Written in My Own Heart's Blood (Page 58)

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Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (Outlander #8)(58)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

Some of them looked over their shoulders now and then. He wondered if it was fear of pursuit or thoughts of what they’d left behind—the city itself was long out of sight.

Well, if there was any danger of turning to a pillar of salt, it would be owing to sweat, not yearning, he thought, wiping his sleeve across his face for the dozenth time. He was himself eager to shake the dust of Philadelphia from his boots and never think of it again.

If it weren’t for Arabella–Jane, he’d likely have forgotten it already. He certainly wanted to forget everything else that had happened in the last few days. He twitched his reins and nudged his horse back toward the trudging horde.

It could be worse; nearly had been much worse. He’d come close to being dispatched back to England or sent north to join the other conventioners in Massachusetts. Thank Christ that Papa—that is, Lord John, he corrected himself firmly—had made him learn German, along with French, Italian, Latin, and Greek. Besides the divisions commanded by Sir Henry and Lord Cornwallis, the army included a huge body of mercenary troops under General von Knyphausen—nearly all of them from Hesse-Kassel, whose dialect William could manage with no trouble.

It had still taken a good deal of persuasion, but in the end he’d landed up as one of Clinton’s dozen aides-de-camp, charged with the tedious chore of riding up and down the ponderously moving column, collecting reports, delivering dispatches, and dealing with any small difficulties that developed en route—a more or less hourly occurrence. He kept a running mental note of where the various surgeons and hospital orderlies were; he lived in horror of having to attend the delivery of one of the camp followers’ babies—there were at least fifty very pregnant women with the column.

Maybe it was the proximity of these ladies, gravid and pale, their swollen bellies borne like burdens, balanced with the ones on their backs, that made him think of . . .

Surely whores knew how to avoid pregnancy? He didn’t recall Arabella–Jane doing anything . . . but he wouldn’t have noticed, drunk as he was.

William thought of her whenever he touched the spot on his breast where his gorget should be. If asked, he would have said he put the thing on with his uniform and forgot about it—but from the number of times he found Arabella–Jane in his mind, he was apparently in the habit of fiddling with it constantly.

The loss of the gorget had cost him an unpleasant five-minute analysis of his character, dress, hygiene, and personal failings from Clinton’s chief aide, Captain Duncan Drummond, and a ten-shilling fine for being out of proper uniform. He didn’t grudge her the cost.

He did find himself keeping an eye out for Captain Harkness. He couldn’t recall enough of their encounter to have any idea of Harkness’s regiment, but there weren’t that many dragoon companies with the present army. He was working his way back along the column now, doing his daily round on Visigoth, a big bay gelding with good wind. The horse wasn’t pleased with the slow pace and kept twitching under him, wanting to break into a gallop, but William held him to a steady trot, nodding as he passed each company, looking to the corporals and sergeants to see if any were in difficulty or needed assistance.

“Water’s coming!” he called to a particularly wilted-looking group of Loyalist refugees who had stopped on the verge of the road, taking pause in the scant shade provided by a scatter of oak saplings and a handcart precariously piled with their belongings.

This reassurance made the women look up hopefully from under their bonnets, and the gentleman rose to his feet, waving William down.

He reined in and recognized Mr. Endicott, a well-to-do Philadelphia merchant, and his family. He’d been to dinner at their house and had danced with the two older Misses Endicott at several parties.

“Your servant, sir,” he said, sweeping off his hat with a bow and nodding in turn to the ladies. “And yours, Mrs. Endicott. Miss Endicott, Miss Sally . . . and your most humble and obedient, Miss Peggy.” Miss Peggy Endicott, aged nine, went pink as a young strawberry at being singled out, and her elder sisters exchanged raised brows over her head.

“Is it true, Lord Ellesmere,” Endicott said, “that we are closely pursued by the Rebels?” He was holding a large red-flannel handkerchief, with which he wiped a perspiring round face. “The . . . er . . . the ladies find themselves summat worried by the prospect.”

“The ladies have no cause for concern, sir,” William assured him. “You are under the protection of His Majesty’s army, you know.”

