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Queen of swords, p.23
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       Queen of Swords, p.23

           Sara Donati
 
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  Honoré coughed for a full minute. When he had regained his breath he found she was studying him as she might study a bug caught in a web.

  “You want me to marry you,” he said.

  “I want to be your legal heir.”

  “And how do you suppose to find a priest who will marry us?”

  A quirk of the mouth. “I have someone in mind. He owes me a favor.”

  “I’m sure he does,” Honoré said darkly. He said, “You are proposing a business arrangement.”

  “It’s not the pleasure of your company I yearn for,” said Noelle.

  “So we marry,” Honoré said. “And then you report me to the authorities and weep prettily at my hanging.”

  “Think, Poiterin,” Noelle said in the voice of an irritated and put-upon teacher. “If I turned you in, I would hang next to you.”

  That was true. Honoré turned his head away and tried to gather his thoughts. In the worst case—if the British gave up and retreated, and he had to flee—Noelle would try to sell everything and run off with the money. But in some things the law served a man’s best interest, and a wife couldn’t sell property without her husband’s consent and signature. Once he was dead, it wouldn’t matter to him who got the Poiterin family fortune, and in the meantime it would secure his position here while he finalized his plans.

  He said, “I find the idea of a Christmas-morning wedding in a whorehouse amusing. Call in your priest.” And yawning, he turned his attention back to the street.

  Chapter 54

  In the days following Christmas it sometimes seemed to Hannah that she might have dreamed her father and Runs-from-Bears, so little did she see them. The fault, she determined, was not just the war, but also Mrs. Livingston, whose annual Christmas party had turned her father and uncle into objects of curiosity.

  Hannah had not been pleased to receive the invitation to start with and had no intention of attending. “I’m surprised at your aunt’s change of heart,” she said to Rachel, and then was sorry to have embarrassed the girl, who was more aware of her aunt’s failings than it might at first appear.

  When it became clear that her father and uncle did intend to accept the invitation, she spoke more openly. “Until you and Bears came Mrs. Livingston didn’t like to have Indians in her parlor. Or even in her kitchen,” she told her father.

  “You don’t like the woman,” Nathaniel Bonner said. “But I’m curious; I’d like to get a look at her after hearing Jennet’s stories.”

  “I’m not going,” Hannah said. “I won’t be trotted out like a pet.”

  “I doubt anybody ever took your uncle for a lapdog,” Nathaniel Bonner said. “And if they tried to, he’d set them straight. As I’d expect you to do, daughter.”

  Hannah said, “It’s a battle I choose not to fight just now.”

  He came to sit next to her at that, and let a comfortable silence spin out between them.

  “You follow your best instincts,” he said finally. “And I’ll do the same.”

  His own instincts had taken him and Runs-from-Bears to the Livingstons’, where the élite citizens of New Orleans, already agitated by the presence of a captured British officer, had given up all pretense of calm detachment. But even the most forward of the gentlemen might not have approached directly if it weren’t for what happened when Nathaniel Bonner came face-to-face with none other than Major General Jackson.

  The general stopped in his tracks, his eyes widening. “If you’re not the son of a man called Hawkeye out of the New-York frontier, then I’m seeing ghosts.”

  “Your eyesight’s right good,” said Nathaniel. “And as I spring a leak if you stick me, I can own in good conscience that I’m no ghost.”

  “It was something to see,” Paul Savard told Hannah later. “Old Hickory was as delighted as a boy to run into your father and uncle. They spent an hour talking common history and battles and politics, and every Creole in the room was listening. Even the ones who don’t have any English.”

  The story moved through the city on long legs and was everywhere by noon on the twenty-sixth. It seemed another version of it came to Hannah’s ears every hour, embellished and polished to a high gloss. It came to the point that she was more likely to hear some tall tale concerning her father than any news of the war. Even Henry had less to relate than usual, and she had to be satisfied with the general report that the whole of the American force had been put to work either building fortifications at Rodriquez Canal, harassing the British, or spying on them.

