A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Author: P Hana

Page 96

   

“How far is it, Ian?” Jamie asked, squinting through the vista of longleaf pines. The trees were very tall, and the grassland under them wide open—very reasonable for riding.

“Maybe half a day on horseback.”

“Aye, then.” Jamie relaxed a little, and reached for his own cup of the vile brew. “We’ve time to sleep first, then.”

WE REACHED the bridge at Moore’s Creek by midday the next day, and joined the company commanded by Richard Caswell, who greeted Jamie with pleasure.

The Highland regiment was nowhere in sight—but dispatch riders arrived regularly, reporting their steady movement down Negro Head Point Road—a wide wagon thoroughfare that led directly to the solid plank bridge that crossed the Widow Moore’s Creek.

Jamie, Caswell, and several of the other commanders were walking up and down the bank, pointing at the bridge and up and down the shore. The creek ran through a stretch of treacherous, swampy ground, with cypress trees stretching up from water and mud. The creek itself deepened as it narrowed, though—a plumb line that some curious soul dropped into the water off the bridge said it was fifteen feet deep at that point—and the bridge was the only feasible place for an army of any size to cross.

Which did a great deal to explain Jamie’s silence over supper. He had helped to throw up a small earthwork on the far side of the creek, and his hands were smeared with dirt—and grease.

“They’ve cannon,” he said quietly, seeing me eye the smudges on his hands. He wiped them absently on his breeks, much the worse for wear. “Two small guns from the town—but cannon, nonetheless.” He looked toward the bridge, and grimaced slightly.

I knew what he was thinking—and why.

Ye were behind the cannon at Culloden, Donald, he had said to the Major. I was in front of them. With a sword in my hand. Swords were the Highlanders’ natural weapons—and for most, likely their only weapons. From all we had heard, General MacDonald had managed to assemble only a small quantity of muskets and powder; most of his troops were armed with broadswords and targes. And they were marching straight into ambush.

“Oh, Christ,” Jamie said, so softly I could barely hear him. “The poor wee fools. The poor gallant wee fools.”

MATTERS BECAME still worse—or much better, depending on your viewpoint—as dusk fell. The temperature had risen since the ice storm, but the ground was sodden; moisture rose from it during the day, but then as night came on, condensed into a fog so thick that even the campfires were barely visible, each one glowing like a sullen coal in the mist.

Excitement was passing through the militia like a mosquito-borne fever, as the new conditions gave rise to new plans.

“Now,” Ian said softly, appearing like a ghost out of the fog beside Jamie. “Caswell’s ready.”

Such supplies as we had were already packed; carrying guns, powder, and food, eight hundred men, together with an uncounted quantity of camp-followers like myself, stole quietly through the mist toward the bridge, leaving the campfires burning behind us.

I wasn’t sure exactly where MacDonald’s troops were just now—they might be still on the wagon road, or might have cautiously detoured, coming down to the edge of the swamp to reconnoiter. Good luck to them in that case, I thought. My own insides were tight with tension as I stepped carefully across the bridge; it was silly to tiptoe, but I felt a reluctance to put my feet down firmly—the fog and silence compelled a sense of secrecy and furtiveness.

I stubbed a toe against an uneven plank and lurched forward, but Roger, walking beside me, caught me by the arm and set me upright. I squeezed his arm, and he smiled a little, his face barely visible through the mist, though he was no more than a foot away.

He knew quite as well as Jamie and the rest did what was coming. Nonetheless, I sensed a strong excitement in him, mingled with dread. It was, after all, to be his first battle.

On the other side, we dispersed to make fresh camps on the hill above the circular earthwork the men had thrown up a hundred yards from the creek. I passed close enough to the guns to see their elongated snouts, poking inquisitively through the mist: Mother Covington and her daughter, the men called the two cannon—I wondered idly which was which, and who the original Mother Covington might have been. A redoubtable lady, I assumed—or possibly the proprietor of the local brothel.

Firewood was easy to find; the ice storm had extended to the pines near the creek, too. It was, however, bloody damp, and damned if I was going to spend an hour on my knees with a tinderbox. Luckily, no one could see what I was doing in this pea-soup fog, and I stealthily removed a small tin of Brianna’s matches from my pocket.

