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Steadiness Under Fire

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On the march between the rendezvous with the Pretender's son at Glenfinnan and their objective near Fort William, the ragtag Highland army had stopped in several damp and uncomfortable bivouacs. This was one of the better ones, Captain Windham mused as he looked out on the steely-grey expanse of the lake (or loch, as the inhabitants of this savage land would have it.) At this moment the surface of the water was flurried by yet another shower of rain, the latest of many; and it was fringed, not with stately trees and flowering iris, as in more civilised parts of the world, but with bare rock and heather.

But although the majority of the army had couched down in the unforgiving vegetation, Keith at least was sheltered, in a small hut which his captor had secured for them to share. Primitive though the hut was, Keith was not unhappy at this; he was better accommodated than most in this cavalcade. He was less happy about the smoke which wreathed him about (with an apparently unshakeable determination) from the peat fire which burned unwillingly just inside the threshold - but at least it kept those damned midges at bay. They would have added to an already considerable discomfort, caused by several days of riding on rough and hilly tracks, which had exacerbated the wound he had taken at Fontenoy three months before.

He was trying to ease the scar, with his eyes closed and his hand pressed to his side, when he heard a step at the doorless threshold. His eyes flew open, and his hand dropped to the bed of heather on which he sat; but not before the incomer had seen his discomfort. It was fortunate, therefore, that it was Mr Cameron of Ardroy and not one of his brigand followers who stood in the doorway, regarding his captive with some concern.

'Captain Windham - '

'Yes, Mr Cameron?' snapped Keith. Damn it all, why did the man have to appear at this precise moment?

'I came to tell you that there's supper to be had, and to escort you thither, but I think your wound is troubling you - '

'It is of no moment,' said Keith as repressively as he could. 'I'll come with you to supper. Tell me, is it to be porridge again?' The memory of this alleged provender, served for three evenings running, was another sore point to add to the many he had lately accumulated.

He made to rise, and the old wound stabbed him anew. He sank back onto the heather, catching his breath.

'Stay there, sir; I am responsible for your welfare while I have your parole,' said Ardroy, suddenly authoritative, and before he could reply that he would do no such thing, Ardroy had vanished into the light Highland evening.

Since he had nowhere else to go, Captain Windham waited in increasing irritation (and, it had to be admitted, discomfort) for ten minutes by his watch. At last he heard voices approaching, using Gaelic so he could not understand what was said, except that he caught his own name; and the speaker was undoubtedly Ardroy. He sat up a little straighter, and affected normality.

And here was his captor, with an older man, the two momentarily blocking out the light from the doorway. 'Here's my cousin, Dr Archibald Cameron - Lochiel's younger brother,' said Ardroy. 'You'll have no objection to speaking to him, I trust?'

This man, of middle age, had indeed a look of Lochiel about him, Keith realised. He made to rise, saying, 'Your servant, sir. There is really no need - '

'With your permission, Captain Windham, I will be the judge of that,' said Dr Cameron, with the air of one who had dealt with many such disclaimers in the past, and waved him back to his seat. 'Ewen, my bag, if you will be so good.'

Ardroy set the bag on the floor of the hut, along with a tureen of something that steamed fitfully, which he had also been carrying, and made to leave. But at this moment the rain redoubled its force, drumming heavily on the thatch of the roof.

'There's little point in you getting yourself soaked for the sake of my privacy, Mr Cameron,' said Keith irritably, and as Ardroy went to demur, continued, 'I assure you 'tis of not of the least moment.'

'Indeed, Ewen, it's a miserable evening. Since Captain Windham has no objection, 'twould be wise to stay.' And Dr Cameron pointed at the heap of heather in the other corner of the hut, and his young cousin went meekly to sit upon it, pausing only to toss another peat on the fire.

'Now, sir, will you tell me what ails you?'

Keith sighed. 'My old wound from Fontenoy.' His hand sketched its track along his side. 'The damned thing has not yet healed properly.'

Ardroy shot him a sudden concerned look, which Keith ignored.

'Well, take your coat off - no, I'll assist you - and I'll examine it.' Keith extricated himself from his uniform coat, its damp scarlet wool and braided facings making the process more difficult than it would have been in drier climes. His waistcoat followed, and he pulled up his shirt to give Dr Cameron access to the scar.