  A neighbor who had never spoken to Hannah stopped her on the street. “I had no idea your father and General Jackson fought together in the Revolution.”

  “They didn’t,” Hannah said.

  “But I heard—”

  “The major general met my father once,” Hannah said. “It was during the Revolution, but not in battle. I believe the general was no more than fourteen at the time. My father is some ten years older.”

  It didn’t matter what she said; the citizens of New Orleans loved a good story and weren’t about to give up on this one. Two men from the far north had come to New Orleans to join the fighting under their old friend Andrew Jackson. Ferocious in battle, both of them, men to be taken seriously. One was white, but raised by the Mohawk. The other was Mohawk, raised by whites.

  Hannah said, “My father was raised by his own parents. My grandmother Cora was born and raised in Scotland, and my grandfather—the one called Hawkeye—was born to Scots immigrants. He was orphaned and raised by a sachem of the Mahican tribe.”

  The request for a family history was put to her by a lady who had come to bring bandages for the clinic and tarried in the hope of getting a glimpse of Nathaniel and Runs-from-Bears.

  “Mahican? Mohawk? Is there a difference?” she asked, wide-eyed.

  “My uncle Runs-from-Bears was born in the longhouse of the Turtle Clan at Good Pasture,” Hannah went on. “He is a full-blood Mohawk and was raised among his own people.”

  “Who would have ever imagined a full-blood Indian on Major General Jackson’s own staff?”

  “My father and uncle have joined Captain Juzan’s company,” Hannah said. “That’s where they can do the most good.”

  She supposed it was unreasonable of her to be so irritated by stories, especially when there was real trouble to deal with. On the twenty-seventh the British gunners used heated shot to sink the Carolina and almost got the Louisiana as well, but for quick-witted sailors who warped her up the shore out of range. Then, forced back from his line, Jackson took the precaution of having all the buildings on the Chalmette plantation blown up. None of this was good news, but the loss of the Carolina struck an especially hard note, and the city’s attention shifted away from the Bonners. Hannah was torn between relief and guilt, both of which gave way quickly to worry.

  Her father and uncle had decided to attach themselves to the Choctaw under Pierre de Juzan, and they saw no reason to delay, going out on their first full day to survey the land. Hannah did not try to explain to her father why she disliked this idea, or what struck her as wrong about fighting under Andrew Jackson, because it would have done no good. Nathaniel Bonner made up his own mind, and once he had, the only person who ever swayed him was his wife. Who was not here, to Hannah’s great distress.

  This informal assignment to Juzan’s company turned out to please Major General Jackson. He had distinct favorites among the various companies, and he liked Juzan’s Choctaws for their independence and their efficiency and, most of all, for their lack of fuss. Because, Luke concluded, Jackson was fed up with the Creole legislators who continued to plague him with their worries and their presumption on his time and attention. The Tennesseans, who bivouacked in ankle-deep mud and never complained about any duty, were more to his liking.

  Juzan was the most reliable source Jackson had for information about the enemy’s actions, and he also had some of the best riflemen. Working in tandem with the Tennessee rifles, they picked off the sentries the Britis
h sent out to patrol the perimeters, and more than one careless officer. After two days of this, the British withdrew all their men and put a redoubt in their place. At that point, the Choctaws were happy to leave the matter to the Baratarians, who turned their attention and their artillery to putting the forward British guns out of commission.

  “You may call those Baratarians pirates and banditti,” Nathaniel told his daughter. “But by God, they’ve got a feel for the big guns.”

  Hannah said, “Elizabeth will never forgive me if you get killed fighting this war. No matter how much fun you have while you do it.”

  Her father gave her a grim smile. “Elizabeth knew when we set out where we were headed and what the dangers were. We cain’t leave here until this whole mess is settled anyway, so we might as well help it along.”

  Of course everyone was caught up in the war. Everyone she cared about, everyone precious to her in a five-hundred-mile radius. At night she dreamed all those people were marching past her, and usually Kit Wyndham was among them. She had no idea where he was, if he was even alive. And sometimes, she found herself wondering about Kit Wyndham, and if someday he would find himself on the wrong end of Nathaniel Bonner’s rifle.