As I was blowing on the kindling, I heard a series of odd, rending screeches from the direction of the bridge, and knelt upright, staring down the hill. I couldn’t see anything, of course, but realized almost at once that it was the sound of nails giving way as planks were pried up—they were dismantling the bridge.

It seemed a long time before Jamie came to find me. He refused food, but sat against a tree and beckoned to me. I sat down between his knees and leaned back against him, grateful for his warmth; the night was cold, with a damp that crept into every crevice and chilled the marrow.

“Surely they’ll see that the bridge is out?” I said, after a long silence filled with the myriad noises of the men working below.

“Not if the fog lasts ’til morning—and it will.” Jamie sounded resigned, but he seemed more peaceful than he had earlier. We sat quietly together for some time, watching the play of flames on the fog—an eerie sight, as the fire seemed to shimmer and merge with the mist, the flames stretching strangely up and up, disappearing into the swirl of white.

“D’ye believe in ghosts, Sassenach?” Jamie asked suddenly.

“Er . . . well, not to put too fine a point on it, yes,” I said. He knew I did, because I’d told him about my meeting with the Indian whose face was painted black. I knew he did, too—he was a Highlander. “Why, have you seen one?”

He shook his head, wrapping his arms more securely around me.

“Not to say ‘seen,’” he said, sounding thoughtful. “But I will be damned if he’s no there.”

“Who?” I said, rather startled at this.

“Murtagh,” he said, surprising me further. He shifted more comfortably, resettling me against him. “Ever since the fog came in, I’ve had the most peculiar sense of him, just by me.”

“Really?” This was fascinating, but made me thoroughly uneasy. Murtagh, Jamie’s godfather, had died at Culloden, and—so far as I knew—hadn’t been going about manifesting himself since. I didn’t doubt his presence; Murtagh’s had been an extremely strong—if dour—personality, and if Jamie said he was there, he very likely was. What made me uneasy was the contemplation of just why he might be there.

I concentrated for a time, but got no sense of the tough little Scotsman myself. Evidently, he was only interested in Jamie. That frightened me.

While the conclusion of the morrow’s battle was a foregone one, a battle was a battle, and men might be killed on the winning side, as well. Murtagh had been Jamie’s godfather, and took his duty to Jamie seriously. I sincerely hoped he hadn’t had word that Jamie was about to be killed, and shown up to conduct him to heaven—visions on the eve of battle were a fairly common occurrence in Highland lore, but Jamie did say he hadn’t seen Murtagh. That was something, I supposed.

“He, um, hasn’t said anything to you, has he?”

Jamie shook his head, seeming unfazed by this ghostly visitation.

“Nay, he’s just . . . there.” He seemed, in fact, to find this “thereness” a comfort, and so I didn’t voice my own doubts and fears. I had them, nonetheless, and spent the rest of the short night pressed close against my husband, as though daring Murtagh or anyone else to take him from me.

113

THE GHOSTS OF CULLODEN

COME DAWN, ROGER STOOD BEHIND the low earthwork by his father-in-law, musket in hand, straining his eyes to peer into the mist. The sounds of an army came to him clearly; sound carried through fog. The measured tramp of feet, though they were not marching in any sort of unison. The clank of metal and rustle of cloth. Voices—the shouts of officers, he thought, beginning to rally their troops.

They would by now have found the deserted campfires; they’d know that the enemy now lay across the creek.

The smell of tallow was strong in the air; Alexander Lillington’s men had greased the support timbers, after the planks had been removed. He’d been grasping his gun for hours, it seemed, and yet the metal was still cold in his hand—his fingers were stiff.

“D’ye hear the shouting?” Jamie nodded toward the mist that hid the far bank. The wind had changed; no more than disconnected Gaelic phrases came from beyond the ghostly cypress trunks, and I made no sense of them. Jamie did.

“Whoever’s leading them—I think it’s McLeod, by the voice—he means to charge the creek,” he said.

“But that’s suicide!” Roger blurted. “Surely they know—surely someone’s seen the bridge?”

“They are Highlanders,” Jamie said, still softly, eyes on the ramrod he pulled from its rest. “They will follow the man to whom they vow loyalty, even though he leads them to their death.”

