An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 102

   

THE DESERTER GAME

THE WHORE GRUNTED through the rag clenched in her teeth.

“Nearly done,” I murmured, and ran the backs of my knuckles gently down her calf by way of reassurance before returning to the debridement of the nasty wound in her foot. An officer’s horse had stepped on her as they—and a number of other people and animals—had jostled to drink at a creek during the retreat. I could clearly see the print of the horseshoe nails, black in the red puffy flesh of her instep. The edge of the shoe itself, worn paper-thin and sharp as a knife, had made a deep, curved gash that ran across the metatarsals, vanishing between the fourth and fifth toes.

I’d been afraid I was going to have to remove the little toe—it seemed to be dangling by no more than a shred of skin—but when I examined the foot more closely, I discovered that all the bones were miraculously intact—as nearly as I could tell, without access to an X-ray machine.

The horse’s hoof had driven her foot into the mud of the stream bank, she’d told me; that had likely saved the bones from being crushed. Now if I could manage to stem the infection and didn’t have to amputate the foot, she might just be able to walk again normally. Maybe.

With a degree of cautious hope, I put down the scalpel and reached for a bottle of what I hoped was a penicillin-containing liquid brought with me from the fort. I’d salvaged the barrel optic of Dr. Rawlings’s microscope from the house fire and found it very useful indeed for starting fires—but without the eyepiece, staging mechanism, or mirror, it was of limited use in determining the genus of microorganisms. I could be sure that what I’d grown and filtered was bread mold, all right—but beyond that…

Suppressing a sigh, I poured the liquid generously over the raw flesh I’d just exposed. It wasn’t alcoholic, but the flesh was raw. The whore made a high-pitched noise through the cloth and breathed through her nose like a steam engine, but by the time I’d made a compress of lavender and comfrey and bound up the foot, she was calm, if flushed.

“There,” I said, with a small pat to her leg. “I think that will do nicely now.” I started to say automatically, “Keep it clean,” but bit my tongue. She hadn’t any shoes or stockings and was either walking daily through a wilderness of rocks, dirt, and streams, or living in a filthy camp littered with piles of dung, both human and animal. The bottoms of her feet were hard as horn and black as sin.

“Come and find me in a day or two,” I said instead. If you can, I thought. “I’ll check it and change the dressing.” If I can, I thought, with a glance at the knapsack in the corner where I kept my dwindling stocks of medicaments.

“Thank ’ee kindly,” the whore said, sitting up and putting her foot gingerly to the ground. Judging from the skin of her legs and feet, she was young, though you couldn’t tell from her face. Her skin was weathered, lined with hunger and strain. Her cheekbones were sharp with hunger, and her mouth was drawn in on one side where the teeth were missing—lost to decay or knocked out by a customer or another whore.

“Will ’ee be here for a bit, think?” she asked. “I’ve a friend, like, got the itch.”

“I’ll be here for the night, at least,” I assured her, suppressing a groan as I rose to my feet. “Send your friend; I’ll see what I can do.”

Our group of militia had met with others, forming a large body, and within a few days we began to cross paths with other rebel groups. We were running into fragments of General Schuyler’s and General Arnold’s armies, these also moving south down the Hudson Valley.

We were still moving all day but began to feel secure enough to sleep at night, and with food provided—irregularly, but still food—by the army, my strength began to return. The rain usually came at night, but today it had been raining at dawn, and we had been trudging through mud for hours before some shelter came in sight.

General Arnold’s troops had stripped the farmstead and burnt the house. The barn was heavily charred down one side, but the fire had gone out before consuming the building.

A gust of wind blew through the barn, raising eddies of decayed straw and dirt, whipping our petticoats round our legs. The barn had originally had a plank floor; I could see the lines of the boards, embedded in the dirt. The foragers had taken them for firewood, but it had been too much trouble for them to knock down the barn, thank God.

Some of the refugees fleeing Ticonderoga had sought shelter here; more would be along before nightfall. A mother with two small, exhausted children slept curled by the far wall; her husband had settled them here and gone to look for food.

Pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, nor on the Sabbath day…

I followed the whore to the door and stood looking after her. The sun was touching the horizon now; perhaps an hour of light left, but the sunset breeze was already moving in the treetops, night’s skirts rustling as she came. I shivered reflexively, though the day was still warm enough. The old barn was chilly, and the nights were beginning to bite. Any day, we would awake to frost on the ground.

And what then? said the small, apprehensive voice that lived in the pit of my stomach.

“Then I’ll put on another pair of stockings,” I muttered to it. “Hush up!”

A truly Christian person would doubtless have given the spare stockings to the barefoot whore, remarked the sanctimonious voice of my conscience.

“You hush up, too,” I said. “Plenty of opportunity to be Christian later, if the urge should strike me.” Half the people fleeing needed stockings, I dared say.

I wondered what I might be able to do for the whore’s friend, if she did come. “The itch” might be anything from eczema or cowpox to gonorrhea—though given the woman’s profession, something venereal was the best bet. Back in Boston, it would likely have been a simple yeast infection—oddly enough, I almost never saw those here, and speculated idly that it might be owing to the nearly universal lack of underclothes. So much for the advances of modernity!

I glanced at my knapsack again, calculating what I had left and how I might use it. A fair amount of bandages and lint. A pot of gentian ointment, good for scrapes and minor wounds, which occurred in abundance. A small stock of the most useful herbs for tincture and compress: lavender, comfrey, peppermint, mustard seed. By some miracle, I still had the box of cinchona bark I had acquired in New Bern—I thought of Tom Christie and crossed myself, but dismissed him from mind; there was nothing I could do about him and much too much to think of here. Two scalpels I had taken from Lieutenant Stactoe’s body—he had succumbed to a fever on the road—and my silver surgical scissors. Jamie’s gold acupuncture needles; those might be used to treat others, save that I had no idea how to place them for anything other than seasickness.

I could hear voices, parties of foragers moving through the trees, here and there someone calling out a name, searching for a friend or family member lost in transit. The refugees were beginning to settle for the night.

Sticks cracked near at hand, and a man came out of the woods. I didn’t recognize him. One of the “greasy-stockinged knaves” from one of the militias, no doubt; he had a musket in one hand and a powder horn at his belt. Not much else. And yes, he was barefoot, though his feet were much too big to wear my stockings—a fact that I pointed out to my conscience, in case it should feel compelled to try to prod me into charitable behavior again.

He saw me in the door and raised a hand.

“You the conjure-woman?” he called.

“Yes.” I’d given up trying to make people call me a doctor, let alone a physician.

“Met a whore with a mighty fine new bandage on her foot,” the man said, giving me a smile. “She said as there’s a conjure-woman up to the barn, has some medicines.”

“Yes,” I said again, giving him a quick once-over. I saw no obvious wound, and he wasn’t sick—I could tell that from his color and the upright way he walked. Perhaps he had a wife or child, or a sick comrade.

“Hand ’em over to me now,” he said, still smiling, and pointed the muzzle of the musket at me.

“What?” I said, surprised.

“Give me the medicines you’ve got.” He made a small jabbing motion with the gun. “Could just shoot you and take ’em, but I ain’t wanting to waste the powder.”

I stood still and stared at him for a moment.

“What the devil do you want them for?” I’d been held up once before for drugs—in a Boston emergency room. A young addict, sweating and glassy-eyed, with a gun. I’d handed them over instantly. At the moment, I wasn’t inclined.

He snorted and cocked his gun. Before I could even think about being scared, there was a sharp bang and the scent of powder smoke. The man looked terribly surprised, the musket sagging in his hands. Then he fell at my feet.

“Hold that, Sassenach.” Jamie thrust the just-fired pistol into my hand, stooped, and took the body by the feet. He dragged it out of the barn into the rain. I swallowed, reached into my bag, and took out the extra stockings. I dropped these in the woman’s lap, then went to set down the pistol and my sack by the wall. I was conscious of the eyes of the mother and her children on me—and saw them shift suddenly to the open door. I turned to see Jamie come in, soaked to the skin, his face drawn and set with fatigue.

