Written in My Own Heart's Blood

Author: P Hana

Page 94

   

“I know,” Denny murmured, not looking up. The sweat had plastered the handkerchief to his face, molding itself to nose and lips, so his speech was visible. “I’m being . . . careful.”

“Ken that,” Jamie said, but so softly he didn’t know whether Hunter heard him. Please. Please let her live. Blessed Mother, save her . . . saveher, saveher, saveher . . . The words all ran together in an instant and he lost the sense of them, but not the sense of desperate entreaty.

The red stain on the toweling under her had grown to alarming proportions by the time Hunter set down his tool again and sighed, shoulders slumping.

“I think—I hope—I have it all.”

“Good. I—what will ye do next?”

He saw Denny smile a little behind the sodden cloth, olive-brown eyes soft and steady over it.

“Cauterize it, bind the wound, and pray, Jamie.”

NIGHTFALL

IT WAS PAST DARK when Lord John Grey, accompanied by a respectful escort and a slightly damaged Indian, limped into Clinton’s camp.

Things were much as might be expected after a battle: strong currents of mingled agitation and exhaustion, the latter prevailing. No carousing amid the tents, no music. Men around the fires and camp kitchens, though, eating, getting themselves sorted, talking it over in low tones. No sense of celebration—more a sense of irritation, of disgruntled surprise. The scent of roast mutton came strongly through the smells of dust, mules, and sweating humanity, and Grey’s mouth watered so much that he had to swallow before replying to Captain André’s solicitous inquiry as to his immediate desires.

“I need to see my brother,” he replied. “I’ll attend upon General Clinton and my lord Cornwallis later. When I’ve washed and changed,” he added, shucking the horrible black coat for what he sincerely hoped was the last time.

André nodded understandingly, taking the vile garment from him.

“Of course, Lord John. And . . . um . . . ?” He nodded delicately in the direction of Ian Murray, who was attracting glances, if not stares, from pass-ersby.

“Ah. He’d best come, too.”

He followed André through the orderly aisles of tents, hearing the clinking of mess kits and feeling the comfort of the army’s stolid routine settle into place around him. Murray paced at his heel, silent. He’d no idea what the man was thinking and was too weary to care.

He did feel Murray’s step falter, though, and automatically looked over his shoulder. Murray had turned, all his attention focused on a nearby fire, this an open wood fire, around which sat several Indians. Grey wondered dimly whether these might be friends of Murray’s . . . and corrected this impression in the next second, as Murray took three giant strides, grabbed one of the Indians with a forearm round his throat, and punched him in the side with such force as to drive the other’s wind out in an audible whoop.

Murray then threw the Indian on the ground, dropped on him with both knees—Grey winced at the impact—and gripped the man by the throat. The other Indians lurched out of the way, laughing and making high-pitched yips of encouragement or derision, Grey couldn’t tell which.

He stood there blinking, swaying slightly, and unable either to intervene or to look away. Murray had declined to let one of the field surgeons remove the arrowhead from his shoulder, and fresh blood spattered from the wound as he punched his opponent viciously—and repeatedly—in the face.

The Indian—he had a shaved scalp and dangling earrings of shell; Grey noticed these when Murray ripped one out of the ear and stuffed it into his opponent’s mouth—was making a stout attempt at resistance and retaliation, in spite of his being taken at such a disadvantage.

“Do you suppose they are acquainted?” Captain André asked Grey. He had turned back, hearing the outcries, and was now standing beside Grey, watching the affray with interest.

“I think they must be,” Grey replied absently. He glanced briefly at the other Indians, none of whom seemed to have any interest in assisting their fellow, though a few of them appeared to be making wagers on the result. They’d plainly been drinking, but seemed no more intoxicated than the average soldier at this time of day.

The combatants were now squirming on the ground, evidently striving for possession of a large knife worn by the man Murray had attacked. The fight was attracting attention from other quarters; a number of men had hurried over from nearby fires and were clustered behind Grey and André, making speculations and hasty bets, offering shouted advice.