'Hm, that's a nasty gouge, and not fully healed yet, you are quite right. That will need to be cleaned and re-dressed. Your shirt too, if you please;' and Keith, with no good grace, removed cravat and stock and gorget, and finally his shirt; or rather, Ardroy's shirt, which had been lent to him before leaving the house at Loch na h-Iolaire, and which was rather too large for him. The chilly damp air prickled his bare skin.

Then he sat stoically while the doctor dabbed at the scar with some kind of fiery spirit, but caught his breath once; and Dr Cameron said, 'You sustained this wound at Fontenoy, you said?' And his eyes flickered once to his cousin, who was gazing studiously at the doorway and its curtain of rain.

'Yes, during the retreat.'

'How did it happen, if I may ask, sir?' It was obvious the doctor had the intention of distracting him - and if Keith had read that glance aright, he wanted Ardroy to hear the tale too. And since Keith bore the doctor, at least, no ill will, he was willing enough to oblige.
He began slowly, remembering as he spoke... Just three months ago; was it possible? 'My regiment had the honour to be in the front line. The Duke of Cumberland had deployed us there just after dawn, and we waited for an hour or two while the order of battle was formed. We could barely see the French position - they were just over the crest of the slope - but there was a group of horsemen on a hill beyond, and word went round that they were King Louis and the Dauphin, and their courtiers. They were not our main objective, though; we had orders to capture Marshal Saxe if possible, for the entire French army depended on him. We knew it would be a hard task, for the armies were fairly evenly matched.'

Dr Cameron was peering at the wound now, and turned round and reached for an instrument from his bag. Keith paused for a moment as the steel touched his skin, then went on. Ardroy was silent in the corner, but listening with grave politeness.

'We were given the order to advance,' continued Keith, 'and the men cheered, for they were eager to come to grips with the French. After the first few cannon-shots, we could barely even see their position for the smoke, but we knew where they were, and they us. We were under orders not to fire, though, and the men were wonderfully steady for the first half-mile or so.'

The rain was heavy on the roof. Dr Cameron grunted quietly, inviting him to continue, his hands busy about that memento of Fontenoy.

'It took nearly an hour to reach the crest.' Now he was back there on the battlefield, at the head of his men, even as he was telling the story to the Highlanders in the cramped little hut. Every now and then he heard a groan as one of his company fell, but the ranks simply closed up, and the slow steady march of the English infantry did not hesitate. 'It was an honour to lead such men.' Now there was the heart-stopping roar of a cannon; now musket-balls, almost spent, began to whistle past. They tramped on. As they came within musket-fire of the defenders, they faltered once, but only for a minute or so; and there was no need to mention that to these Highlanders! In any case, the Duke of Cumberland was among them on the instant, urging the men to follow him; and they did so.

'We reached the French position,' he said, and hissed as the doctor found an especially tender spot. ('Your pardon, sir.') 'At thirty yards, Lord Hay stood out in front of the line, bowed, and invited them to shoot first. And they did, and we gave them a volley in reply, but they'd flanked us, and we drew together.' Into a living column that still marched slowly forward. There was more and more scarlet on the ground now; and finally, unable to manoeuvre, hampered by its own dead, the column paused.

'It was then that Marshal Saxe brought up his reserves.' Cannon and cavalry. The world erupting in thunder and mud. 'The column held together and fired back steadily, but it had lost impetus and was at a complete standstill.' That was the worst time, beleaguered on the battlefield for a full quarter of an hour; yelling orders to his men to stand firm, keep up a steady fire, while all the time cannon-balls ploughed into them, and the blue waves of the Carabiners hammered upon them.

'I saw the Duke on his horse again for a moment. He was staring out across the battlefield. And then the order came to retreat. We cannot carry the day; our left flank is turned; withdraw.'

Back through the butcher's yard of their advance, harassed every step of the way but still holding formation, with the Royals in the last rank of the retreat as they had been in the first rank of the advance. It was then, while he swung up his sword to deflect a blow from a blue-clad giant of a cavalryman, that the musket-ball burned its way along his ribs. He felt little more than a sudden glancing blow. But as the Carabiner slumped to the ground, shot by one of his men, he doubled over suddenly in the saddle, swearing quite foully. Still he shepherded his men back, back towards safety, with French cheers ringing in their ears all the while.

