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Queen of swords, p.27
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       Queen of Swords, p.27

           Sara Donati
 
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  “You get the tea,” Hannah said. “And I’ll provide what answers Ican.”

  Chapter 62

  “For my part,” Nathaniel Bonner said to nobody in particular, “I’d prefer six or seven feet of solid snow to this damp cold.”

  He expected no response, and got none. The three other men in the canoe were thinking the same thing, with the exception of Ben Savard, who most probably had never seen a proper snowfall in his life.

  The Mississippi was a fearsome river, muscular and stubborn, and no doubt many a less experienced party had found themselves dragged along until she spit them into the Gulf. But they were all at home in a canoe and familiar with the river, and they worked their paddles in rhythm and made the other side in good time.

  They made landfall at the foot of a good-sized garrison that surrounded the city’s main powder magazine. There was no lack of guards, but all of them were men seventy or older, armed with ancient muskets. If the British got this far, it went without saying, the city had already fallen.

  A few of the guards greeted Savard as they passed, and then the four of them broke into an easy trot and left the brightly lit camp behind.

  For all the cold damp, it wasn’t so overcast that they couldn’t make their way. Savard had proved time and again that he knew this whole territory, stick and stone, and so they followed the shape of him along canals and through orchards, keeping off pathways.

  The plan was to settle in at this secret armory of Lafitte’s, the one called Le Tonneau, and wait for Poiterin to show up. According to Savard, Lafitte’s place was a well-kept secret, something easy to believe as they followed him deeper into the swamp. Nathaniel was curious to see what such a place looked like. Rumor had it that Lafitte had provided most of the big guns and ammunition for the Carolina and the Louisiana. He had seen for himself that the Baratarians had brought their own guns to man the Rodriquez Canal. Bears had watched them at work for a while and pointed out in his casual way that Lafitte was better armed than the United States navy and army combined.

  Savard paused now and then to listen. The night was full of sounds, many unfamiliar to a backwoodsman from the New-York frontier, though Nathaniel had learned a bit in the last week. Then the ground underfoot went from soggy to pure water, and Savard was pulling out a canoe hidden away in the brush.

  They set to paddling again, this time through still black waters. What moonlight there was fell on cypress trees, some no more than stumps, others great in their age and size. A half hour later Savard held up a hand and they floated for a moment while he listened. He spoke to them in a low voice, his head turned so they could hear him.

  “There’s something wrong,” he said. “Lafitte most usually has guards all along here, but there’s not a single man on patrol.”

  “You sure Poiterin is by himself?” Luke asked.

  Savard nodded. “He’s good, but he’s not good enough to lay all of Lafitte’s men low.”

  “You got a plan?” Bears asked.

  It turned out that Savard did indeed have a plan.

  A half hour later they had taken their spots. The armory was on an island no more than a half acre in size, but solid underfoot. Le Tonneau turned out to be a low building constructed out of cypress logs and without windows of any kind. A big double door was set into the front under the eaves, and a lantern hung to either side of it. Around the building itself was a clearing that gave way to cypress trees. Nathaniel, hunkered down with Savard in the shadows, studied the situation as a hollow feeling rose from his gut into his throat.

  Not one guard, but standing in front of the door were two caissons, each hitched to a pair of dray horses. Lying on his back, half in the shadows, was a man who had lost a good part of his head to a hatchet blow. Nathaniel liked to deal with one thing at a time.

  “Horses in this part of the country swim through swamp, do they?”

  Savard pointed with his chin. “There’s a road leads south and then forks. One spur goes right to the big river.”

  “So who’s inside? The British?”

  Savard glanced at Nathaniel. “Most likely. That’s one of Lafitte’s men dead on the ground. There must be another five or so like him around here.”

  The situation required some thought. Somehow or another the British, short on powder and ammunition, had found this place, hid away as it was deep in the swamp. Nathaniel recalled what he had been told about Wyndham, but then there had to be more than one spy still at work for the British. It was a complication, and no small one. If they moved on this little raiding party—and they would have to—they’d lose their chance at Poiterin.

