An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 101

   

A British private arrived an hour after my conversation with Lieutenant Ransom, bearing four buckets, which he dropped unceremoniously at my side without remark before heading back to the road. Two hours later, a sweating orderly came trundling through the trampled wheat with two large haversacks filled with bandages. Interestingly enough, he headed directly for me, which made me wonder just how William had described me.

“Thank you.” I took the sacks of bandages with gratitude. “Do you—do you think we might get some food soon?”

The orderly was looking over the field, grimacing. Of course—the invalids were likely about to become his responsibility. He turned back to me, though, civil but obviously very tired.

“I doubt it, ma’am. The supply train is two days behind us, and the troops are living off what they’re carrying or what they find as they go.” He nodded toward the road; on the other side, I could see a number of English soldiers making camp. “I’m sorry,” he added formally, and turned to go.

“Oh.” He stopped, and taking the strap of his canteen off, handed it to me. It was heavy and gurgled enticingly. “Lieutenant Ellesmere said I was to give you this.” He smiled briefly, the lines of tiredness easing. “He said you looked hot.”

“Lieutenant Ellesmere.” That must be William’s title, I realized. “Thank you. And please thank the lieutenant, if you see him.” He was clearly on the point of departure, but I couldn’t help asking, “How did you know who I was?”

His smile deepened as he glanced at my head.

“The lieutenant said you’d be the curly-wig giving orders like a sergeant-major.” He looked round the field once more, shaking his head. “Good luck, ma’am.”

THREE MEN DIED before sunset. Walter Woodcock was still alive, but barely. We’d moved as many men as we could into the shade of the trees along the edge of the field, and I’d divided the seriously wounded into small groups, each allocated a bucket and two or three women or walking invalids to tend them. I’d also designated a latrine area and done my best to separate the infectious cases from those who were fevered from wounds or malaria. There were three suffering from what I hoped was only “summer ague,” and one who I feared might have diphtheria. I sat beside him—a young wheelwright from New Jersey—checking the membranes of his throat at intervals, giving him as much water as he would take. Not from my canteen, though.

William Ransom, bless his soul, had filled his canteen with brandy.

I uncorked it and took a sparing sip. I’d poured out small cupfuls for each small group, adding each cupful to a bucket of water—but had kept a bit for my own use. It wasn’t selfishness; for better or worse, I was in charge of the captives for the moment. I had to stay on my feet.

Or my bottom, as the case might be, I thought, leaning back against the bole of an oak tree. My feet ached all the way to my knees, my back and ribs twinged with each breath, and I had to close my eyes now and then to control the dizziness. But I was sitting still, for what seemed like the first time in several days.

The soldiers across the road were cooking their meager rations; my mouth watered and my stomach contracted painfully at the scent of roasting meat and flour. Mrs. Wellman’s little boy was whining with hunger, his head laid on his mother’s lap. She was stroking his hair mechanically, her eyes fixed on her husband’s body, which lay a little way away. We had no sheet or blanket with which to shroud him, but someone had given her a handkerchief to cover his face. The flies were very bad.

The air had cooled, thank God, but was still heavy with the threat of rain; thunder was a constant faint rumble over the horizon and it would probably pour sometime during the night. I plucked the sweat-soaked fabric away from my chest; I doubted it would have time to dry before we were drenched with rain. I eyed the encampment across the road, with its lines of small tents and brush shelters, with envy. There was a slightly larger officers’ tent as well, though several officers had taken up temporary quarters in the commandeered cabin.

I ought to go there, I thought. See the most senior officer present, and beg for food for the children, at least. When the shadow of that tall pine sapling touched my foot, I decided. Then I’d go. In the meantime, I uncorked the canteen and took another small swallow.

Movement caught my eye, and I looked up. The unmistakable figure of Lieutenant Ransom stalked out of the tents and came across the road. It lifted my heart a little to see him, though the sight of him renewed my worry for Jamie—and reminded me, with a small sharp pang, of Brianna. At least she was safe, I thought. Roger and Jemmy and Amanda, too. I repeated their names to myself as a small refrain of comfort, counting them like coins. Four of them safe.

