He was a dead man, or as near as made no difference. His horse was already gone, put out of its misery, mercifully, with the major's last pistol shot. The officer could undoubtedly have found more ammunition somewhere on this blood-soaked, benighted field that was full of his fallen comrades, but his good right arm was shaking too badly to reload. He still had his saber, but if he took his sword hand off his slashed left shoulder, he'd likely bleed to death. No, a quick glimpse told him, he'd definitely bleed to death.
Bad enough that he was unhorsed, nearly unarmed, and dripping his life onto a scrap of foreign soil no one cared about but the natives. Worse, his uniform was still clean except for the spreading bloodstain, a scarlet beacon to any Frenchman peering through the churned-up dust. Worst still, Major Lord Tyverne--Ty to his friends, of which there were many, and his family, of which there were few--had foolishly gone and gotten himself cut down behind enemy lines. He decided to say his prayers.
Swaying on his feet, Ty first had to decide what to pray for: a quick death, forgiveness for his sins, or the chance to take at least one blasted Frog with him to the hereafter in payment for this bloody carnage.
Then he had to wonder if the Almighty was listening to prayers at all on this hell-spawned day. Looking around, he had to doubt it. He noted a large cloud of dust moving to his left, and a smaller, faster one to his right. Cavalry. This was it, then. Ty tried to convince himself that he was lucky. A lot of soldiers never made their twenty-ninth years. Half the brave lads under his command had been mere boys, just starting to shave, before they'd been hit with the French cannon.
Not for an instant did Major Tyverne consider lying beside his fallen horse, pretending to be dead. What for? He'd die soon enough anyway without a surgeon's help. Surrender? Never. Better to go down fighting now, rather than waste away in a wretched French prisoner-of-war camp, hoping for a ransom that his father would never pay.
Lud, he swore to himself, he would not go to his Maker with thoughts of that dastard the last ones on his mind. Instead, he tried to picture his beautiful mother before she passed on, his little brothers and sister, green fields, flowers, his first pony.
That was no pony thundering down on him from the right. It was a huge white charger, sweat-slicked and frothing, with a sword-wielding soldier on its back ... a red-haired, red-coated British solider.
The man pulled up, his horse rearing on its hind legs, then leaped out of the saddle not a foot away from Ty.
"A bit of a pother, what?" he asked, assessing the major's wound and the other cloud of dust.
Ty could only nod at the rider, a lieutenant, he could see, while the younger man planted his saber in the dirt and fished in his saddlebag for a thin length of leather. He tied the thong tightly around Ty's upper arm.
"That ought to hold the bleeding until the sawbones can stitch it. Now come on aboard with you." Struggling, the slim lieutenant dragged Ty over to the horse, which was pawing at the ground and sidling away from the scent of blood.
"Dammit, Diablo, don't go getting plaguey on me now," the lieutenant ordered, heaving Tyverne into the saddle with a curse and a groan. "This is a friend, do you hear? Now take him on home, boy." He wrapped the reins around the major's right hand.
Realizing what the other man intended, Ty protested. "No, you have to come, too. We can ride double."
The lieutenant shook his red head. "Old Diablo's too tired to carry both of us that far. You're no lightweight, Major." Ty was tall, and broad, at least two stones heavier than the slight lieutenant. "We'd never make it."
"But I cannot take your horse, man!"
"Of course you can, Major. I have my pistol, my sword, and all my wits about me. I mean to make the Frenchies pay for this day's work. Now go." He lifted his hand to slap the horse's rump.
"Wait! I don't even know your name, or where to bring the horse!"
The lieutenant laughed. "Everyone knows where to bring Diablo, Major, and I will whistle for him when I get back. It's an old circus trick. Meanwhile, I am Croft, Lieutenant George Croft, at your service. I'd make a proper salute, but I doubt there's time." He brought his hand down, sending the horse forward. "Home, Diablo, take him home!"
Hanging on with his legs, since the horse seemed to need no guidance from the reins, Ty called back, "By God, I am in your debt. I owe you my life!"
The younger man laughed again, showing white teeth with a noticeable gap between the front ones. "Then fight. Live to pass on the favor. Save someone else's life."
Ty fought the butchers to save his arm when they would have cut it off. Then he fought the infection that followed the surgeons' hasty, clumsy sewing. He struggled against taking the laudanum that would have kept him in thrall for his lifetime, and then he had to fight both the onset of the pain and the absence of the drug. He wrestled the fevers that spread throughout the army encampment, even after he'd been moved to a farmhouse and away from the disease-ridden hospital.
He fought despair, too, that his arm would never work properly, that his career was over, that he'd lost so many fine soldiers and friends.
