Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 91

   

“Relieved of command?” I blurted. “What the devil for?”

He looked startled by my vehemence, but replied obligingly.

“Why, I don’t quite know, ma’am. Was something to do with a retreat and how he oughtn’t to have told them to do it, but then General Washington come up on his horse and cursed and swore like the dickens—saving your presence, ma’am,” he added politely. “Anyway, I saw him! General Washington. Oh, ma’am, it was so . . .” Words failed him, and I handed him the canteen with my momentarily free hand.

“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ,” I murmured under my breath. Were the Americans winning? Holding their own? Had bloody Charles Lee cocked things up after all—or not?

Corporal Greenhow luckily hadn’t noticed my language, but was coming to life like a flower in the rain, enthused by his account.

“And so we rushed straight after him, and he was all along the road and the ridgeline, shouting and waving his hat, and all the troops trudging back down . . . why, they all looked up with their eyes staring out of their heads and then they turned round and fell in with us, and the whole army, we just—we just threw ourselves on the damned redcoats. . . . Oh, ma’am, it was just wonderful!”

“Wonderful!” I echoed dutifully, catching a trickle of blood that threatened to run into his eye. The shadows of the tombstones in the graveyard stretched out long and violet, and the sound of the flies buzzed in my ears, louder than the ringing of the shots that still came—were coming closer—to the frail barrier of the dead. And Jamie with them.

Lord, keep him safe! I prayed in the silence of my heart.

“Did you say something, ma’am?”

JAMIE RUBBED a blood-wet sleeve across his face, the wool rasping his skin, sweat burning in his eyes. It was a church they’d chased the British into—or a churchyard. Men were dodging through the tombstones, vaulting them in hot pursuit.

The British had turned at bay, though, an officer shouting them into a ragged line, and the drill began, the muskets grounded, ramrods drawn . . .

“Fire!” Jamie bellowed, with all the power left in his cracked voice. “Fire on them! Now!”

Only a few men had loaded weapons, but sometimes it took only one. A shot rang out from behind him, and the British officer who was shouting stopped shouting and staggered. He clutched himself, curling up and falling to his knees, and someone shot him again. He jerked backward, then fell over sideways.

There was a roar from the British line, which dissolved at once into a rush, some men pausing long enough to fix their bayonets, others wielding their guns like clubs. The Americans met them, mindless and shrieking, with guns and fists. One militiaman reached the fallen officer, seized him by the legs, and began to drag him away toward the church, perhaps with the notion to take him prisoner, perhaps to get him help. . . .

A British soldier threw himself upon the American, who stumbled backward and fell, loosing his hold on the officer. Jamie was running, shouting, trying to gather the men, but it was no use; they’d lost their wits altogether in the madness of fighting, and whatever their original intent in seizing the British officer, they’d lost that, too.

Leaderless, so had the British soldiers, some of whom were now engaged in a grotesque tug-of-war with two Americans, each grasping the limbs of the dead—for surely he must be now, if he hadn’t been killed outright—British officer.

Appalled, Jamie ran in among them, shouting, but his voice failed altogether under strain and breathlessness, and he realized he was making no more than faint cawing noises. He reached the fight, grasped one soldier by the shoulder, meaning to pull him back, but the man rounded on him and punched him in the face.

It was a glancing blow off the side of his jaw but made him lose his grip, and he was knocked off-balance by someone shoving past him to grab some part of the hapless officer’s body.

Drums. A drum. Someone in the distance was beating something urgent, a summons.

“Retreat!” someone shouted in a hoarse voice. “Retreat!”

Something happened; a momentary pause—and suddenly it was all different and the Americans were coming past him, hasty but no longer frantic, a few of them carrying the dead British officer. Yes, definitely dead; the man’s head lolled like a rag doll’s.

Thank God they’re not dragging him through the dirt was all he had time to think. Lieutenant Bixby was at his shoulder, blood pouring down his face from an open flap of scalp.

“There you are, sir!” he said, relieved. “Thought you was taken, we did.” He took Jamie respectfully by the arm, tugging him along. “Come away, sir, will you? I don’t trust those wicked buggers not to come back.”