William had undone his stock, and his hair was untidy, his coat stained with sweat and dirt. Evidently the pursuit was wearing on the British army, too.

He glanced round the field, spotted me, and turned purposefully in my direction. I got my feet under me, struggling upward against the press of gravity like a hippopotamus rising from a swamp.

I’d barely got to my feet and raised a hand to smooth my hair when someone else’s hand poked me in the back. I started violently but luckily didn’t scream.

“It’s me, Auntie,” Young Ian whispered from the shadows behind me. “Come with—oh, Jesus.”

William had come within ten paces of me and, raising his head, had spied Ian. He leapt forward and grabbed me by the arm, yanking me away from the trees. I yelped, as Ian had an equally firm grip on the other arm and was yanking lustily in that direction.

“Let her go!” William barked.

“The devil I will,” Ian replied hotly. “You let go!”

Mrs. Wellman’s little son was on his feet, staring round-eyed and open-mouthed into the forest.

“Mama, Mama! Indians!”

Shrieks rose from the women near us, and everyone began a mad scramble away from the forest, leaving the wounded to their own devices.

“Ah, bugger!” Ian said, letting go in disgust. William didn’t, jerking me with such force that I crashed into him, whereupon he promptly wrapped his arms about my waist and dragged me a little way into the field.

“Will ye bloody leave go of my auntie?” Ian said crossly, emerging from the trees.

“You!” said William. “What are you—well, never mind that. Your aunt, you say?” He looked down at me. “Are you? His aunt? Wait—no, of course you are.”

“I am,” I agreed, pushing at his arms. “Let go.”

His grasp loosened a little, but he didn’t release me.

“How many others are in there?” he demanded, lifting his chin toward the forest.

“If there were any others, ye’d be deid,” Ian informed him. “It’s just me. Give her to me.”

“I can’t do that.” But there was an uncertain note in William’s voice, and I felt his head turn, glancing toward the cabin. So far, no one had come out, but I could see some of the sentries near the road shifting to and fro, wondering what the matter was. The other captives had stopped running, but were quivering with incipient panic, eyes frantically searching the shadows among the trees.

I rapped William sharply on the wrist with my knuckles and he let go and took a step back. My head was spinning again—not least from the very peculiar sensation of being embraced by a total stranger whose body felt so familiar to me. He was thinner than Jamie, but—

“D’ye owe me a life or not?” Not waiting for an answer, Ian jerked a thumb at me. “Aye, then—it’s hers.”

“Hardly a question of her life,” William said, rather crossly, with an awkward nod in my direction, acknowledging that I might have a possible interest in this discussion. “Surely you don’t suppose we kill women?”

“No,” Ian said evenly. “I dinna suppose it at all. I ken verra well that ye do.”

“We do?” William echoed. He looked surprised, but a sudden flush burned in his cheeks.

“You do,” I assured him. “General Howe hanged three women at the head of his army in New Jersey, as an example.”

He seemed completely nonplused by this.

“Well… but—they were spies!”

“You think I don’t look like a spy?” I inquired. “I’m much obliged for your good opinion, but I don’t know that General Burgoyne would share it.” There were, of course, a good many other women who’d died at the hands of the British army, if less officially, but this didn’t seem the moment to make an account of them.

“General Burgoyne is a gentleman,” William said stiffly. “So am I.”

“Good,” Ian said briefly. “Turn your back for thirty seconds, and we’ll trouble ye nay more.”

I don’t know whether he would have done it or not, but just then, Indian cries tore the air, coming from the far side of the road. Further frantic screams came from the captives, and I bit my own tongue in order not to scream, too. A tongue of fire shot up into the lavender sky from the top of the officers’ tent. As I gaped, two more flaming comets shot across the sky. It looked like the descent of the Holy Ghost, but before I could mention this interesting observation, Ian had seized my arm and jerked me nearly off my feet.

I managed to snatch up the canteen as we passed, on a dead run for the forest. Ian grabbed it from me, almost draggging me in his haste. Gunfire and screams were breaking out behind us, and the skin all down my back contracted in fear.

