” was all that Jamie heard clearly, the words carried to him by some freak of the heavy air, before noise and dust and smothering heat settled so thickly on the scene that it was impossible to hear anything over the clishmaclaver, save the disquieting echo of musket volleys and the occasional faint popping of grenadoes in the distance.

He didn’t try to shout above the noise; it wasn’t necessary. His men were going nowhere, as riveted to the spectacle before them as he was.

Lee’s long-nosed face was pinched with fury, and Jamie saw him for a brief instant as Punch, the furious puppet in a Punch-and-Judy show. An unhinged urge to laugh bubbled up, as the necessary corollary irresistibly presented itself: George Washington as Judy, the mobcapped shrew who belabored her husband with a stick. For an instant, Jamie feared he had succumbed to the heat and lost his mind.

Once envisioned, though, he couldn’t escape the thought, and for an instant he was standing in Hyde Park, watching Punch feed his baby to the sausage machine.

For that was what Washington was very clearly doing. It lasted no more than three or four minutes, and then Washington made a furious gesture of disgust and dismissal and, wheeling his horse, set off at a trot, circling back to pass the troops who had clotted along the roadside, watching in fascination.

Emerging from his own fascination with a jolt, Jamie put a foot in the mare’s stirrup and swung up.

“Ian—” he said, and his nephew nodded, putting a hand on his knee—as much to steady himself, he thought, as to reassure his uncle.

“Give me a few men, Uncle Jamie,” he said. “I’ll see to . . . his lordship.”

There was barely time to summon Corporal Greenhow and detail him to take five men and accompany Ian, before Washington came close enough to spot Jamie and his companies. The general’s hat was in his hand and his face was afire, anger and desperation subsumed in eagerness, and the whole of his being radiating something Jamie had seldom seen, but recognized. Had felt himself, once. It was the look of a man risking everything, because there was no choice.

“Mr. Fraser!” Washington shouted to him, and his wide mouth stretched wider in a blazing grin. “Follow me!”

PATER NOSTER

WILLIAM CAME AWAKE slowly, feeling terrible. His head hurt and he wanted to vomit. He was horribly thirsty, but the thought of drinking anything made his gorge rise and he retched feebly. He was lying in grass and bugs; there were bugs crawling on him. . . . He saw, for one vivid moment, a line of tiny ants climbing busily through the dark hairs on his wrist and tried to dash his hand against the ground to dislodge them. His hand didn’t move, though, and his consciousness faded.

It came back with a throbbing rush and jounce. The world was jigging dizzily up and down, and he couldn’t breathe. Then he made out the dark things that went in and out of his field of view as being a horse’s legs and realized that he was belly-down over a saddle, being carried somewhere. Where . . . ?

There was a lot of shouting going on nearby, and the noise hurt his head very much.

“Stop!” shouted an English voice. “What are you doing with him? Stand! Stand or I’ll kill you!”

“Leave him! Push him off! Run!” A vaguely familiar voice, Scottish.

Then a confusion of noise and somewhere in it the Scottish voice again, shouting, “Tell my—” But then he hit the ground with a thud that knocked out both wit and wind, and slid back into darkness, headfirst.

IN THE END, it was simplicity itself. John Grey walked down a cattle track, following the hoofprints toward what must be water, and walked straight into a startled group of British soldiers filling their canteens at a muddy ford. Light-headed from thirst and heat, he didn’t bother trying to identify or explain himself, just put his hands in the air and gave himself up with an intense feeling of relief.

The soldiers gave him water, at least, and then he was marched off under the guard of a nervous boy with a musket and into the yard of a farmhouse that appeared to be deserted. No doubt the owners had fled upon realizing that they were in the middle of twenty thousand or so armed troops bent on mayhem.

Grey was hustled over to a large wagon half filled with cut grass, made to sit down on the ground with several other captured prisoners—in the shade, thank God—and left there under the guard of two middle-aged privates, armed with muskets, and a nervous child of fourteen or so in a lieutenant’s uniform, who twitched every time the sound of a volley echoed off the trees.

This might be his best chance. If he could shock or intimidate the boy into sending him to Cornwallis or Clinton . . .

“Sir!” he barked at the boy, who blinked at him, startled. So did the captured Americans.

“What is your name, sir?” he demanded, in his command voice. That rattled the young lieutenant badly; he took two involuntary steps backward before stopping himself. He flushed, though, and rallied.

