An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 106

   

It was, for a wonder, not raining when they set out, and that alone gave the expedition a feeling of optimism. Anticipation of food increased this sense significantly. Rations had been short for what seemed a very long time, though in fact it had been only a week or so. Still, more than a day spent marching without adequate food seems a long time, as William had good cause to know.

Many of the Indians were still mounted; they circled the main body of soldiers, riding ahead a little way to scout the road, coming back to offer guidance through or around places where the road—no more than a trace at the best of times—had given up the fight and been absorbed by the forest or drowned by one of the rain-swollen streams that leapt unexpectedly out of the hills. Bennington was near a river called the Walloomsac, and as they walked, William was discussing in a desultory way with one of the Hessian lieutenants whether it might be possible to load the stores onto rafts for transport to a rendezvous downstream.

This discussion was entirely theoretical, since neither of them knew where the Walloomsac went nor whether it was navigable to any extent, but it gave both men a chance to practice the other’s language and so passed the time on a long, hot march.

“My father spent much time in Germany,” William told Ober-Leftenant Gruenwald, in his careful, slow German. “He is of the food of Hanover very fond.”

Gruenwald, from Hesse-Cassel, allowed himself a derisive twitch of the mustache at mention of Hanover, but contented himself with the observation that even a Hanoverian could roast a cow and perhaps boil some potatoes to accompany it. But his own mother made a dish from the flesh of swine and apples, beswimming in red wine and spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon, that made his mouth water only to remember.

Water was running down Gruenwald’s face, sweat making tracks in the dust and dampening the collar of his light-blue coat. He took off his tall grenadier’s headdress and wiped his head with a giant spotted kerchief, sodden from many earlier employments.

“I think we will maybe not find cinnamon today,” Willie said. “Maybe a pig, though.”

“If we do, I will him roast for you,” Gruenwald assured him. “As for apples …” he tucked a hand into his tunic and withdrew a handful of small red crab apples, which he shared out with William. “I haff a bushel of these. I haff–”

Excited yips from an Indian riding back down the column interrupted him, and William looked up to see the rider throw back an arm, gesturing behind him and shouting, “River!”

The word enlivened the sagging columns, and William saw the cavalry—who had insisted upon wearing their high boots and their broadswords, in spite of their lack of horses, and had suffered in consequence—draw themselves up, clanking loudly with anticipation.

Another shout came from the forward line.

“Cow turds!”

That caused a general cheer and much laughter among the men, who hastened on with a quicker step. William saw Colonel Baum, who did still have a horse, turn out of the column and wait on the roadside, leaning down to speak briefly with the officers as they came past. William saw his aide lean close, pointing up a small hill opposite.

“What do you think—” he said, turning to Gruenwald, and was startled to find the ober-leftenant staring at him blank-faced, his jaw hanging open. The man’s hand loosened and fell to his side, and the mitred helmet fell and rolled away in the dust. William blinked and saw a thick worm of red snake its way slowly down from under Gruenwald’s dark hair.

Gruenwald sat down quite suddenly and fell backward in the road, his face gone a muddy white.

“Shit!” said William, and jerked suddenly to an awareness of what had just happened. “Ambush!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs. “Das ist ein Überfall!!”

There were shouts of alarm rising from the column, and the crack of sporadic firing from the woods. William grabbed Gruenwald under the arms and dragged him hastily into the shelter of a group of pine trees. The ober-leftenant was still alive, though his coat was wet with sweat and blood. William made sure the German’s pistol was loaded and in his hand before taking his own pistol and dashing toward Baum, who was standing in his stirrups, shrieking directions in high, shrill German.

He caught only a word here and there and looked urgently round, to see whether he could tell what the colonel’s orders were from the actions of the Hessians. He caught sight of a little group of scouts, running down the road toward him, and ran to meet them.

“Goddamned lot of rebels,” one scout gasped, out of breath, pointing behind him. “Coming.”