“This way.” I followed him without heed for anything underfoot, stumbling and twisting my ankles in the dusk as we threw ourselves headlong into the brush, expecting every moment to be shot in the back.

Such is the brain’s capacity for self-amusement, I was able to imagine in vivid detail my wounding, capture, descent into infection and sepsis, and eventual lingering death—but not before being obliged to witness the capture and execution of both Jamie—I had recognized the source of the Indian screams and flaming arrows without difficulty—and Ian.

It was only as we slowed—perforce; I had such a stitch in my side that I could barely breathe—that I thought of other things. The sick and wounded I had left behind. The young wheelwright with the bright red throat. Walter Woodcock, teetering over the abyss.

You couldn’t give any of them more than a hand to hold, I told myself fiercely, limping as I stumbled after Ian. It was true; I knew it was true. But I also knew that now and then a hand in the dark gave a sick man something to cling to, against the rushing wind of the dark angel. Sometimes it was enough; sometimes it wasn’t. But the ache of those left behind dragged at me like a sea anchor, and I wasn’t sure whether the wetness streaming down my cheeks was sweat or tears.

It was full dark now, and the boiling clouds covered the moon, allowing only fitful glimpses of its brilliant light. Ian had slowed still more, to let me keep up with him, and took my arm now and then to help me over rocks or across creeks.

“How… far?” I gasped, stopping once more for breath.

“Not much,” Jamie’s voice replied softly beside me. “Are ye all right, Sassenach?”

My heart gave a tremendous bump, then settled back in my chest as he groped for my hand, then gathered me briefly against himself. I had a moment of relief so profound that I thought my bones had dissolved.

“Yes,” I said, into his chest, and with great effort lifted my head. “You?”

“Well enough now,” he said, passing a hand over my head, touching my cheek. “Can ye walk just a bit further?”

I straightened, swaying a little. It had begun to rain; heavy drops plopped into my hair, cold and startling on my scalp.

“Ian—have you got that canteen?”

There was a soft pop! and Ian set the canteen in my hand. Very carefully, I tilted it into my mouth.

“Is that brandy?” Jamie said, sounding astonished.

“Mmm-hmm.” I swallowed, as slowly as I could, and handed the canteen to him. There were a couple of swallows left.

“Where did ye get it?”

“Your son gave it to me,” I said. “Where are we going?”

There was a long pause from the darkness, and then the sound of brandy being drunk.

“South,” he said at last, and taking my hand, led me on into the wood, the rain whispering on the leaves all round us.

SOAKED AND SHIVERING, we caught up to a militia unit just before dawn, and were nearly shot in mistake by a nervous sentry. By that point, I didn’t really care. Being dead was immensely preferable to the prospect of taking one more step.

Our bona fides being established, Jamie disappeared briefly and came back with a blanket and three fresh corn dodgers. I inhaled my share of this ambrosia in four seconds flat, wrapped myself in the blanket, and lay down under a tree where the ground was damp but not soggy and so thick with dead leaves that it gave spongily beneath me.

“I’ll be back in a bit, Sassenach,” Jamie whispered, squatting beside me. “Dinna go anywhere, aye?”

“Don’t worry—I’ll be here. If I move a muscle before Christmas, it will be too soon.” A faint warmth was already returning to my shivering muscles, and sleep was pulling me down with the inexorability of quicksand.

He gave the breath of a laugh, and reached out a hand, tucking the blanket in around my shoulders. The dawn light showed the deep lines that the night had carved in his face, the smudges of dirt and exhaustion that stained the strong bones. The wide mouth, compressed for so long, had relaxed now in the relief of momentary safety, looking oddly young and vulnerable.

“He looks like you,” I whispered. His hand stopped moving, still on my shoulder, and he looked down, long lashes hiding his eyes.

“I know,” he said, very softly. “Tell me of him. Later, when there’s time.” I heard his footsteps, a rustle in damp leaves, and fell asleep, a prayer for Walter Woodcock half finished in my mind.

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