Ian was nearby; he glanced quickly toward Roger, then over his shoulder, where Kenny and Murdo Lindsay stood with Ronnie Sinclair and the McGillivrays. They stood in a casual knot, but every hand touched a musket or rifle, and their eyes darted toward Jamie every few seconds.

They had joined Colonel Lillington’s men on this side of the creek; Lillington was passing to and fro through the men, eyes darting back and forth, assessing readiness.

Lillington stopped abruptly at sight of Jamie, and Roger felt a nervous qualm in the pit of his stomach. Randall Lillington had been a second cousin of the Colonel’s.

Alexander Lillington wasn’t a man to hide his thoughts; it had quite evidently dawned on him that his own men were forty feet away and that Jamie’s men stood between him and them. His eyes darted toward the mist, where Donald McLeod’s bellowing was being answered by increasing roars from the Highlanders with him, then back at Jamie.

“What does he say?” Lillington demanded, rising on his toes and frowning toward the far bank, as though concentration might yield him meaning.

“He says to them that courage will carry the day.” Jamie glanced toward the crest of the rise behind them. Mother Covington’s long black snout was just visible through the mist. “Would that it could,” he added quietly in Gaelic.

Alexander Lillington reached out suddenly and grabbed Jamie’s wrist.

“And you, sir?” he said, suspicion open in eyes and voice. “Are you not a Highlander, as well?”

Lillington’s other hand was on the pistol in his belt. Roger felt the casual talk among the men behind him stop, and glanced back. All Jamie’s men were watching, with expressions of great interest but no particular alarm. Evidently, they felt Jamie could deal with Lillington by himself.

“I ask you, sir—to whom is your loyalty?”

“Where do I stand, sir?” Jamie said with elaborate politeness. “On this side of the creek, or on that?”

A few men grinned at that, but forbore to laugh; the question of loyalty was a raw one still, and no man would risk it unnecessarily.

Lillington’s grip on his wrist relaxed, but did not yet let go, though he acknowledged Jamie’s statement with a nod.

“Well enough. But how are we to know that you do not mean to turn and fall upon us in battle? For you are a Highlander, are you not? And your men?”

“I am a Highlander,” Jamie said bleakly. He glanced once more at the far bank, where occasional glimpses of tartan showed through the mist, and then back. The shouting echoed from the fog. “And I am the sire of Americans.” He pulled his wrist from Lillington’s grasp.

“And I give ye leave, sir,” he continued evenly, lifting his rifle and standing it on its butt, “to stand behind me and thrust your sword through my heart if I fire amiss.”

With that, he turned his back on Lillington and loaded his gun, ramming ball, powder, and patch with great precision.

A voice bellowed from the fog, and a hundred other throats took up the cry in Gaelic. “KING GEORGE AND BROADSWORDS!”

The last Highland charge had begun.

THEY BURST OUT OF the mist a hundred feet from the bridge, howling, and his heart jumped in his chest. For an instant—an instant only—he felt he ran with them, and the wind of it snapped in his shirt, cold on his body.

But he stood stock-still, Murtagh beside him, looking cynically on. Roger Mac coughed, and Jamie raised the rifle to his shoulder, waiting.

“Fire!” The volley struck them just before they reached the gutted bridge; half a dozen fell in the road, but the others came on. Then the cannon fired from the hill above, one and then the other, and the concussion of their discharge was like a shove against his back.

He had fired with the volley, aiming above their heads. Now swung the rifle down and pulled the ramrod. There was screaming on both sides, the shriek of wounded and the stronger bellowing of battle.

“A righ! A righ!” The King! The King!

McLeod was at the bridge; he’d been hit, there was blood on his coat, but he brandished sword and targe, and ran onto the bridge, stabbing his sword into the wood to anchor himself.

The cannon spoke again, but were aimed too high; most of the Highlanders had crowded down to the banks of the creek—some were in the water, clinging to the bridge supports, inching across. More were on the timbers, slipping, using their swords like McLeod to keep their balance.

“Fire!” and he fired, powder smoke blending with the fog. The cannon had the range, they spoke one-two, and he felt the blast push against him, felt as though the shot had torn through him. Most of those on the bridge were in the water now, more threw themselves flat upon the timbers, trying to wriggle their way across, only to be picked off by the muskets, every man firing at will from the redoubt.