  “I’m going to go talk to Bears and Luke.” Savard slipped away into the shadows and was back in five minutes.

  “They don’t see things much different,” he said. “We’ll wait a while longer, see who comes out those doors.” And he swung his rifle up and reached for his powder horn.

  Waiting was a skill learned in boyhood or never learned at all. Nathaniel was pleased to see that Savard had the knack of it, his whole frame relaxing against the tree trunk to the point that he seemed to melt right into the bark. The primed rifle rested in his arms, and his eyes moved over the clearing as steady as a new-wound clock.

  He found himself wishing, as he did every waking hour, for Elizabeth. He had the idea that she would like Ben Savard, but then sometimes she still surprised him, seeing things tucked away in a man’s mind that he never would have guessed. He was thinking about what it would be like, that first conversation between Savard and Elizabeth, when the double door opened up.

  British. Four redcoats, two Indian scouts of a tribe Nathaniel couldn’t identify, and an officer in dark green. Another four redcoats. Both the Indian scouts and two of the redcoats immediately fanned out, weapons at the ready. The rest of them were humping barrels and boxes.

  From the other side of the clearing came an owl hoot, Runs-from-Bears making his intentions known.

  “I’ve got the tall one.” Nathaniel brought up his rifle and fired. Savard did the same, and from the other side of the clearing came two more reports. Then they were moving into the chaos in front of the armory. All four armed men were down, one of them screaming. Barrels and boxes were dropped as men reached for weapons, and then Luke stepped out of the shadows and put a musket to the officer’s neck.

  “Kit,” Luke said in a conversational tone. “You’re just about the last person I expected to see here.”

  “Luke.”

  “Tell your men to stand down,” called Ben Savard. “Or I’ll fire a bullet into one of those casks and we can watch them burn.”

  There was a moment of silence, and then Wyndham did as he was bid.

  In short order they stripped the prisoners of their weapons and stood guard while they returned the powder and shot to the armory. Nathaniel stayed close to Wyndham, not talking to the man but watching and wondering at the odd turn of fate. They had come here for Poiterin and were ending up instead with a man who had proved himself a friend and ally over a long and difficult year. They’d have to march him back to the city, where he’d be tried and hanged as a spy.

  “We could tie them all up and leave them back in the trees while we deal with Poiterin,” Luke said.

  “Best move those wagons around back then,” Bears said. “Nathaniel?”

  “I’d say it’s worth a try, if it gets us Poiterin.”

  Nathaniel caught Savard’s gaze. The younger man nodded. “Lots of rope in those caissons,” he said. “But we’ll have to work quick.”

  They left Wyndham until last. As an officer he would get better treatment than enlisted men, had he been captured by regular army. As it was, Nathaniel was in no mood to take chances. He tied the man’s wrists, taking the time to study him. He looked battle weary and worn down, but he was tough. Nathaniel said, “This shouldn’t take long. We’ve just got some business to settle with an old friend of yours.”

  “Poiterin is no friend of mine.”

  “Call him
a colleague, then. He’s on his way here, hoping to buy Pakenham’s forgiveness the same way you had in mind.”

  Wyndham looked him straight in the eye. “I require no one’s forgiveness,” he said. “I am proud to be an officer of His Majesty’s army. I only wish I were a better one.”

  Nathaniel said, “Do I have to gag you, or will you go quiet to stand with the rest of your men?”

  Wyndham looked at Luke. He started to say something and then just shook his head. “I promise not to do anything to warn Poiterin. In return, I’d just as soon you’d shoot me here and now.”

  “I can see how that might appeal,” Nathaniel said to him. “But I fear you’ll have to take your chances with the court.”

  The last word was barely out of his mouth when the gunshot sounded, and in that same second Nathaniel felt the rush of a bullet skimming by. Wyndham sagged and then fell to the ground.

