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Queen of swords, p.17
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       Queen of Swords, p.17

           Sara Donati
 
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  At the door, she cast a last long look over her shoulder. “I will send Marie to you immediately. Mrs. Bonner, promise me you will take two of our grooms when you go out into the streets. These two little boys need you.”

  She did not say: because your husband may not come back from this battle, but Jennet heard the words nonetheless.

  Jennet dropped a letter in Hannah’s lap. Her expression, her coloring, everything about the way she held herself said that the letter brought good news. Hannah was almost afraid to touch it.

  “Go on,” Jennet said.

  Hannah observed. Her cousin’s mood was high, but there were circles under her eyes, a weariness that couldn’t be disguised. Yesterday she had left with Jacinthe’s newborn son, gone with him back to the Livingstons’.

  She said, “Tell me about the baby first.”

  Jennet’s expression sobered immediately. She pressed a fist to her cheekbone and then she pushed out a long and heavy sigh. “He is healthy,” Jennet said. “He took to the breast, suckled like a wee demon, and slept.”

  She looked away for a moment. “I intend to keep him and raise him as our own.”

  It was the thing Hannah had expected. “You’re sure?”

  “Aye,” Jennet said. “There’s naught else for it.”

  “A child isn’t a penance,” Hannah said, and Jennet jerked as if she had been slapped. It seemed as if she would lash out in return; the old Jennet would have, but this one, who had been through so much, caught herself.

  “For his mother’s sake,” Jennet said. “For his own, and for mine, too. Aye, I willnae deny it.”

  “Good,” Hannah said. “Where are the boys now?”

  “Mrs. Livingston produced a nurse out of thin air to look after the both of them while I’m helping here. A young woman. Her milk is sweet, I’m told, and in that household no baby goes without noodling for so much as an hour. Now will ye please read the letter? There’s news you must hear.”

  Hannah’s hands were shaking by the time she finished.

  Jennet said, “Can ye believe it? Your faither and uncle on their way to us now.”

  “Oh, yes,” Hannah said. “I can.”

  For one moment she thought herself in danger of fainting out of sheer joy and relief. Her father, her uncle. On a keelboat on the Mississippi, on their way here. The image filled her with an old energy that she had forgot about.

  Jennet was still talking, holding out another letter, this one unopened. “The direction is to you alone. Is that no Curiosity’s hand? Open it, Hannah, before I bust every button for wondering.”

  Hannah did as she was bid.

  Dearest Girl, our Hannah,

  I have been thinking of you & praying for you every day & every night since you left here with your brother to bring Jennet home where she belongs. Mark me well, I do not say that I have feared for you, for I know no other woman as strong as you, Hannah, and never for one moment have I doubted your resolve nor your ability. When Lily and Simon brought your letters to us your good news was no surprise, but I am thankful & I do praise God. His wisdom is great & His tender mercy is over all His works.

  No doubt they told you in their last letter that I am sickly or even on my deathbed. Don’t you believe it. It was nothing but a bitty cold that settled in my lights, but Many-Doves made me onion compresses and her special tisane and within a week I was right as rain, Praise the Lord our God for His Mercy. I was seventy-eight years old this last spring and on that morning I was up at dawn baking, a dozen loaves of good bread and six pies and then I scrubbed my own floor. How many women my age can say half as much? You hear me now: I intend to live long enough to see this new Bonner grandson and more than that, to see you bring a daughter into this world. You & I have stories to share before the Lord (Great & Marvelous are His Mercies) calls me home to join my good husband and daughter.

  One last word before they pull this bit of paper right out from under my nose, and that is this: You cannot save the whole world, child. No doubt you have seen terrible things in this newest war and will see worse before you find your way back home, but don’t get caught up in trying to fix every broken sorry creature you come across. Some things must be left to God.

  You get yourself home to us who love you best, though there be mountains and lyons in the way.