  Chapter 55

  When their line had been cut in half and the batteries destroyed, when it was clear that the attempt to turn Jackson’s flank had failed, the order came. What remained of General Keane’s column was to fall back, out of reach of the guns of the Louisiana and the batteries. Away from the Chalmette buildings fired by Jackson himself, which had burned so hot and bright that for those few minutes it was possible to forget the damp cold of this place.

  As Kit Wyndham prepared to run, a single volley from the direction of the river knocked more than a dozen men to the ground and he was spattered, once again, with blood and bone and shrapnel. Ears ringing, he blinked sweat out of his eyes and headed toward the canals. There was no choice available to them but to go through the swamp.

  Ciprière, Kit reminded himself; they called this hellish confusion of water and mud and slime the ciprière. Submerged to his waist in the icy muck, fighting to stay on his feet and keep his weapons dry, Wyndham passed a sergeant who had died leaning on a cypress trunk. There was a gash to his cheek that exposed one yellow tooth. Kit took the man’s weapons—powder was as precious as blood—and moved on.

  Men straggled along, three or four dozen, many wounded, all breathing like overworked bellows. Faces blackened by powder, eyes red-rimmed, grim of expression, Wellington’s veterans waded into an acre of reeds and there they stopped, ducking down to conceal themselves like boys playing hide-go-seek. Their caution was well grounded: The ciprière was where the snipe-shooters were most active. Dirty-shirts, they called the riflemen from Kentucky and Tennessee, hunters of men.

  Crouched in the chilly water, shivering so that his teeth clattered, Kit discovered, with little surprise, a bullet fragment in the meat of his upper left arm. No pain yet, and only a little blood.

  The man beside him, small and wiry with a pendulous lower lip, watched as Kit pried it out with the tip of his knife.

  He said, “Tha were one of Wellington’s Exploring Officers, aye? I’ve heard tell of thee. Tha mun have done summat far wrong, to be out here with us rough ones. What was it?”

  “I volunteered,” Kit said.

  “Och,” said the old soldier with a grin. “Art tha seekin’ redemption by fire, or art tha pure daft?”

  “A little of both,” said Kit, and found himself laughing.

  Hungry, cold, in pain, covered with scratches and cuts, Kit came into camp at Villeré in the late afternoon and found a grim satisfaction in the fact of his own survival.

  There was a thin stew of some unidentifiable meat and beans and chunks of slimy vegetable he recognized as okra. Kit sat with his bowl in his hands in front of a low and smoky fire, waiting for his feet to come back to life. The men around him talked freely of their frustration and anger and dissatisfaction. Affronted by Jackson’s tactics, they begrudged his men everything, from better food to more cannons and, most of all, another victory.

  “Those bloody dirty-shirts,” said the Yorkshire man who had spoken to Kit in the ciprière. “But worse still are the pirates with the cannons.”

  “Have you ever seen the like?” Another man shook his head in wonder.

  “Damn them one and all to hell,” muttered someone from the shadows. “Of course they know how to use big guns. What are they but a band of thieves and slave-runners and smugglers?”

  The Yorkshire man elbowed Kit. “Did tha meet any of yon pirates while tha were exploring on the other side?”

  All eyes turned to Kit. He took a moment to finish his food, wiped his mouth with his hand.

  “I did,” he said. “I sat and drank with Dominique You more than once, and with Lafitte and his brother. I’ve watched them argue among themselves, and I’ve been nearby when worse has happened. They aren’t men to cross. No doubt it was one of them who fired on the field hospital from the Carolina. The naval commander is a competent man, and wouldn’t have ordered such a thing.”

  “It’s our bad fortune that they threw in their lot with Jackson,” said one of the older soldiers. “If anybody can keep us out of the city and drive us back to the sea, it will be the fookin’ Baratarians.”

  There was a morose silence as the fire spat and flared. The men needed a victory, but the best Kit could offer them was diversion.

