An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 100

   

I didn’t know how long it had been since the small group we had just discovered was attacked by Indians. The bodies were not fresh.

GUARDS WERE POSTED at night. Those not on watch slept as though poleaxed, exhausted by a day of flight—if anything so cumbrous and labored could be described by such a graceful word. I woke just past dawn from dreams of Snow White trees, gape-mouthed and grasping, to find Jamie crouched beside me, a hand on my arm.

“Ye’d best come, a nighean,” he said softly.

Mrs. Raven had cut her throat with a penknife.

There wasn’t time to dig a grave. I straightened her limbs and closed her eyes, and we piled rocks and branches over her before staggering back to the rut that passed for a road through the wilderness.

AS DARKNESS CAME up through the trees, we began to hear them. High ululating shrieks. Hunting wolves.

“March on, march on! Indians!” one of the militiamen shouted.

As if summoned by the shout, a bloodcurdling shriek wavered through the darkness nearby, and the stumbling retreat turned at once to headlong panic, men dropping their bundles and pushing one another out of the way in their haste to flee.

There were shrieks from the refugees, too, though these were quickly stifled.

“Off the road,” Jamie said, low and fierce, and began pushing the slow and bewildered into the woods. “They may not know where we are. Yet.”

And then again, they might.

“D’ye have your death song ready, Uncle?” Ian whispered. He had caught us up the day before, and now he and Jamie were pressed close on either side of me, where we had taken cover behind a huge fallen trunk.

“Oh, I’ll sing them a death song, if it comes to that,” Jamie muttered, half under his breath, and took out one of the pistols from his belt.

“You can’t sing,” I said. I hadn’t meant to be funny—I was so frightened that I said by it reflex, the first thing that came into my mind—and he didn’t laugh.

“That’s true,” he said. “Well, then.”

He primed the pistol, closed the pan and thrust it into his belt.

“Dinna be afraid, a nighean,” Jamie whispered, and I saw his throat work as he swallowed. “I’ll not let them take ye. Not alive.” He touched the pistol at his belt.

I stared at him, then at the pistol. I hadn’t thought it possible to be more afraid.

I felt suddenly as though my spinal cord had snapped; my limbs wouldn’t move, and my bowels very literally turned to water. I understood in that moment exactly what had led Mrs. Raven to slash her own throat.

Ian whispered something to Jamie and slid away, silent as a shadow.

It occurred to me, belatedly, that by taking time to shoot me if we should be overrun, Jamie was very likely to fall alive into the hands of the Indians himself. And I was sufficiently terrorized that I couldn’t tell him not to do it.

I took hold of my courage with both hands and swallowed hard.

“Go!” I said. “They won’t—they probably won’t harm women.” My outer skirt hung in tatters, as did my jacket, and the whole ensemble was covered in mud, leaves, and the small bloody splotches of slow-moving mosquitoes—but I was still identifiably female.

“The devil I will,” he said briefly.

“Uncle.” Ian’s voice came softly out of the darkness. “It’s not Indians.”

“What?” I made no sense of this, but Jamie straightened abruptly.

“It’s a redcoat, running alongside us, shrieking like an Indian. Driving us.”

Jamie swore under his breath. It was almost completely dark by now; I could see only a few vague shapes, presumably those of the people with us. I heard a whimper, almost underfoot, but when I looked, could see no one.

The shrieks came again, now from the other side. If the man was driving us—did he know we were there? If so, where did he mean to drive us? I could feel Jamie’s indecision—which way? A second, perhaps two, and he took me by the arm, pulling me deeper into the wood.

We ran slap into a large group of refugees within minutes; they had stopped dead, too terrified to move in any direction. They huddled together, the women clutching their children, hands clasped tight over the little ones’ mouths, breathing “Hush!” like the wind.

“Leave them,” Jamie said in my ear, and tightened his grip on my arm. I turned to go with him, and suddenly a hand seized my other arm. I screamed, and everyone near erupted in screams by sheer reflex. Suddenly the wood around us was alive with moving forms and shouts.