  Runs-from-Bears and Savard went into the brush after Poiterin, and came back a half hour later. Empty-handed.

  Hannah, rolled into blankets before the hearth, was dreaming of home, and resisted the hand that settled on her shoulder to shake her awake.

  “Daughter,” came her father’s voice in Kahnyen’kehàka. “Squirrel.”

  It was his use of her girl-name that woke her. Hannah sat up.

  Nathaniel Bonner crouched before her. He was damp with sweat and his color was high. He had been running, hard and long.

  “You’re needed at the field hospital,” he said. “I’ve come to fetch you.”

  Hannah dressed quickly and quietly. For once it was a blessing that Jennet was so hard to rouse, because at this moment they could afford no delay. Her father’s expression told her that something was very wrong.

  At the door he was waiting with her medical pack slung over his shoulder.

  “Who?”

  He looked her direct in the eye and said, “It’s not your brother or Savard or Bears.”

  Hannah’s breath hitched and caught. With relief, and with a new kind of worry. “Who?”

  “Kit Wyndham,” he said. “Poiterin shot him.”

  The six miles to the field hospital on the DuPré plantation gave Hannah time to think of many questions, but to ask only a few. The answers were sobering. Kit Wyndham was both badly injured and a prisoner of war, and Poiterin had disappeared again. He wouldn’t go back to Noelle Soileau’s, unless it was to kill her for her part in the trap that he had managed to escape. When Hannah said as much to her father, it turned out that Ben had already thought of this possibility. On his way through the city Nathaniel Bonner had stopped and delivered a message.

  Hannah had seen her father deal with all kinds of people over the course of her life, but she could not see him in a room with Noelle Soileau.

  “She’s safe?”

  “If she does as she’s told.”

  It would have to serve. There were other matters to worry about just now. One wounded man and more to come. Even in the full dark, evidence of the coming battle was everywhere on the Levee Road, supply wagons and caissons and men. Hannah was hungry and she was thirsty, but that would have to wait. Something occurred to her.

  “Dr. Rousseau?”

  “Already there,” said her father. “Since yesterday, according to Savard.”

  Hannah was glad to know that Kit was not lying alone in his own blood.

  They cut through the fields on a path that was already familiar, moving at a fast trot. For as long as she could remember she had followed her father like this, on one kind of trail or another. It felt right and proper and was a comfort to her.

  At the beginning of the row of slave cabins her father took his leave.

  “I wish you could stay here with me,” she said, and was embarrassed. But he grinned at her.

  “And miss all the fun?”

  His hand, hard and rough, settled on her shoulder. “Do what you can for him, daughter, but be prepared. He won’t last the day.”

  “Da.” She grasped at his hand as he pulled it away. “Where’s Ben?”

  Nathaniel looked over his shoulder, his eyes narrowed as if he could see the battlefields just to the south. “He’s gone to work,” he said finally.

  “I need to talk to him,” Hannah said, her voice catching.

  “I’ll send him back to you,” her father said. “Soon as we have a free minute.”

  Then he winked at her, and turning on his heel disappeared into the first featherings of a rising fog.

  Dr. Rousseau’s hands and lower arms were bloody, and his expression said everything Hannah needed to know. She stood beside the table where Kit Wyndham lay.

  The bullet had lodged in his upper abdomen and was there still. Dr. Rousseau had done what little could be done, but a bullet that pierced the peritoneum meant only one thing. Unless they were to open his torso there was no way to know exactly what damage it had done, but it was damage no man would survive.

  He was heavily bandaged in linen that matched the pallor of his skin. He had lost so much blood, Hannah wondered how he could still be alive. If he still was alive, or if she was imagining the rise and fall of his chest. Then he opened his eyes and looked at her.

  “Walks-Ahead.” His voice was easy and his tone light. As if she had come to tea.

  She sat down on the stool beside him and touched his face. His fever was climbing, but it wouldn’t last long. Soon his body would recognize a battle lost.