  Your loving true friend, Curiosity Freeman

  writ by her own hand, the first day of December in the Year of Our Lord Eighteen Hundred and Fourteen.

  When she had finished reading, Hannah dropped the letter to her lap and put both hands on her face. As if to hide tears, or a smile, or both.

  “Oh, I am so glad,” Jennet said, hugging her. “What a good omen. The best omen.”

  Hannah nodded, unable to speak for a moment. She stood, and took a deep breath to clear her head. They were in the apothecary with the door closed, but all around them the building seethed with noise and movement.

  “Luke should hear this news, too. It will mean so much to him to know our father is coming.”

  “Aye,” Jennet said. “But there’s no time to go running about looking for him. I’m expected in the clinic this last half hour.”

  “He’s still being kept busy translating, then?”

  Jennet drew in a deep breath. “At the moment he’s most probably still at headquarters, but they’ll assign him to a company today,” Jennet said. “Commander Patterson took a liking to him, apparently. Luke expects to be put aboard the Carolina.”

  “I’d rather see him on the Carolina than in the infantry,” Hannah said.

  Jennet’s mouth quirked. “Aye, weel. We’ve been unco unlucky when it comes to ships. I’d prefer—” She paused, and when Hannah gave her an encouraging nod, she went on. “I was wondering if perhaps there wad be a place for him in the same company as Ben.”

  Hannah saw how very uncomfortable Jennet was making this unusual request, and how much it meant to her. She said, “I can ask.”

  She folded the letters carefully. “At any rate, Luke needs to see the letter; it’s excuse enough to send for him.”

  “And where will you be?” Jennet asked. Her tone had shifted: sudden awareness, and suspicion, too. And with good cause.

  “I’m going to the field hospital,” Hannah said. “They need experienced surgeons.”

  “Oh, no,” Jennet said. “Not that. Haven’t you done enough?”

  “I haven’t even started,” Hannah said. She would have turned away but Jennet took her by the wrist, her grip hard.

  “Who sent for you? The army doctors?”

  Hannah laughed. “Of course not. It was Ben’s idea.”

  For a moment they looked at each other, and Hannah was struck by an odd mixture of emotions. Affection, impatience, sadness.

  “I can’t stay behind,” Hannah said, “knowing I could be of help.”

  Jennet flushed with irritation. She said, “And did ye no just read the wise words of a woman as dear to ye as a grandmither? Ye cannae help every puir soul that comes your way, Hannah Bonner.”

  “But those that I can help, I will,” Hannah said. “As long as we are here, I will.”

  Jennet blinked, resigned. “I don’t like it,” she said. “Not one bit. But at least I’ve got an argument that must swing Luke to my way of seeing things. He’ll want to be near you, and that’s enough to keep him off the Carolina.”

  She looked about herself as if she were suddenly aware of how late it was in the day. “I’ll have to go find him straightaway.”

  Chapter 45

  In fine weather, on good roads with a fresh horse, sixty miles was not much of a distance, not to Kit Wyndham, who had been born and raised on the broad expanse of the North American continent. In England and Europe, where land was far more precious, sixty miles was a different proposition altogether. Kit had learned that lesson in his three years on the Iberian Peninsula.

  Now he was learning to measure miles again. Sixty miles from New Orleans to Pea Island, where the British troops were mass
ing for the invasion. Every step of the way through the soggy, freezing wet. More than fourteen hours after Kit left New Orleans the fisherman’s boat set him ashore on Pea Island, where he was greeted at bayonet point.

  He identified himself to the marine on watch, offered the right password. Kit allowed himself one question. “Any word of General Pakenham?”

  The marine sent him a sidelong glance, and then shrugged. “Expected any day. Couldn’t be too soon, if you was to ask me, sir.”

  Trudging through the miserable encampment in ankle-deep mud and muck, Kit considered. Spirits must be abysmally low if the men were talking to strangers about their unhappiness with command. Kit thought longingly of hot water and dry clothes and food, things that he would be doing without for a long time to come. As the thousands of men bivouacking on these five barren acres had been doing without. Over the last week Admiral Cochrane’s sailors had been ferrying men from the fleet to this island in a frenzy that did not spare space for tents or even sufficient rations.