He loaded, and fired.

There he is, said a voice, dispassionate; he had no notion was it his, or Murtagh’s.

McLeod was dead, his body floating in the creek for an instant before the weight of the black water pulled him down. Many men were struggling in that water—the creek was deep here, and mortal cold. Few Highlanders could swim.

He glimpsed Allan MacDonald, Flora’s husband, pale and staring in the crowd on the shore.

Major Donald MacDonald floundered, rising halfway in the water. His wig was gone and his head showed bare and wounded, blood running from his scalp down over his face. His teeth were bared, clenched in agony or ferocity, there was no telling which. Another shot struck him and he fell with a splash—but rose again, slow, slow, and then pitched forward into water too deep to stand, but rose yet again, splashing frantically, spraying blood from his shattered mouth in the effort to breathe.

Let it be you, then, lad, said the dispassionate voice. He raised his rifle and shot MacDonald cleanly through the throat. He fell backward and sank at once.

IT WAS OVER in minutes, the fog thick with powder smoke, the black creek choked with the dying and dead.

“King George and broadswords, eh?” said Caswell, bleakly surveying the damage. “Broadswords against cannon. Poor buggers.”

On the other side, all was confusion. Those who had not fallen at the bridge were in flight. Already, men on this side of the creek were carrying the timbers down to repair the bridge. Those who were running wouldn’t get far.

He should go, too, summon his men to help in pursuit. But he stood as though turned to stone, the cold wind singing in his ears.

JACK RANDALL stood still. His sword was in his hand, but he made no effort to raise it. Only stood there, that odd smile on his lips, dark eyes burning in Jamie’s own.

If he had been able to break that gaze . . . but he couldn’t, and so caught the blur of movement behind Randall. Murtagh, running, bounding tussocks like a sheep. And the glint of his godfather’s blade—had he seen that, or only imagined it? No matter; he’d known without doubt from the c*ck of Murtagh’s arm, and seen before it happened the murderous strike come upward toward the Captain’s red-clad back.

But Randall spun, warned maybe by some change in his eyes, the sob of Murtagh’s breath—or only by a soldier’s instinct. Too late to avoid the thrust, but soon enough that the dirk missed its fatal aim into the kidney. Randall had grunted with the blow—Christ, he could hear it—and jerked aside staggering, but turning as he fell, grasping Murtagh’s wrist, dragging him down in a shower of spray from the wet gorse they fell through.

They had rolled away into a hollow, locked together, struggling, and he had flung himself through the clinging plants in pursuit, some weapon—what, what had he held?—in his fist.

But the feel of it faded against his skin; he felt the weight of the thing in his hand, but there was no shape of hilt or trigger to remind him, and it was gone again.

Leaving him with that one image: Murtagh. Murtagh, teeth clenched and bared as he struck. Murtagh, running, coming to save him.

HE BECAME SLOWLY aware again of where he was. There was a hand on his arm—Roger Mac, white-faced, but steady.

“I am going to see to them,” Roger Mac said, with a brief nod toward the creek. “You’re all right, yourself?”

“Aye, of course,” he said, though with the feeling he so often had in waking from a dream—as though he were not in fact quite real.

Roger Mac nodded and turned to walk away. Then suddenly turned back, and laying his hand once more on Jamie’s arm, said very quietly, “Ego te absolvo.” Then turned again and went resolutely to tend the dying and bless the dead.

114

AMANDA

FROM L’Oignon–Intelligencer, May 15, 1776

INDEPENDENCE!!

In the Wake of the famous Victory at Moore’s Creek Bridge, the Fourth Provincial Congress of North Carolina has voted to adopt the Halifax Resolves. These Resolutions authorize Delegates to the Continental Congress to concur with the other Delegates of the other Colonies in declaring Independency and forming foreign Alliances, reserving to this Colony the sole and exclusive Right of forming a Constitution and Laws for this Colony, and by Passage of the Halifax Resolves, North Carolina thus becomes the first Colony officially to indorse Independency.

THE FIRST SHIP of a Fleet commanded by Sir Peter Parker has arrived at the Mouth of the Cape Fear River, upon the eighteenth of April. The Fleet consists of nine Ships in total, and is bringing British Troops to pacify and unite the Colony, by the Word of Governor Josiah Martin.