  “Stomach wounds,” Kit said. “You told me once how it’s the hardest way to die.”

  “Not this time,” Hannah said, struggling to match his tone. “It looks as though the bullet did damage to an artery.”

  “What good news.” Kit managed a smile.

  It was still at least an hour to sunrise, but from far off came the sound of bugles calling men from sleep. Kit turned his head and listened. He said, “Their haversacks will be soaked with dew and rain. Fires forbidden. Cold breakfast.”

  “You’re sorry to miss the battle.”

  “I would have liked to fight under Thornton,” Kit said. “If Pakenham had a dozen more like him, Jackson would have no chance.”

  “Then I’m glad there’s only one Thornton,” Hannah said.

  He turned his face toward her. There were darkening shadows under his eyes. “If we take the city, no harm will come to you.”

  It was an empty promise, and they both knew it.

  Hannah said, “Would you like me to write to your family?”

  His brow creased in confusion, as if he had forgot that he ever had a mother or sisters or a fiancée.

  He said, “I failed him.” And: “Make no excuses for me.”

  Hannah took Kit Wyndham’s hand and held it until he had gone.

  When she went out of the cabin there was no sign of Dr. Rousseau, but there were soldiers milling about in the fog and dark, cooking breakfast over small fires. She hadn’t realized that the slaves had been turned out so that the militia could be housed here, and even stranger was the mood among the men as they fried bacon and ate it between slabs of corn bread. Her own stomach was grumbling but she moved on, thinking that she would find Dr. Rousseau somewhere close by.

  Then Hannah realized what was so very odd about these men. They were unarmed. Many of the volunteers who had come from the north had expected to be supplied with weapons by the army, and had found themselves disappointed. They had been assigned to the rearmost lines, where they served as nothing more than window dressing.

  As she passed she heard them speaking among themselves in tones that ranged from disappointment and agitation to outright indignation. Having put aside their farms and families and traveled so far, they were being denied the release of battle. No wonder, Hannah thought, that Dr. Rousseau didn’t show himself.

  She passed a small group of men who stopped to look her over, openly suspicious. One of them, a man with few teeth and missing one ear, challenged her directly, and Hannah found herself lying without hesitation. This outlying field hospital had been establishe
d on Jackson’s direct order, and she and Dr. Rousseau were here at his command.

  She left the idle men behind her and walked to the embankment. In the dark she climbed up to the Levee Road, but there was nothing to see in the fog, not the river itself or the ships on the river, not a flicker of fire anywhere. But in the darkened fields to the south, men were massing. One army ready to march forward and take by force, the other determined to stop them.

  A drumming of hooves, and a patrol swept by on horseback, a half dozen men with cloaks fluttering behind them. Hannah stepped back, but not before she was seen. The lead rider pulled up abruptly and the others followed his lead, their horses dancing in place and kicking up mud. One of them held up a lantern, and Hannah found herself in the middle of a puddle of light.

  “Mistress Bonner,” called Major General Jackson. “I wish I had a hundred more like your father and uncle.”

  “So do I,” Hannah said.

  His leathery face folded into a smile. “That’s a fine weapon you’ve got. Do you know how to use it?”

  Hannah touched the sword her father had given her, hanging from her belt in its leather scabbard. “I do,” she called back. “But I’m far better with a scalpel.”

  The smile widened. “Best you stay here then,” he said. “And see to our brave lads.”

  And he put spurs to his horse, and galloped off with his staff close behind him.

  Chapter 65

  The wagons pulled out into the street under overcast and rainy skies. Nathaniel Bonner drove one team and Runs-from-Bears the other, while Luke rode alongside the wagons on a sturdy horse. Jennet could look up at any time and see him there, his eyes narrowed as he kept watch.

  “The war is over for us,” she told him, and tried to believe that it was true. Jennet glanced at Hannah, who sat next to her father with young Nathan in her lap. Her complexion was drawn and stark with worry, and Jennet thought her own face must look much the same.

 
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