“Where? How far?” He felt as though he were about to run out of his skin, but forced himself to stand still, speak calmly, breathe.

A mile, maybe two. He did breathe then, and managed to ask how many there were. Maybe two hundred, maybe more. Armed with muskets, but no artillery.

“Right. Go back and keep an eye on them.” He turned back toward Colonel Baum, feeling the surface of the road strange under his feet, as though it wasn’t quite where he expected it to be.

THEY DUG IN, hastily but efficiently, entrenching themselves behind shallow earthworks and makeshift barricades of fallen trees. The guns were dragged up the small hill and aimed to cover the road. The rebels, of course, ignored the road, and swarmed in from both sides.

There might have been two hundred men in the first wave; it was impossible to count them as they darted through the heavy wood. William could see the flicker of movement and fired at it, but without any great hope of hitting anyone. The wave hesitated, but only for a moment.

Then a strong voice bellowed, somewhere behind the rebel front, “We take them now, or Molly Stark’s a widow tonight!”

“What?” said William, disbelieving. Whatever the man shouting had meant, his exhortation had a marked effect, for an enormous number of rebels came boiling out of the trees, headed at a mad run for the guns. The soldiers minding the guns promptly fled, and so did a good many of the others.

The rebels were making short work of the rest, and William had just settled down grimly to do what he could before they got him, when two Indians came springing over the rolling ground, seized him under the arms, and, yanking him to his feet, propelled him rapidly away.

Which was how Lieutenant Ellesmere found himself once more cast in the role of Cassandra, reporting the debacle at Bennington to General Burgoyne. Men killed and wounded, guns lost—and not a single cow to be shown for it.

And I haven’t yet killed a single rebel, either, he thought tiredly, making his way slowly back to his tent afterward. He thought he should regret that, but wasn’t sure he did.

Deserter Game, round II

JAMIE HAD BEEN bathing in the river, sluicing sweat and grime from his body, when he heard remarkably odd swearing in French. The words were French, but the sentiments expressed were definitely not. Curious, he clambered out of the water, dressed, and went down the bank a little way, where he discovered a young man waving his arms and gesturing in an agitated attempt to make himself understood to a bemused party of workmen. As half of them were Germans and the rest Americans from Virginia, his efforts to communicate with them in French had so far succeeded only in entertaining them.

Jamie had introduced himself and offered his services as interpreter. Which is how he had come to spend a good bit of each day with the young Polish engineer whose unpronounceable last name had quickly been shortened to “Kos.”

He found Kos both intelligent and rather touching in his enthusiasm—and was himself interested in the fortifications Ko?ciuszko (for he prided himself on being able to say it correctly) was building. Kos, for his part, was both grateful for the linguistic assistance and interested in the occasional observations and suggestions that Jamie was able to make, as the result of his conversations with Brianna.

Talking about vectors and stresses made him miss her almost unbearably but at the same time brought her somehow nearer to him, and he found himself spending more and more time with the young Pole, learning bits of his language and allowing Kos to practice what he fondly imagined to be English.

“What is it that brought ye here?” Jamie asked one day. In spite of the lack of pay, a remarkable number of European officers had come to join—or tried to join—the Continental army, evidently feeling that even if the prospects of plunder were limited, they could bamboozle the Congress into granting them rank as generals, which they could then parlay into further occupation back in Europe. Some of these dubious volunteers were actually of use, but he’d heard a good bit of muttering about those who weren’t. Thinking of Matthias Fermoy, he was inclined to mutter a bit himself.

Kos wasn’t one of these, though.

“Well, first, money,” he said frankly, when asked how he had come to be in America. “My brother the manor in Poland has, but family no money, nothing for me. No girl look at me without money.” He shrugged. “No place in Polish army, but I know how to build things, I come where things to build.” He grinned. “Maybe girls, too. Girls with good family, good money.”

“If ye came for money and girls, man, ye joined the wrong army,” Jamie said dryly, and Ko?ciuszko laughed.