STOLEN: Goods amounting to twenty-six Pounds, ten Shillings and Fourpence in Total, abstracted from the Warehouse of Mr. Neil Forbes on Water Street. Thieves broke a Hole in the Back of the Warehouse during the Night of May twelfth, and carried the Goods away by means of a Wagon. Two Men, one White, one Black, were seen driving a Wagon away with a Team of bay Mules. Any Word pertaining to this atrocious Crime will be generously Rewarded. Apply to W. Jones, in care of the Gull and Oyster on the Market Square.

BORN, to Captain Roger MacKenzie of Fraser’s Ridge and his lady, a girl, on the twenty-first of April. Child and Mother are reported in good Health, the Child’s name given as Amanda Claire Hope MacKenzie.

Roger had never felt so terrified as he did when his newborn daughter was placed in his arms for the first time. Minutes old, skin tender and perfect as an orchid’s, she was so delicate he feared he would leave fingerprints on her—but so alluring that he had to touch her, drawing the back of his knuckle gently, so gently, down the perfect curve of her fat little cheek, stroking the black cobweb silk of her hair with an unbelieving forefinger.

“She looks like you.” Brianna, sweaty, disheveled, deflated—and so beautiful he could scarcely bear to look at her—lay back against the pillows with a grin that came and went like the Cheshire Cat’s—never entirely absent, even though it faded now and then from tiredness.

“Does she?” He studied the tiny face with complete absorption. Not for any sign of himself—only because he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

He had come to know her intimately, through the months of being roused suddenly by pokes and kicks, of watching the liquid heave of Brianna’s belly, of feeling the little one swell and retreat under his hands as he lay behind his wife, cupping her stomach and making jokes.

But he’d known her as Little Otto, the private name they’d used for the unborn child. Otto had had a distinct personality—and for a moment, he felt a ridiculous pang of loss, realizing that Otto was gone. This tiny, exquisite being was someone entirely new.

“Is she Marjorie, do you think?” Bree was lifting her head, peering at the blanket-wrapped bundle. They’d discussed names for months, making lists, arguing, making fun of each other’s choices, choosing ridiculous things like Montgomery or Agatha. At last, tentatively, they’d decided that if it was a boy, the name might be Michael; if a girl, Marjorie, after Roger’s mother.

His daughter opened her eyes quite suddenly and looked at him. Her eyes were slanted; he wondered if they would stay that way, like her mother’s. A sort of soft, middle blue, like the sky in mid-morning—nothing remarkable, at a glance, but when you looked straight into it . . . vast, illimitable.

“No,” he said softly, staring into those eyes. Could she see him yet? he wondered.

“No,” he said again. “Her name’s Amanda.”

I HADN’T SAID anything to begin with. It was a common thing in newborns—especially babies born a bit early, as Amanda had been—nothing to worry about.

The ductus arteriosus is a small blood vessel that in the fetus joins the aorta to the pulmonary artery. Babies have lungs, of course, but prior to birth don’t use them; all their oxygen comes from the placenta, via the umbilical cord. Ergo, no need for blood to be circulated to the lungs, save to nourish the developing tissue—and so the ductus arteriosus bypasses the pulmonary circulation.

At birth, though, the baby takes its first breath, and oxygen sensors in this small vessel cause it to contract—and close permanently. With the ductus arteriosus closed, blood heads out from the heart to the lungs, picks up oxygen, and comes back to be pumped out to the rest of the body. A neat and elegant system—save that it doesn’t always work properly.

The ductus arteriosus doesn’t always close. If it doesn’t, blood still does go to the lungs, of course—but the bypass is still there. Too much blood goes to the lungs, in some cases, and floods them. The lungs swell, become congested, and with diverted blood flow to the body, there are problems with oxygenation—which can become acute.

I moved my stethoscope over the tiny chest, ear pressed to it, listening intently. It was my best stethoscope, a model from the nineteenth century called a Pinard—a bell with a flattened disc at one end, to which I pressed my ear. I had one carved of wood; this one was made of pewter; Brianna had sand-cast it for me.