Grey was conscious, through his fatigue, of a certain concern for Murray—and not only on Murray’s own account. On the off chance that he might at some point in future actually speak with Jamie Fraser again, he didn’t want the first subject raised to be the demise of Fraser’s nephew while more or less in Grey’s custody. He couldn’t think what the hell to do about it, though, and thus continued to stand there, watching.

Like most fights, it didn’t last very long. Murray gained possession of the knife, by the brutal but effective expedient of bending one of his opponent’s fingers backward ’til it broke and grabbing the hilt as the man let go.

As Murray pressed the blade against the other man’s throat, it belatedly occurred to Grey that he might really intend to kill him. The men around him certainly thought so; there was a universal gasp as Murray drew the blade across his enemy’s throat.

The momentary silence engendered by this was enough for most of the assembled to hear Murray say, with a noticeable effort, “I give you back your life!” He rose off the Indian’s body, swaying and staring as though blind drunk himself, and hurled the knife into the darkness—causing considerable consternation and not a little cursing among those in whose direction he’d hurled it.

In the excitement, most of the crowd likely didn’t hear the Indian’s reply, but Grey and André did. He sat up, very slowly, hands shaking as they pressed a fold of his shirt to the shallow cut across his throat, and said, in an almost conversational tone, “You will regret that, Mohawk.”

Murray was breathing like a winded horse, his ribs visible with each gasp. Most of the paint had gone from his face; there were long smears of red and black down his glistening chest, and only a horizontal streak of some dark color remained across his cheekbones—that and a smudge of white on the point of his shoulder, above the arrow wound. He nodded to himself, once, then twice. And, without haste, stepped back into the circle of firelight, picked up a tomahawk that was lying on the ground, and, swinging it high with both hands, brought it down on the Indian’s skull.

The sound froze Grey to the marrow and silenced every man present. Murray stood still for a moment, breathing heavily, then walked away. As he passed Grey, he turned his head and said, in a perfectly conversational tone of voice, “He’s right. I would have,” before disappearing into the night.

There was a sudden, belated stir among the spectators, and André glanced at Grey, but he shook his head. The army took no official notice of what went on among the Indian scouts, save there was an incident involving regulars. And they didn’t get more irregular than the gentleman who had just left them.

André cleared his throat.

“Was he your . . . er . . . prisoner, my lord?”

“Ah . . . no. A, erm . . . relation by marriage.”

“Oh, I see.”

IT WAS FULL dark before the battle ended. William gathered as much from the orderly who’d brought him supper, and he could hear the sounds of a camp slowly reassembling itself as companies of soldiers came in, were dismissed, and scattered to drop their equipment and find food. Nothing like the usual sense of relaxation that lay on a camp after sunset. Everything was agitated and restless—and so was William.

His head ached horribly and someone had stitched his scalp; the stitches were tender and itching. Uncle Hal hadn’t come back, and he’d had no news whatever beyond the orderly’s sketchy report, which indicated only that there had been no clear victory over the Americans but that all three parts of Clinton’s army had withdrawn in good order, though with considerable casualties.

He wasn’t sure he wanted any further news, to be honest. There was going to be a moment of reckoning with Sir Henry about that ignored order—though he supposed Sir Henry might just possibly be too preoccupied to realize . . .

Then he heard the sound of footsteps and sat up. His fretting disappeared on the instant when the tent flap lifted and he saw his father—Lord John, he corrected himself, but as an absent afterthought. His father seemed surprisingly small, almost fragile, and as Lord John limped slowly into the lantern light, William saw the stained bandage round his head, the makeshift sling, and when William cast his eyes down, he saw, too, the state of his father’s bare feet.

“Are you—” he began, shocked, but Lord John interrupted him.

“I’m fine,” he said, and tried for a smile, though his face was white and creased with fatigue. “Everything’s all right, Willie. As long as you’re alive, everything’s all right.”

He saw his father sway, put out a hand as though to steady himself, and, finding nothing to take hold of, withdraw it and force his body upright. Lord John’s voice was hoarse, and his exposed eye bloodshot and exhausted but . . . tender. William swallowed.