And then--Major Lord Tyverne had to fight back his grief when they brought him Lieutenant Croft's belongings. He lost that battle, tears of guilt and anguish and remorse finally trailing down his now-gaunt cheeks, to Ty's humiliation and the mortification of Croft's chums.
One of them tried to make light of the situation as he placed a pair of worn saddlebags on the chair beside Tyverne's bed. "Old George always said that whoever could ride Diablo after he was gone could have the brute. None of us are even willing to try, so we figure that means you own the orneriest horse in the king's army, and his tack." The man, Lieutenant Harper, gestured toward the leather packs.
Ty used the sleeve of his nightshirt to brush away the signs of his weakness, pretending to be smoothing back a lock of blond hair that had fallen on his forehead. He cleared his throat. "Is ... is the horse all right? He saved my life, you know." The horse did, and Lieutenant Croft.
"All right? Seems he was abused before George rescued him from a traveling circus or something. Now he's meaner'n ever, terrorizing the handlers and the other horses alike. That bone-crusher'd be stew for the camp followers if it weren't for your name, but we've got him penned out by himself now, waiting on you."
The men wouldn't look at the weak, fever-ridden major or his arm in its sling--wondering, Ty knew, if he'd ever be able to manage a hack, much less a highbred hell-raiser. He wondered himself, but he thanked the lieutenant's friends for their efforts.
"You won't be thanking us or old George when you try to ride him," Harper said on the way out. "No one ever did, but George and you. The grooms will be grateful when you take Diablo on home with you. They're likely praying loudest for your quick recovery."
The lieutenant's commanding officer visited the major's sickbed, too, at Ty's request. Captain Nayland had sent Croft's dress sword and trunk to the family in Hillsdale-at-Hythe, in Kent, he reported, so yes, he could write the address for Ty. "I think there's a sister," he said with a shrug. "And a small holding, perhaps a baronetcy." After twelve years in the army, Nayland had seen too many green lieutenants come and go to give any one of them much shrift. He slept better at night, not knowing the personal details of his men, and advised Major Tyverne to do the same. "Forget Croft. He was just another soldier, doing his duty like the rest of us."
Still, the major persisted. "But was he a good officer?"
Nayland tossed aside the cigar he'd been smoking. "Good? George Croft was rash, brash, and reckless, like all the other hey-go-mad heroes who think they'll live forever. He wasn't even supposed to be in your sector that day. He had no training, no understanding of military tactics, and no fear."
In other words, Ty told himself when the other man had left, George Croft was young. The lieutenant was barely twenty, according to Nayland, nearly a decade younger than Ty himself. A landowner, a titled gentleman, he would have had his whole life ahead of him--if he hadn't sacrificed that promising future for Tyverne.
The weight of that sacrifice almost buried the major. No one since his mother had ever given him as much as a handkerchief, yet a perfect stranger had given his life. Damn, how could he pay back so great a debt to a dead man? No, he was not weeping again, not a four-year veteran of the war, not a brave leader of men with commendations from the general himself to prove it. Not Archimedes St. Ives, Viscount Tyverne, the future Earl of Stivern. The captain's rank cigar smoke was making Ty's eyes water, that was all.
For two days the lieutenant's saddlebags sat on the chair near Ty's bed before he could look inside. For two days the things perched there like a vulture, or like a judge, handing down a sentence.
The major's own friends came by when they could, bringing news of the battles, gossip from the officers' quarters, jokes from the camp, a basket of oranges from heaven knew where. They were sitting on his bed, tossing the peels on the floor and laughing when Andrew McDougall recalled a message about Tyverne's horse.
"Your new horse," he said. "The hulking gray"--which was what a white horse was called--"the one that chews boots for breakfast. The horse master sergeant says he'll keep the beast another sennight, no longer. Then it's the knackers."
So Ty had to regain his strength, and his will, for the sake of a bad-mannered brute of a horse. First he had to go through George Croft's things.
A small leather pouch held a few coins, Portuguese and British. Those, and a great many more, would go to the grooms and handlers to replace and repair their ripped uniforms and shredded hats. The worn deck of cards pleased the farmer in whose bed Ty was sleeping, and the lawn handkerchiefs delighted his wife. The small pistol wrenched at Ty's gut--what if Croft had had one more weapon with him?--until he realized the weapon was jammed and would never fire again.
He sniffed at the paper-wrapped cigars and nodded. For all his bluster and sworn disinterest, Captain Nayland must have shared his tobacco with the junior officers. Ty sent them back to the captain. He tossed out some leather scraps, an unmatched glove, a broken spur, and set aside a dented flask and a bone-handled knife, sighing in relief. No treasured timepieces remained at the bottom of the bags, no miniatures of loved ones, no heirloom signet rings or family crest seals to add to Ty's burden of guilt. Just a packet of letters ...