Jamie glanced in the direction Bixby was pointing. Sure enough, the British were retiring, under the direction of a couple of officers who had come forward out of a mass of redcoats forming up in the middle distance. They showed no disposition to come closer, but Bixby was right: there were still random shots being fired, from both sides. He nodded, fumbling in his pocket for his extra kerchief to give the man to stanch his wound.

The thought of wounds made him think of Claire, and he recalled suddenly what Denzell Hunter had said: “Tennent Church, the hospital’s set up there.” Was this Tennent Church?

He was already following Bixby toward the road but glanced back. Yes, the men who had the dead British officer were taking him into the church, and there were wounded men sitting near the door, more of them near a small white—God, that was Claire’s tent, was she—

He saw her at once, as though his thought had conjured her, right there in the open. She was standing up, staring openmouthed, and no wonder—there was a Continental regular on a stool beside her, holding a bloodstained cloth, and more such cloths in a basin at her feet. But why was she out here? She—

And then he saw her jerk upright, clap a hand to her side, and fall.

A SLEDGEHAMMER hit me in the side, making me jerk, the needle dropping from my hands. I didn’t feel myself fall but was lying on the ground, black and white spots flashing round me, a sense of intense numbness radiating from my right side. I smelled damp earth and warm grass and sycamore leaves, pungent and comforting.

Shock, I thought dimly, and opened my mouth, but nothing but a dry click came out of my throat. What . . . The numbness of the impact began to lessen, and I realized that I had curled into a ball, my forearm pressed by reflex over my abdomen. I smelled burning, and fresh blood, very fresh. I’ve been shot, then.

“Sassenach!” I heard Jamie’s bellow over the roaring in my ears. He sounded far off, but I heard the terror in his voice clearly. I wasn’t disturbed by it. I felt very calm.

“Sassenach!” The spots had coalesced. I was looking down a narrow tunnel of light and spinning shadow. At the end of it was the shocked face of Corporal Greenhow, the needle dangling by its thread from the half-sewn gash in his forehead.

PART FIVE

Counting Noses

EVEN PEOPLE WHO WANT TO GO TO HEAVEN DON’T WANT TO DIE TO GET THERE

I SWAM DIZZILY TO the surface of consciousness, thinking, What was it Ernest Hemingway had said, about how one is supposed to pass out from the pain but you don’t? I just had, but he was more or less right; the unconsciousness hadn’t lasted more than a few seconds. I was curled into a tight ball, both hands pressed against my right side, and I could feel the blood welling between my fingers, hot and cold and sticky, and it was beginning to hurt . . . very much . . .

“Sassenach! Claire!” I swam out of the fog again and managed to open one eye. Jamie was kneeling by me. He was touching me, had his hands on me, but I couldn’t feel it. . . .

Sweat or blood or something ran burning into my eyes. I could hear someone gasping—short, shallow, panting breaths. Me, or Jamie? I was cold. I shouldn’t be cold, it was hot as blazes today. . . . I felt jellied, quivering. And it hurt. A lot.

“Sassenach!”

Hands turned me. I screamed. Tried to. I felt it wrench my throat but couldn’t hear it; there was a roaring in my ears. Shock, I thought. I couldn’t feel my limbs, my feet. I felt the blood leaving my body.

It hurt.

The shock’s wearing off, I thought. Or is it getting worse? I could see the pain now, going off in bursts like black lightning, jagged and searing.

“Sassenach!”

“What?” I said through clenched teeth. “Auh!”

“Are ye dying?”

“Probably.”

Gutshot. The word formed unpleasantly in my mind, and I hoped vaguely that I hadn’t spoken it out loud. Even if I had, though . . . surely Jamie could see the wound . . .

Someone was trying to pull my hands away, and I struggled to keep them in place, keep pressing, but my arms had no strength and I saw one hand hanging limp as they lifted it, the nails outlined black with blood, fingers coated scarlet, dripping. Someone rolled me onto my back and I thought I screamed again.

It hurt unspeakably. Jellied. Impact shock. Cells blasted to shreds and goo. No function . . . organ failure.

Tightness. Couldn’t breathe. Jerking, and someone cursing above me. My eyes were open, I saw color, but the air was thick with pulsing spots.

Shouting. Talk.

I couldn’t draw breath. Something tight around my middle. What’s gone? How much?