  He said, “There’s a story about one of them—”

  All eyes turned to him as if he were offering heavenly salvation and a pint of ale for the journey.

  “A renegade even by their standards. You understand that the Baratarians have their own rules, and Lafitte is the commanding officer. He tells them what ships they can attack and board, what prizes they may take and which they should leave in peace. But there’s a captain of a morphidite schooner called the Puma—I’ve never seen her, but I’ve heard tell that under sail she’s all wings and no feet.”

  “And her captain?”

  “He’s called Ten-Pint. I don’t know his real name, but he’s a Frenchman like most of Lafitte’s men.”

  “Fond of the drink, is he?” A soldier with a nose as round and red as a strawberry asked this question, out of what was clearly fellow feeling.

  Kit cleared his throat. “I’m sure he is, but that’s not where his name comes from.

  “The stories about him are legion. He goes his own way and does as he pleases, damn Lafitte. Once he threw a cabin boy overboard with a flick of his wrists for nothing worse than spilling a bucket of water. And that’s the very least. A man who steals from him may get away, but sooner or later, Ten-Pint will take his revenge. And when he finds his prey he always says the same thing: ‘I’ve no interest in a pound of your reeking flesh, but I’ll take ten pints of your blood.’ ”

  “And he’s over there, with the rest of the Baratarians?” asked the younger man, glancing to the north.

  “I assume so,” said Kit Wyndham. “I hope never to find out directly.”

  “Aye, weel,” said the deep voice from a soldier sitting in the shadows. “If Pakenham don’t get the guns we need, you may yet shake Ten-Pint’s hand.”

  The mood shifted immediately.

  “It’s not Pakenham’s fault,” said the older soldier. “It’s Keane, who set us here in the muck in the first place, sixty miles from provisions.”

  “Colonel Rennie is worth three of Keane,” said one soldier. “That was clear enough today.”

  “And Thornton,” offered another man. “Ten times Keane’s worth.”

  “Rennie might have saved the column, if not for Keane yanking at him, like a dog on a chain.”

  “More than a hundred dead this day. And not one step have we took over that damn Rodriquez Canal.”

  There was a grim silence from the circle of men, undercut only by occasional screams. Raw opium wouldn’t be enough to dull the pain of losing a leg to a surgeon’s saw.

 
An ensign was moving down the field, calling out a name. Before he was in hailing distance, Kit knew the boy was looking for him. He was tempted to walk away and sleep in a hay barn where he couldn’t be found, but years of training weren’t so easily discarded. Kit stood and identified himself.

  “Who sent for me?”

  “The general, sir.” The boy’s arm was in a sling and he limped. Kit wondered in passing how many men were whole and uninjured.

  Junior officers were milling about on the veranda, talking in low voices. As Kit climbed the stairs, a single shell came whistling over the trees and exploded in what had once been a garden. One of the men on the porch fell to his knees belching blood, and another dragged him away.

  “This way, sir,” said the ensign. His eyes were glazed, and his tone unremarkable.

  Pakenham was pacing the main room, his chin lowered to his chest and his hands clasped at the small of his back. His color was bad; deep lines had dug themselves into his cheeks and along his mouth.

  Keane sat on the other side of the room, his whole body turned away, a man who desperately wanted to be alone but could not leave. The rest of the staff moved about restlessly.

  Pakenham stopped and turned on his heel to Kit. His mood was black with self-recrimination, which Kit found somehow comforting. He was an honorable man, an excellent officer, and his hands were tied by fate and the decisions made before he arrived.

  “Gunpowder,” said Pakenham.

  “Sir?”

  “Lafitte’s secret store of gunpowder. You know where it is. Show me.” He jerked his head toward the map spread out on the table.

  After a moment’s study, Kit’s finger traced the curve of the river. It was a very good map, but not a perfect one.

  “Here,” he said, putting his finger on a spot in the ciprière south of the city, on the opposite side of the river.

  “You are familiar with the lay of the land?”

  Kit agreed that he was.

 
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