'It took us two hours to complete the withdrawal.'

There was an icy, needle-sharp pain at his side, and then the discomfort abruptly ceased. Dr Cameron said, 'There, that's the culprit,' and held up his forceps, with a bright sliver clasped between them. He tossed it into the fire, and wiped them clean, then pulled a jar of salve from his bag. It was pungent-smelling, and stung, in Keith's opinion, to a quite unnecessary degree. 'Pray continue, sir.'

'We reached our initial position at the end of the afternoon, and re-formed and held a roll-call. Of my company, six men known to have died. Eighteen injured, though still able to walk. Ten missing. My own lieutenant in the field hospital, under the surgeon's knife, and it was thought unlikely they'd save his arm...' And when Keith went to dismount at the end of the roll-call, his sergeant was just able to catch him as he fell.

He woke in the night, in the field hospital himself, with a ribbon of fire blazing along his side where the musket-ball had carved its way. The hospital was crammed with suffering men; but quiet, all of them, for they would not admit to their pain. Nor did he then, and nor did he now. 'It was an honour to lead those men, and an honour to be led by the Duke.'

'Please to hold still just a moment longer, sir.' Dr. Cameron began to bandage Keith's ribs up again. 'Do you have a fresh shirt?'

'In my bag there.' He nodded at it, and Ardroy came to life again and handed the bag to him. He pulled the shirt out - his own, this time, laundered at Ardroy's house - and put it on, half-standing to tuck it into his breeches. There was a twinge from his side, but nothing more. The remembered stink of gunpowder cleared from Keith's brain; the rain hammered on the roof of the hut, but it was clean, fresh rain, and through it he could hear not the thump of cannon-fire but the sounds of a camp going about its normal business. He blinked, and shook his head a little.
'My brother Lochiel had news of the battle, from the French side of course, and even they saluted the redcoats. Will you allow me to say that it is an honour to hear the story from one who was there?'

'Thank-you, sir.' He met his eyes, and they both gave a little nod.

'You'll need to take care of that for a few days longer. Ewen, see to it that he doesn't over-exert himself!'

The chieftain of Ardroy, thus urged, replied, 'Of course, Archie, and I too thank you. And now you'll be wanting to get back to Lochiel and your rest, I don't doubt; we'll not hold you back.' For Dr. Cameron was already packing up his bag, leaving only a fresh dressing and the jar of salve; looking out through the doorway at the seemingly endless evening, Keith realised that the rain had almost stopped. The doctor would be dry enough on his journey back through the camp with just his hat and cloak.

'Goodnight, sir, and I am much obliged to you,' and Ardroy added his own goodnight as Dr. Cameron departed, leaving the pair alone in the hut once more. Ardroy mutely handed Keith the rest of his garments, though he elected only to put on his waistcoat over his shirt. He would sleep without his stock, cravat and gorget anyway, and the scarlet coat with its bulky braiding was simply too heavy to struggle into once more. Instead he wrapped himself closely around with his cloak.

Now that he was no longer half-naked, he felt at less of a disadvantage than before, and said pointedly, 'Perhaps now you understand why I counselled you against joining in this ridiculous venture?'

'Indeed, I have been listening - to what you didn't say, as well as to what you did. We'll go up against Cumberland in the end, I have no doubt.' Ardroy was rummaging in his own baggage for a pair of pewter dishes which he had brought from his home for their use. He took the lid from the tureen. 'But as you are proud to have taken part in so famous an action, so am I proud to follow my Prince - and perhaps we'll carry the day, as you could not despite your gallantry.' That was a word of some weight, and Keith glanced narrowly at the auburn head bent over the dishes. (It was some sort of broth that he was pouring from the tureen; not porridge, then, at least!) But there was not a trace of mockery in Ardroy's voice as he concluded, 'And I am honoured, too, to hear the story from a man who fought in the front rank at Fontenoy.'

He offered Keith the dish with a little smile, and some slight air of ceremony. Absurd though the fancy was, it seemed for a moment to Keith that it was not just broth that he was offering, but sustenance of a different kind too; and after an instant's instinctive disbelief and hesitation, it was in that spirit that he finally accepted it from his enemy's hands.