The soldier—it was a British soldier; from so close I could see the buttons on his uniform and felt the thump of his cartridge box as it swung, striking me in the hip—leaned down to peer at me and grinned, his breath stale and scented with decay.

“Stand still, love,” he said. “You’re going nowhere now.”

My heart was pounding so hard in my ears that it was a full minute before I realized that the grip on my other arm was gone. Jamie had vanished.

WE WERE MARCHED back up the road in a tight group, moving slowly through the night. They let us drink at a stream at daylight but kept us moving until the early afternoon, by which time even the most able-bodied were ready to drop.

We were herded, none too gently, into a field. Farmer’s wife that I was, I winced to see the stalks—only weeks away from harvest—being trampled underfoot, the fragile gold of the wheat cut and mangled into black mud. There was a cabin among the trees at the far end of the field; I saw a girl run out onto the porch, clap a hand to her mouth in horror, and disappear back inside.

Three British officers came across the field, heading for the cabin, ignoring the seething mass of invalids, women, and children, all of whom were milling to and fro, with no idea what to do next. I wiped the sweat out of my eyes with the end of my kerchief, tucked it back into my bodice, and looked round for anyone who might be nominally in charge.

None of our own officers or able-bodied men seemed to have been captured; there had been only a couple of surgeons superintending the removal of the invalids, and I hadn’t seen either one in two days. Neither one was here. All right, then, I thought grimly, and walked up to the nearest British soldier, who was surveying the chaos through narrowed eyes, musket in hand.

“We need water,” I said to him without preamble. “There’s a stream just beyond those trees. May I take three or four women to fetch back water for the sick and wounded?”

He was sweating, too; the faded red wool of his coat was black under the arms, and melted rice powder from his hair was rimed in the creases of his forehead. He grimaced, indicating that he didn’t want to deal with me, but I simply stared at him, as close as I could get. He glanced around, in hopes of finding someone to send me to, but the three officers had disappeared into the cabin. He raised one shoulder in surrender, looking away.

“Aye, go on, then,” he muttered, and turned his back, stalwartly guarding the road, along which new prisoners were still being herded.

A quick traverse of the field turned up three buckets and a like number of sensible women, worried but not hysterical. I sent them to the stream and began to quarter the field, making a quick assessment of the situation—as much in order to keep my own worry at bay as because there was no one else to do it.

Would we be kept here long? I wondered. If we would be held here for more than a few hours, sanitation trenches must be dug—but the soldiers would have the same need. I’d leave that for the army to deal with, then. Water was coming; we’d need to run relays to the stream nonstop for a bit. Shelter… I glanced at the sky; it was hazy but clear. Those who could move on their own were already helping to drag the desperately sick or wounded into the shade of the trees along one side of the field.

Where was Jamie? Had he got away safe?

Above the calls and anxious conversations, I heard now and then the whisper of distant thunder. The air clung to my skin, thick with humidity. They would have to move us somewhere—to the nearest settlement, wherever that might be—but it might take several days. I had no idea where we were.

Had he been captured, too? If so, would they take him to the same place they’d take the invalids?

Chances were that they would release the women, not wishing to feed them. The women would stay with their sick men, though—or most of them would—sharing whatever food was available.

I was walking slowly across the field, conducting a mental triage—the man on the stretcher there was going to die, probably before nightfall; I could hear the rales of his breathing from six feet away—when I caught sight of movement on the cabin’s porch.

The family—two adult women, two teenagers, three children, and a baby in arms—was leaving, clutching baskets, blankets, and such bits of their household as could be carried. One of the officers was with them; he took them across the field and spoke with one of the guards, evidently instructing him to let the women pass. One of the women paused at the edge of the road and looked back—just once. The others went straight on, without a backward glance. Where were their men?

Where are mine?

“Hallo,” I said, smiling at a man with a recently amputated leg. I didn’t know his name but recognized his face; he was one of the few black men at Ticonderoga, a carpenter. I knelt down beside him. His bandages were awry, and the stump was leaking badly. “Bar the leg, how do you feel?” His skin was pale gray and clammy as a wet sheet, but he gave me a feeble grin in return.