“If you and I have things to say to each other, Willie—and of course we do—let it wait until tomorrow. Please. I’m not . . .” He made a vague, wavering gesture that ended nowhere.

The lump in William’s throat was sudden and painful. He nodded, hands clenched tight on the bedding. His father nodded, too, drew a deep breath, and turned toward the tent flap—where, William saw, Uncle Hal was hovering, eyes fixed on his brother and brows drawn with worry.

William’s heart seized, in a lump more painful than the one in his throat.

“Papa!” His father stopped abruptly, turning to look over his shoulder.

“I’m glad you’re not dead,” William blurted.

A smile blossomed slowly on his father’s battered face.

“Me, too,” he said.

IAN MADE HIS way out of the British camp, looking neither to right nor to left. The night was throbbing slowly round him. It was like being trapped inside a huge heart, he thought, feeling the thick walls squeeze him breathless, then draw away to leave him floating and weightless.

Lord John had offered to have an army surgeon tend his wound, but he couldn’t bear to stay. He needed to go, to find Rachel, find Uncle Jamie. Had refused the offer of a horse, as well, unsure that he could stay on it. He’d do better walking, he’d told his lordship.

And he was walking all right, though obliged to admit that he didn’t feel just that well in himself. His arms were still trembling from the shock of the killing blow. It had come up from his bowels and was still echoing through his bones, couldn’t seem to find a way out of his body. Well, it would settle soon enough—this wasn’t the first time, though he hadn’t killed anyone in a long while, and a longer while since he’d done it with that much violence.

He tried to think who the last one had been, but couldn’t. He could hear and see and feel things, but while his senses worked, they weren’t joined up aright with the things he sensed. Troops were still marching past him into the camp. The battle must have ceased now with the darkness; the soldiers were coming home. He could hear the din they made, marching, their tin cups and canteens jangling against their cartridge boxes—but he heard it clanging long after they’d passed, and he couldn’t always tell the light of distant campfires from the glow of fireflies near his feet.

The Scottish overseer. At Saratoga. The man’s face was suddenly there in his memory, and just as suddenly his body remembered the feel of the blow. The violent punch of his knife, hard up under the man’s back ribs, straight into the kidney. The huge, strange flexing he’d felt in his own body as the man’s life surged up and then rushed out.

He wondered for a dazed moment whether butchers felt it—that echo—when they slaughtered a beast. You did, sometimes, when you cut a deer’s throat, but usually not if it was just wringing a chicken’s neck or crushing a weasel’s skull.

“Or maybe ye just get used to it,” he said.

“Maybe ye’d best try not to get used to it. Canna be good for your soul, a bhalaich, bein’ used to that sort of thing.”

“No,” he agreed. “But ye mean when it’s with your hands, aye? It’s no the same wi’ a gun or an arrow, now, is it?”

“Och, no. I did wonder sometimes, does it make a difference to the man ye kill, as well as yourself?”

Ian’s feet blundered into a knee-high growth of thick weed and he realized that he’d stumbled off the road. It was just past the dark of the moon, and the stars still faint overhead.

“Different,” he murmured, steering back into the roadway. “How d’ye mean, different? He’d be dead, either way.”

“Aye, that’s so. I’m thinkin’ it’s maybe worse to feel it’s personal, though. Bein’ shot in battle’s more like bein’ struck by lightning, ken? But ye canna help it bein’ personal when ye do a man to death wi’ your hands.”

“Mmphm.” Ian walked a bit farther in silence, the thoughts in his head circling like leeches swimming in a glass, going this way and that.

“Aye, well,” he said at last—and realized suddenly that he’d spoken aloud for the first time. “It was personal.”

The trembling in his bones had eased with the walking. The huge throbbing of the night had shrunk and come to rest in the arrow wound, the ache of it pulsing to the beat of his own heart.

It made him think of Rachel’s white dove, though, flying serene above the hurt, and his mind steadied. He could see Rachel’s face now, and he could hear crickets chirping. The cannon fire in his ears had stopped and the night grew slowly peaceful. And if his da had more to say on the subject of killing, he chose to keep his silence as they walked toward home together.

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