“Well, yes, we do know that,” Mr. Endicott said, rather testily. “Or so we hope, at least; certainly wouldn’t be here else, I can tell you. But have you any news of Washington’s whereabouts, is what I’d like to know?”

Visigoth shifted his weight and danced a little, eager to be off, but William pulled his head round, clicking his tongue in rebuke.

“Why, yes, sir,” he said respectfully. “We have had several deserters from the Rebel camp, come in last night. They say that Washington is gathering his troops, no doubt in hopes of catching up to us—but he has no more than two thousand regulars, with a few scrubby militia companies.”

Mr. Endicott looked somewhat reassured at this, but the girls and their mother didn’t. Mrs. Endicott plucked at her husband’s sleeve and murmured something. He flushed more deeply.

“I said I’ll deal with it, madam!” he snapped. He had taken off his wig because of the heat and wore a spotted silk handkerchief tied over his head against the sun; his grizzled hair was cropped short, and tiny bristles stuck out from the edge of the kerchief like the feelers of angry insects.

Mrs. Endicott’s lips pressed tight, but she stepped back, jerking her head in a small nod. Miss Peggy, though, emboldened by Captain Ellesmere’s particularity, scampered forward and seized hold of his stirrup. Visigoth, startled by the flying scrap of calico at the corner of his vision, shied violently; Peggy shrieked, stumbled back, and went flying. All of the Endicott ladies were shrieking, but William could do nothing about that; he fought the horse’s head round and held on grimly while Goth crow-hopped and whirled, then settled down gradually, snorting and jerking at the bit. He could hear passing infantrymen being profanely amused as their column swerved to go round him.

“Is Miss Peggy quite all right?” he inquired, breathing heavily as he finally brought the horse back to the verge. Miss Anne Endicott was standing near the edge of the road, waiting for him; the rest of her family had retreated, and he heard a loud howling coming from behind the handcart.

“Aside from being spanked by Papa for nearly being killed, yes,” Miss Endicott replied, looking amused. She drew a little closer, keeping a wary eye on Goth, but the horse was calm enough now, stretching his neck to grab a mouthful of grass.

“I’m sorry to have been the cause of her distress,” William said politely, and groped in his pocket, coming out with nothing but a crumpled handkerchief and a stray sixpence. He handed the coin down to Anne, smiling. “Give her that, will you, with my apologies?”

“She will be fine,” Anne said, but took the coin. She glanced over her shoulder, then drew a step closer and spoke rapidly, lowering her voice. “I . . . hesitate to ask, Lord Ellesmere . . . but, you see, the cart has broken a wheel, my father cannot fix it, he won’t abandon our belongings—and my mother is terrified that we will be overtaken and captured by Washington’s men.” Her dark eyes—very fine dark eyes—fixed on his with a brilliant intensity. “Can you help? Please? That was what my little sister meant to ask you.”

“Oh. What exactly is the trouble with—never mind. Let me have a look.” It would do Goth no harm to settle for a few minutes. He swung down and tied the horse to one of the saplings, then followed Miss Endicott to the handcart.

It was overflowing with the same higgledy-piggledy assortment of goods he’d seen on the docks two days ago—a tall clock stuck out of heaped clothing and linens, and a homely earthenware chamber pot was stuffed with handkerchiefs, stockings, and what was probably Mrs. Endicott’s jewel case. The sight of this particular mess gave him a sudden pang, though.

These were remnants of a real home, one he’d been a guest in—the rubbish and treasures of people he knew . . . and liked. He’d heard that very clock, with its pierced-work crown, strike midnight just before he’d stolen a kiss from Anne Endicott in the shadows of her father’s hallway. He felt the mellow bong, bong now, deep in his vitals.

“Where will you go?” he asked quietly, a hand on her arm. She turned to him, flushed and harried, her dark hair coming out of her cap—but still with dignity.

“I don’t know,” she said, just as quietly. “My aunt Platt lives in a small village near New York, but I don’t know that we can travel so far, as we are . . .” She nodded at the unwieldy cart, surrounded by bags and half-wrapped bundles. “Perhaps we can find a safe place closer and wait there while my father goes to make . . . arrangements.” Her lips pressed suddenly tight, and he realized that she was holding on to her composure by dint of great effort. And that it was unshed tears that made her eyes so bright. He took her hand and kissed it, gently.