God, it hurt. Oh, God.

JAMIE COULDN’T take his eyes off Claire’s face, lest she die in the second when he looked away. He fumbled for a kerchief, but he’d given it to Bixby, and in desperation seized a fold of her skirt and pressed it hard to her side. She made a horrible sound and he nearly let go, but the ground under her was already darkening with blood and he pressed harder, shouting, “Help! Help me, Rachel! Dottie!”

But no one came, and when he risked a split second’s glance around, he saw nothing but clumps of wounded and dead under the trees some distance away and the flickering forms of soldiers, some running, some wandering dazed through the tombstones. If the girls had been nearby, they must have been forced to run when the skirmish rolled through the graveyard.

He felt the slow tickle of Claire’s blood running over the back of his hand and shouted again, his dry throat tearing with the effort. Someone must hear.

Someone did. He heard running footsteps on the gravel and saw a doctor named Leckie whom he knew racing toward him, white-faced, hurdling a tombstone as he came.

“Shot?” Leckie asked, breathless, collapsing onto his knees beside Jamie. Jamie couldn’t speak, but nodded. Sweat was running down his face and the crease of his spine, but his hands seemed frozen to her body; he couldn’t pull them away, couldn’t let go until Leckie, pawing in one of Claire’s baskets, seized a wad of lint and jerked Jamie’s hand out of the way in order to clap it in place.

The surgeon elbowed him ruthlessly aside and he scuttled crabwise a foot or two away, then rose to his feet, swaying helplessly. Jamie couldn’t look away but became slowly aware that a knot of soldiers had gathered, appalled, shuffling among themselves, not knowing what to do. Jamie gulped air, seized the nearest of these, and sent him running to the church in search of Dr. Hunter. She’d want Denny. If she survived long enough for him to come—

“Sir! General Fraser!” Not even the shouting of his own name made him look away from the spectacle on the ground: the blood, so much of it, soaking her clothes, making a hideous dark red puddle that stained the knees of Leckie’s breeches as he knelt over her; her hair, untied and spilling wild, full of grass and bits of leaf from the ground she lay on, her face—oh, Christ, her face.

“Sir!” Someone grabbed his arm to compel his attention. He drove his elbow hard into whoever it was, and the man grunted in surprise and let go.

A gabble of whispers, agitation, people telling the newcomer that it was the general’s wife, hurt, shot, dead or dying . . .

“She’s not dying!” he turned and bellowed at them. He thought dimly that he must look demented; their blackened faces were aghast. Bixby stepped out and touched his shoulder gingerly, as though he were a lighted grenade that might go off in the next second. He thought he might.

“Can I help, sir?” Bixby said quietly.

“No,” he managed to say. “I—he—” He gestured to Leckie, busy on the ground.

“General,” said the newcomer, at his other elbow. He turned to find a blue-clad regular, a very young man in a baggy lieutenant’s uniform, face set in dogged earnestness. “I dislike to intrude, sir, but as your wife’s not dying—”

“Go away!”

The lieutenant flinched, but stood his ground.

“Sir,” he said stubbornly. “General Lee has sent me urgently to find you. He requires that you attend him at once.”

“Bugger Lee,” said Bixby, very rudely, saving Jamie the trouble, and advanced on the newcomer, fists clenched.

The lieutenant was already flushed with heat, but at this grew redder. He ignored Bixby, though, attention focused on Jamie.

“You must come, sir.”

VOICES . . . I heard words, disjointed, coming out of the fog like bullets, striking randomly.

“. . . find Denzell Hunter!”

“General—”

“No!”

“—but you’re needed at—”

“No!”

“—orders—”

“NO!”

And another voice, this one stiff with fear.

“. . . could be shot for treason and desertion, sir!”

That focused my wandering attention and I heard the reply, clearly.

“Then they’ll shoot me where I stand, sir, for I will not leave her side!”

Good, I thought, and, comforted, lapsed into the spinning void again.

“TAKE OFF YOUR coat and waistcoat, lad,” Jamie said abruptly. The boy looked completely bewildered, but—stimulated by a menacing movement from Bixby—did as he was told. Jamie took him by the shoulder, turned him round, and said, “Stand still, aye?”

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