  He made his way toward the command tent, passing company after company: riflemen, infantry, artillery, the Highlanders who made it a point of pride to scoff at the weather. The West Indies troops who suffered more than the rest in the freezing rain. It seemed to his eye that their numbers were already much reduced. The wretches had another twelve hours or more in open boats to look forward to. The navy would dump them on solid ground within reach of New Orleans, but whether they would be in condition to bear arms, that was the question.

  For the first time Kit felt real doubt about the outcome of the operation. They had the advantage in numbers of experienced soldiers and sailors, but it seemed a very long way from Pea Island to New Orleans, through bayou and ciprière, and then back again. Not only men, but power and ammunition and artillery guns had to be carried every step of the way.

  A week ago he would have been able to share his concerns with his superiors, but now he had a report to deliver that would not lend to his credibility. Just the opposite, in fact. When he finished, his career would most likely be as compromised as his reputation.

  The command tent was so crowded that one man had to leave before another could enter. Kit worked his way to the table in the middle, where a dozen officers were gathered around a map, each and every one of them intent on appearing unmoved by the blustering argument in their midst.

  To someone less familiar with Admiral Cochrane and General Keane it might indeed seem that the two men were on the point of blows. The unfortunate truth was that they brought out the worst in each other: Cochrane’s conceit and pride, Keane’s impulsiveness and temper.

  Keane had caught sight of Kit. With a few words the tent emptied out, until he was alone with the two senior officers.

  “Not a moment too soon,” Keane said. “Now, what can you tell us about Jackson’s numbers, Major?”

  Kit gave his report. His very dissatisfactory report, its deficiencies laid out clearly. He would not offer excuses. He could save that much pride at least. Getting it all out was something of a relief. Kit wondered if he had spent so much time with Roman Catholics that he had been infected with an inclination toward confession. He wondered if priests were ever truly shocked by what they heard, and if they got angry, as General Keane and Admiral Cochrane were now obviously angry. A humming tension, as high-pitched as a bow drawn across a violin, filled the room.

  “If I understand you correctly, Major,” General Keane began, “you are telling us that you were forced out of the city before you could get any certain information on the number and quality of troops arriving from the north. The exact information you were sent to gather.”

  “That is true, sir,” Kit said. “The Kentucky and Tennessee troops will have arrived since I left New Orleans.”

  “And your network of informants is defunct.”

  “Yes, sir,” Kit said. He was able to keep his voice steady.

  “So you have nothing to show for your months of work except your life.”

  “I have nothing useful to show since my last report.”

  Cochrane could contain himself no longer. He said, “And this is the famous Exploring Officer who gave the French such a run for their money. Wellington’s pet, they called you, is that right?”

  Kit felt a flush of anger making its way up his face. He met Cochrane’s gaze directly. “Not in my hearing, sir.”

  “Have you lost your mind, man?”

  “I think perhaps I did, for a while,” Kit said.

  Keane held up a hand to ask for patience, and Cochrane sputtered to silence.

  “I take it you still haven’t found out the location of Lafitte’s secret store of ammunition and powder, either.”

  “On the contrary, sir,” Kit said. “That I can tell you, with certainty.”

  It was his one bit of currency, and it didn’t go as far as he had hoped. Not once he told them the rest. Lafitte’s stash was on the river, almost directly opposite the city.

  “You’re saying we can’t get to it until we’ve taken the city and don’t need it anymore,” said Keane.

  “Not at all, sir,” said Kit Wyndham. “I’m saying it will require a small party of men, the right kind of transport, and a diversion of the first order.”

  Cochrane said, “You want to lead this mission, do you, Wyndham?”

  “I am yours to command, sir,” Wyndham said.

  “Looking to redeem yourself, eh?” Cochrane squawked like a gander in a temper.