He crossed the barn and sat down by me, laid his head on his knees, and closed his eyes.

“Thank you, sir,” said the woman, very softly. “Ma’am.”

I thought for a moment that he had fallen instantly asleep, for he didn’t stir. After a moment, though, he said, in an equally soft voice, “Ye’re welcome, ma’am.”

I WAS MORE THAN pleased to find the Hunters when we reached the next village; they had been in one of the barges that had been captured early, but had succeeded in escaping by the simple expedient of walking into the woods after dark. As the soldiers who had captured them had not bothered to count their captives, no one noticed they had gone.

Overall, things were looking up somewhat. Food was becoming more abundant, and we were among regular Continentals. We were still only a few miles in front of Burgoyne’s army, though, and the strain of the long retreat was telling. Desertion was frequent—though no one knew quite how frequent. Organization, discipline, and military structure were being restored as we came under the sway of the Continental army, but there were still men who could melt away unobtrusively.

It was Jamie who thought of the deserter game. Deserters would be welcomed into the British camps, fed, given clothes, and interrogated for information.

“So we’ll give it to them, aye?” he said. “And it’s only fair we take the same in return, is it not?”

Smiles began to grow on the faces of the officers to whom he was propounding this idea. And within a few days, carefully chosen “deserters” were making their way surreptitiously to the enemy camps and being taken before British officers, where they poured out the stories with which they’d been carefully prepared. And after a good supper, they would take the first opportunity to re-desert back to the American side—bringing with them useful information about the British forces pursuing us.

Ian dropped in to Indian camps now and then if it seemed safe, but didn’t play this particular game; he was memorable. I thought Jamie would have liked to masquerade as a deserter—it would appeal to his sense of drama, as well as his sense of adventure, which was acute. His size and striking appearance put this notion out of consideration, though; the deserters must all be ordinary-looking men who were unlikely to be recognized later.

“Because sooner or later, the British are going to realize what’s afoot. They’re not fools. And they willna take it kindly when they do realize.”

We had found shelter for the night in another barn—this one unburnt and still equipped with a few piles of musty hay, though the stock had long since vanished. We were alone, but probably wouldn’t be for long. The interlude in the commandant’s garden seemed as though it had taken place in someone else’s life, but I laid my head on Jamie’s shoulder, relaxing against his solid warmth.

“Do ye think maybe—”

Jamie stopped abruptly, his hand tightening on my leg. An instant later, I heard the stealthy rustling that had alerted him, and my mouth went dry. It might be anything from a prowling wolf to an Indian ambush—but whatever it was was sizable, and I fumbled—as silently as possible—for the pocket in which I had stowed the knife he’d given me.

Not a wolf; something passed the open door, a shadow the height of a man, and vanished. Jamie squeezed my thigh and then was gone, moving crouched through the empty barn without a sound. For an instant, I couldn’t see him in the dark, but my eyes were well adapted, and I found him seconds later, a long dark shadow pressed against the wall, just inside the door.

The shadow outside had come back; I saw the brief silhouette of a head against the paler black of the night outside. I got my feet under me, skin prickling with fear. The door was the only egress; perhaps I should throw myself on the floor and roll up against the base of a wall. I might escape detection—or, with luck, be able to grab the ankles of an intruder, or stab him through the foot.

I was just about to implement this strategy when a tremulous whisper came out of the dark.

“Friend—Friend James?” it said, and I let out the breath I had been holding in a gasp.

“Is that you, Denzell?” I said, trying to sound normal.

“Claire!” He burst through the door in relief, promptly tripped over something, and fell headlong with a crash.

“Welcome back, Friend Hunter,” Jamie said, the nervous urge to laugh evident in his voice. “Are ye hurt?” The long shadow detached itself from the wall and bent to help our visitor up.

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