“I say first money,” he corrected. “I come to Philadelphia, read there La Declaration.” He pronounced it in French, and bared his head in reverence at the name, clasping his sweat-stained hat to his breast. “This thing, this writing… I am ravish.”

So ravished was he by the sentiments expressed in that noble document that he had at once sought out its author. While probably surprised by the sudden advent of a passionate young Pole in his midst, Thomas Jefferson had made him welcome, and the two men had spent most of a day deeply involved in the discussion of philosophy (in French), from which they had emerged fast friends.

“Great man,” Kos assured Jamie solemnly, crossing himself before putting his hat back on. “God keep him safe.”

“Dieu accorde-lui la sagesse,” Jamie replied. God grant him wisdom. He thought that Jefferson would certainly be safe, as he was no soldier. Which reminded him uncomfortably of Benedict Arnold, but that was not a matter he could—or would—do anything about.

Kos had wiped a strand of stringy dark hair out of his mouth and shaken his head.

“Maybe wife, one day, if God wills. This—what we do here—more important than wife.”

They returned to work, but Jamie found his mind dwelling with interest on the conversation. The notion that it was better to spend one’s life in pursuit of a noble goal than merely to seek safety—he agreed with that entirely. But surely such purity of purpose was the province of men without families? A pardox there: a man who sought his own safety was a coward; a man who risked his family’s safety was a poltroon, if not worse.

That led on to more rambling paths of thought and further interesting paradoxes: Do women hold back the evolution of such things as freedom and other social ideals, out of fear for themselves or their children? Or do they in fact inspire such things—and the risks required to reach them—by providing the things worth fighting for? Not merely fighting to defend, either, but to propel forward, for a man wanted more for his children than he would ever have.

He would have to ask Claire what she thought of this, though he smiled to think of some of the things she might think of it, particularly the part about whether women hindered social evolution by their nature. She’d told him something of her own experiences in the Great War—he couldn’t think of it by any other name, though she told him there was another, earlier one by that name. She said disparaging things about heroes now and then, but only when he’d hurt himself; she knew fine what men were for.

Would he be here, in fact, if it weren’t for her? Would he do this anyway, only for the sake of the ideals of the Revolution, if he were not assured of victory? He had to admit that only a madman, an idealist, or a truly desperate man would be here now. Any sane person who knew anything about armies would have shaken his head and turned away, appalled. He often felt appalled, himself.

But he would, in fact, do it—were he alone. A man’s life had to have more purpose than only to feed himself each day. And this was a grand purpose—grander, maybe, than anyone else fighting for it knew. And if it took his own life in the doing… he wouldn’t enjoy it, but he’d be comforted in the dying, knowing he’d helped. After all, it wasn’t as though he would be leaving his wife helpless; unlike most wives, Claire would have a place to go if something befell him.

He was once more in the river, floating on his back and thinking along these lines, when he heard the gasp. It was a feminine gasp, and he put his feet down at once and stood up, wet hair streaming over his face. He shoved it back to find Rachel Hunter standing on the bank, both hands pressed over her eyes and every line of her body strained in an eloquence of distress.

“Did ye want me, Rachel?” he asked, wiping water out of his eyes in an effort to locate just where on the riverbank he had left his clothes. She gasped again and turned her face in his direction, hands still over her eyes.

“Friend James! Thy wife said I would find thee here. I beg pardon for—please! Come out at once!” Her anguish broke out and her hands dropped, though she kept her eyes tight shut as she reached out to him, pleading.

“What—”

“Denny! The British have him!”

Cold shot through his veins, much colder than the wind on his exposed wet skin.

“Where? How? Ye can look now,” he added, hastily buttoning his breeches.

“He went with another man, posing as deserters.” He was up the bank beside her, shirt over his arm, and saw that she had her brother’s spectacles in the pocket of her apron; her hand kept going to them, clutching them. “I told him not to, I did!”

“I told him, too,” Jamie said grimly. “Are ye sure, lass?”

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