  “Just so, sir.”

  There was a moment’s silence in the tent.

  Keane seemed to come to a conclusion. “Not straightaway,” he said. “Let’s see first how things go tonight. We may not have need of any more powder.”

  “Is it to be tonight, then, sir?” Kit tried not to let his disquiet show.

  “In three brigades,” said Keane. “You know the lay of the land between Fisherman’s Village and the plantations—” he cast a glance at the map, “belonging to de la Ronde and Villeré?”

  “Yes, sir, I know both plantations well.”

  “You’ll join the advance,” said Keane. “Under Colonel Thornton. We start at nine.”

  The next twelve hours did nothing to lessen Kit’s doubts. The logistics of moving thousands of soldiers and artillery to the mainland would have been daunting under any circumstances, but Keane and Cochrane seemed to believe that by pure force of will and timing they could overcome what might prove to be a fatal flaw: They had too few boats of the right kind. And then, of course, there was the weather, which was turning from bad to worse.

  The troops had been ferried to Pea Island from the fleet by the sailors who rowed sixty miles, back and forth, without pause. This next stage in the invasion would proceed in much the same way. Moving the army in installments was always tricky, as the advance could easily be overrun and dispatched before the next detachment arrived. And so Cochrane and Keane had come up with an alternate plan which did not bode well: The vanguard would sail first in the lighter vessels best able to navigate the shallow waters of the Bayou Catalan. The larger boats, sure to get stuck at some point, would follow. When they could go no further, the lighter vessels could be used to ferry the troops from the larger ones.

  There was nothing to do but take on this flawed plan as his own and do everything in his power to make it work.

  Kit worked with Thornton, a dour man who was well respected and equally feared by the troops he commanded. They had to move almost two thousand men from the 85th, the 95th Rifles, and the King’s Own, along with artillery, engineers, and marines, which meant first that they had to be divided up among the available barges. Plans were made, discussed, changed, and finally set in place late in the night.

  With less than three hours until first light, Kit rolled himself—back in uniform, finally—into a piece of waterproof canvas that smelled of mold and urine, and fell into an uneasy sleep.

  And of course the plans fell apart immediately. Ten o’clock came and went as men were directed into and out
of barges, artillery was reassigned, kits went lost and were found again. It was almost noon by the time the advance pushed off, men packed in so tightly that there was no possibility of movement, not even to adjust a hat when the rain started in earnest. Kit found himself revisiting the calculations that had so plagued him the day before: from the fleet to Pea Island, from Pea Island to Bayou Catalan, through the ciprière and along the canals to the de la Ronde plantation, the site chosen by scouts. And then back again, mile by mile. If they should fail, if they should lose this battle, retreat would be almost impossible. Clearly Cochrane and Keane had simply refused to contemplate such an event. That in itself made Kit uneasy.

  Around him men tried to keep their spirits up by telling stories and singing, and for a while it seemed to work. Then the rain turned to sleet and the charcoal fire that was too little to give off real heat went cold, taking with it most of the forced good cheer and leaving every one of them to fold into himself, silent. To conserve what energy and heat they could, while the sailors rowed and rowed toward an unseen shore.

  At dusk they reached the fishing village, quiet but for the barking of dogs and apparently deserted.

  The troops, wet and dispirited, came back to life by the discovery that there was indeed a guarded camp, and the piquets were all sound asleep in the shacks. In a matter of minutes they were surrounded and taken prisoner.

  “So much for the fabled American militia.” Thornton allowed himself a small laugh as the prisoners were marched off for questioning.

  Kit said, “The ones in blue belong to a company called the Chasseurs.”

  Thornton grunted. “Chasseurs, indeed. An insult to good fighting men.”

  “I doubt Jackson realized that the rich sons of New Orleans bankers had been assigned this duty,” said Kit.

  “Let’s hope there’s a great deal he doesn’t know,” said Thornton with a rare grin.

 
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