“My left hand doesn’t hurt much right now.” He lifted it in illustration, but dropped it like a chunk of lead, lacking strength to hold it up.

“That’s good,” I said, sliding my fingers under his thigh to lift it. “Let me fix this for you—we’ll have you some water in a minute.”

“That’d be nice,” he murmured, and shut his eyes against the sun.

The flapping end of the loose bandage was twisted up like a snake’s tongue, stiff with dried blood, and the dressing awry. The dressing itself, a poultice of flaxseed and turpentine, was soggy, pink with leaking blood and lymph. No choice but to reuse it, though.

“What’s your name?”

“Walter.” His eyes were still closed, his breath coming in shallow gasps. So was mine; the thick, hot air was like a pressure bandage round my chest. “Walter… Woodcock.”

“Pleased to know you, Walter. My name’s Claire Fraser.”

“Know you,” he murmured. “You’re Big Red’s lady. He make it out of the fort?”

“Yes,” I said, and blotted my face against my shoulder to keep the sweat out of my eyes. “He’s all right.”

Dear God, let him be all right.

The English officer was coming back toward the cabin, passing within a few feet of me. I glanced up, and my hands froze.

He was tall, slender but broad-shouldered, and I would have known that long stride, that unself-conscious grace, and that arrogant tilt of the head anywhere. He paused, frowning, and turned his head to survey the littered field. His nose was straight as a knife blade, just that tiny bit too long. I closed my eyes for an instant, dizzy, sure I was hallucinating—but opened them again at once, knowing that I wasn’t.

“William Ransom?” I blurted, and his head jerked toward me, surprised. Blue eyes, dark blue, Fraser cat-eyes, narrowed to a slant against the sun.

“I, er, beg your pardon.” God, what did you speak to him for? But I couldn’t have helped it. My fingers were pressed against Walter’s leg, holding the bandage; I could feel his femoral pulse against my fingertips, bumping as erratically as my own.

“Do I know you, ma’am?” William asked, with the shadow of a bow.

“Well, yes, you do,” I said, rather apologetically. “You stayed for a little time with my family, some years ago. A place called Fraser’s Ridge.”

His face changed at once at the name, and his gaze sharpened, focusing on me with interest.

“Why, yes,” he said slowly. “I recall. You are Mrs. Fraser, are you not?” I could see his thoughts working, and was fascinated; he hadn’t got Jamie’s way of hiding what he thought—or if he did, wasn’t using it. I could see him wondering—nice, well-mannered boy that he was—what the proper social response to this awkward situation might be, and—a quick glance over his shoulder at the cabin—how the demands of his duty might conflict with it.

His shoulders stiffened with decision, but before he could say anything, I leapt in.

“Do you think it might be possible to find some buckets for water? And bandages?” Most of the women had already torn strips from their petticoats to serve this function; much longer, and we’d all be half naked.

“Yes,” he said slowly, and glanced down at Walter, then toward the road. “Buckets, yes. There’s a surgeon with the division behind us; when I have a moment, I’ll send someone back with a request for bandages.”

“And food?” I asked hopefully. I hadn’t eaten more than a handful of half-ripe berries in nearly two days. I wasn’t suffering hunger pangs—my stomach was in knots—but I was having bouts of light-headedness, spots passing before my eyes. No one else was in much better case; we were going to lose a number of the invalids to the heat and simple weakness, if we weren’t given food and shelter soon.

He hesitated, and I saw his eyes flit over the field, obviously estimating numbers.

“That may be… our supply train is—” His lips firmed, and he shook his head. “I’ll see what can be done. Your servant, ma’am.” He bowed politely and turned away, striding toward the road. I watched him go, fascinated, the soggy dressing limp in my hand.

He was dark-haired, though the sun struck a gleam of red from the crown of his head; he wore no powder. His voice had deepened—well, of course it had; he’d been no more than twelve the last time I met him—and the sheer oddness of hearing Jamie speaking in a cultured English accent made me want to laugh, despite our precarious situation and my worry for Jamie and Ian. I shook my head and returned to the task at hand.

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