“You be quiet!” he said, and, stepping forward, aimed a cuff at Grey’s ear.

Grey caught him by the wrist by reflex, but before he could release the boy, one of the privates had taken a stride toward him and brought down the butt of his musket on Grey’s left forearm.

“’E said be quiet,” the private said mildly. “I’d do it, was I you.”

Grey was quiet, but only because he couldn’t speak. That arm had been broken twice before—once by Jamie Fraser, once by a cannon explosion— and the third time was definitely not the charm. His vision went black for a moment, and everything inside him contracted into a ball of hot lead. Then it started to hurt, and he could breathe again.

“What’s that you just said?” the man sitting next him said under his breath, eyebrows raised. “ ’Tain’t English, is it?”

“No,” said Grey, and paused for another breath, clutching the arm against his belly. “It’s German for ‘Oh, shit.’”

“Ah.” The man nodded understandingly and—with a wary glance at the guards—brought a small flask out from under his coat and pulled the cork before handing it to Grey. “Try that, friend,” he whispered.

The scent of overripe apples surged directly into his brain and very nearly made him vomit. He managed to swallow, though, and handed back the flask with a nod of thanks. Sweat ran down his face in streams, stinging his good eye.

No one spoke. The man who’d given him the applejack was a Continental regular, middle-aged, with a haggard face and only half his teeth remaining. He sat hunched, elbows on his knees, eyes fixed on the distance, where the sound of fighting was. The others were doing the same thing, he realized—all craning toward the battle.

Colonel Watson Smith popped into his mind, doubtless summoned up by the fumes of applejack, but appearing so suddenly that Grey jerked a little, and one of the guards stiffened, giving him a hard look. Grey looked away, though, and the man relaxed.

Shocked with pain, exhausted and thirsty, he lay down, nursing his throbbing arm against his chest. The buzzing of insects filled his ears, and the volley of muskets retreated into the meaningless rumble of distant thunder. He let himself lapse into a not unpleasant catatonia visualizing Smith shirtless, lying on the narrow cot under a lantern, cradling Grey in his arms, stroking his back with a comforting hand. At some point, he drifted into an uneasy sleep, punctuated by the sounds of guns and shouting.

He woke suddenly, with a mouth like cotton, to find that several more prisoners had been delivered and that there was an Indian sitting beside him. Grey’s working eye was gummy and bleared, and it took a moment before he recognized the face under the remnants of black and green war paint.

Ian Murray gave him a long, level look that said plainly, “Don’t talk,” and he didn’t. Murray raised an eyebrow at his wounded arm. Grey lifted his good shoulder in a brief shrug and focused his attention on the water cart that had come to a halt on the nearby road.

“You and you, come with me.” One of the privates jerked a thumb at two of the prisoners and led them off toward the cart, from which they returned shortly, carrying buckets of water.

The water was blood-warm and tasted of sodden, half-rotted wood, but they drank greedily, spilling it down their clothes in their haste. Grey wiped a wet hand across his face, feeling somewhat more settled in his mind. He flexed his left wrist experimentally; perhaps it was only a brui—no, it wasn’t.

He’d drawn in his breath with a hiss, and Murray, as though in response, closed his eyes, steepled his hands together, and began to intone the Pater Noster.

“What in b-buggery is that?” the lieutenant demanded, stamping over to him. “Are you talking Indian, sir?”

Ian opened his eyes, regarding the child with a mild stare.

“It’s Latin. I’m sayin’ my prayers, aye?” he said. “D’ye mind?”

“Do I—” The lieutenant stopped, baffled as much by being addressed in a Scottish accent as by the circumstance. He stole a glance at the privates, who looked off into the distance. He cleared his throat.

“No,” he said shortly, and turned away, pretending absorption in the distant cloud of white powder smoke that hung low over the trees.

Murray cut his eyes at Grey and, with a slight nod, began the Pater Noster again. Grey, somewhat puzzled, joined him, stumbling a bit. The lieutenant stiffened, but didn’t turn round.

“Do they not know who you are?” Murray asked in Latin at the end of the prayer, not varying his intonation.

“I told them; they don’t believe me,” Grey replied, adding a random “Ave Maria” at the end for verisimilitude.

“Gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Shall I tell them?”

“I have no idea what comes next. I suppose it couldn’t hurt.”

“Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesu,” Murray replied, and rose to his feet.

The guards swung round immediately, raising their muskets to their shoulders. Murray ignored this, addressing the lieutenant.

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