“I’ll help,” he said.

Easier said than done. While the axle of the cart was intact, one wheel had struck a jagged rock and not merely popped off but had in the process lost the flat-iron tire that encircled the felloes—which in consequence had come apart, being badly glued. The wheel lay in pieces in the grass, and a gaudy orange-and-black butterfly perched on the disjunct hub, lazily fanning its wings.

Mrs. Endicott’s fears weren’t unfounded. Neither was Mr. Endicott’s anxiety—which he was attempting with little success to disguise as irritability. If they were stranded for too long, and left behind . . . even if Washington’s regular troops were moving too fast for looting, there were always scavengers on the outskirts of an army—any army.

A respectful period of inspection allowed Mr. Endicott, still red-faced but more settled, to emerge from his domestic imbroglio, followed by Peggy, also red-faced and downcast. William nodded to the merchant and gestured, summoning him to join in contemplation of the wreckage, out of hearing of the women.

“Are you armed, sir?” William asked quietly. Endicott’s face paled noticeably, and his Adam’s apple bobbed above his dirt-grimed stock.

“I have a fowling piece that belonged to my father,” he said, in a voice so low as to be scarcely audible. “I—it’s—not been fired in twenty years.” God, William thought, appalled. William felt himself naked and edgy without weapons. Endicott had to be fifty, at least, and alone here with four women to protect?

“I’ll find you help, sir,” William said firmly. Mr. Endicott drew a deep, deep breath. William thought the man might sob if obliged to speak, and turned without haste toward the women, talking as he went.

“There will be a cooper or wainwright somewhere along the column. Ah, and here’s the water carrier coming!” He extended a hand to Peggy. “Will you come with me to catch him, Miss Margaret? I’m sure he’ll stop for a pretty face.” She didn’t smile, but she sniffed, wiped her nose on her sleeve, drew herself up, and took his hand. The Endicott ladies were nothing if not courageous.

A bored-looking mule pulled a cart with several barrels of water, passing slowly down the column, the driver pausing when hailed. William waded determinedly into the fray, lifting Peggy in his arms for safety—to her evident delight—and deflected the carrier to the Endicotts’ service. Then, with a sweep of his hat to the ladies, he mounted again and made his way down the road in search of a cooper.

The army traveled with the equivalent of several villages’ worth of artisans and those men called “supportives”: coopers, carpenters, cooks, smiths, farriers, wainwrights, drovers, hauliers, orderlies. To say nothing of the vast swarm of laundresses and sempstresses among the camp followers. It wouldn’t take long to find a cooper or a wainwright and persuade him to deal with the Endicotts’ trouble. William glanced at the sun; nearly three.

The army was proceeding briskly, but that didn’t mean it was moving at any great rate of speed. Clinton had given orders to march an additional two hours per day, though, a strain in the increasing heat. Another two hours before they made camp; with luck, the Endicotts might be whole again by then and able to keep up tomorrow.

A rumble of hooves and catcalls from the infantry caught his attention and made him glance over his shoulder, heart speeding up. Dragoons, plumes fluttering. He reined up and rode Goth straight at them, glancing from face to face as he passed down their double line. Several of them stared at him, and an officer made irritated motions at him, but he ignored that. A small voice in the back of his mind inquired what he meant to do if he found Harkness among them, but he ignored that, too.

He passed the end of the company, circled to the rear, and rode up the other side of the column, looking back over his shoulder at the rank of puzzled faces staring at him, some affronted, some amused. No . . . no . . . no . . . maybe? Would he even recognize the fellow? he wondered. He’d been very drunk. Still, he thought Harkness would recognize him. . . .

They were all staring at him by this time, but none with an aspect either of alarm or violence. Their colonel reined up a little and called to him.

“Ho, Ellesmere! Lost something, have you?”

He squinted against the sun and made out the vivid face of Ban Tarleton, red-cheeked and grinning under his flamboyant plumed helmet. He jerked his chin up in invitation, and William wheeled his horse and fell in beside him.

“Not lost, exactly,” he said. “Just looking for a dragoon I met in Philadelphia—named Harkness; you know him?”

Ban pulled a face.

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