In fact, though, the murmur was so distinct that I felt as though I barely needed a stethoscope. Not a click or a misplaced beat, not a too-long pause or a leaky swish—there were any number of unusual sounds a heart could make, and auscultation was the first step of diagnosis. Atrial defects, ventral defects, malformed valves—all have specific murmurs, some occurring between beats, some blending with the heart sounds.

When the ductus arteriosus fails to close, it’s said to be “patent”—open. A patent ductus arteriosus makes a continuous shushing murmur, soft, but audible with a little concentration, particularly in the supraclavicular and cervical regions.

For the hundredth time in two days, I bent close, ear pressed to the Pinard as I moved it over Amanda’s neck and chest, hoping against hope that the sound would have disappeared.

It hadn’t.

“Turn your head, lovey, yes, that’s right. . . .” I breathed, delicately turning her head away from me, Pinard pressed to the side of her neck. It was hard to get the stethoscope close to her fat little neck . . . there. The murmur increased. Amanda made a little breathy noise that sounded like a giggle. I brought her head back the other way—the sound decreased.

“Oh, bloody hell,” I said softly, so as not to scare her. I put down the Pinard and picked her up, cradling her against my shoulder. We were alone; Brianna had gone up to my room for a nap, and everyone else was out.

I carried her to the surgery window and looked out; it was a beautiful day in the mountain spring. The wrens were nesting under the eaves again; I could hear them above me, rustling round with sticks, conversing in small, clear chirps.

“Bird,” I said, my lips close to her tiny seashell of an ear. “Noisy bird.” She squirmed lazily, and farted in reply.

“Right,” I said, smiling despite myself. I held her out a little, so I could look into her face—lovely, perfect—but not as fat as it had been when she was born a week before.

It was perfectly normal for babies to lose a little weight at first, I told myself. It was.

A patent ductus arteriosus may have no symptoms, beyond that odd, continuous murmur. But it may. A bad one deprives the child of needed oxygen; the main symptoms are pulmonary—wheezing; rapid, shallow breathing; bad color—and failure to thrive, because of the energy burned up in the effort to get enough oxygen.

“Just let Grannie have a little listen again,” I said, laying her down on the quilt I’d spread over the surgery table. She gurgled and kicked as I picked up the Pinard and placed it on her chest again, moving it over neck, shoulder, arm . . .

“Oh, Jesus,” I whispered, closing my eyes. “Don’t let it be bad.” But the sound of the murmur seemed to grow louder, drowning my prayers.

I opened my eyes to see Brianna, standing in the doorway.

“I KNEW THERE was something wrong,” she said steadily, wiping Mandy’s bottom with a damp rag before rediapering her. “She doesn’t nurse like Jemmy did. She acts hungry, but she’ll only nurse for a few minutes before she falls asleep. Then she wakes up and fusses again a few minutes later.”

She sat down and offered Mandy a breast, as though in illustration of the difficulty. Sure enough, the baby latched on with every evidence of starvation. As she nursed, I picked up one of the tiny fists, unfolding her fingers. The minute nails were faintly tinged with blue.

“So,” Brianna said calmly, “what happens now?”

“I don’t know.” This was the usual answer in most cases, truth be told—but it was always unsatisfactory, and clearly not less so now. “Sometimes there are no symptoms, or only very minor ones,” I said, trying for amendment. “If the opening is very large, and you have pulmonary symptoms—and we have—then . . . she might be all right, only not thriving—not growing properly, because of the feeding difficulties. Or”—I took a deep breath, steeling myself—“she could develop heart failure. Or pulmonary hypertension—that’s a very high blood pressure in the lungs—”

“I know what it is,” Bree said, her voice tight. “Or?”

“Or infective endocarditis. Or—not.”

“Will she die?” she asked bluntly, looking up at me. Her jaw was set, but I saw the way she held Amanda closer, waiting for an answer. I could give her nothing but the truth.

“Probably.” The word hung in the air between us, hideous.

“I can’t say for sure, but—”

“Probably,” Brianna echoed, and I nodded, turning away, unable to look at her face. Without such modern assistances as an echocardiogram, I of course couldn’t judge the extent of the problem. But I had not only the evidence of my eyes and ears, but what I had felt passing from her skin to mine—that sense of not-rightness, that eerie conviction that comes now and then.

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