An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 107

   

She nodded, pale as a sheet and her eyes huge in her face, but not—not yet—weeping.

“The other man—he came back, just now, and ran to find me. He—it was ill-luck, he said; they were brought before a major, and it was the same man who had threatened to hang Denny when he did it last time! The other man ran for it and escaped, but they caught Denny, and this time, this time…” She was gasping for breath and could barely speak for dread, he saw. He put a hand on her arm.

“Find the other man and send him to my tent, so he can tell me exactly where your brother is. I’ll go to fetch Ian and we’ll get him back.” He squeezed her arm gently to make her look at him, and she did, though so distracted he thought she barely saw him.

“Dinna fash yourself. We’ll get him back for ye,” he repeated gently. “I swear it, by Christ and His Mother.”

“Thee must not swear—oh, the devil with it!” she cried, then clapped a hand over her mouth. She shut her eyes, swallowed, and took it away again.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Ye’re welcome,” he said, with an eye to the sinking sun. Did the British prefer to hang people at sunset or at dawn? “We’ll get him back,” he said once more, firmly. Dead or alive.

THE CAMP’S commanding officer had built a gibbet in the center of the camp. It was a crude affair of unbarked logs and rough timber, and from the holes and gouges round its nails, had been disassembled and moved several times. It looked effective, though, and the dangling noose gave Jamie a feeling of ice in his water.

“We’ve played the deserter game once too often,” Jamie whispered to his nephew. “Or maybe three.”

“D’ye think he’s ever used it?” Ian murmured back, peering down at the sinister thing through their screen of oak saplings.

“He wouldna go to that much work only to scare someone.”

It scared him, badly. He didn’t point out to Ian the spot near the bottom of the main upright, where someone’s—or someones’—desperately flailing feet had kicked away chunks of the bark. The makeshift gibbet wasn’t high enough for the drop to break a man’s neck; a man hanged on it would strangle slowly.

He touched his own neck in reflexive aversion, Roger Mac’s mangled throat and its ugly raw scar clear in his mind. Even clearer was the memory of the grief that had overwhelmed him, coming to take down Roger Mac from the tree they’d hanged him on, knowing him dead and the world changed forever. It had been, too, though he hadn’t died.

Well, it wasn’t going to change for Rachel Hunter. They weren’t too late, that was the important thing. He said as much to Ian, who didn’t reply but gave him a brief glance of surprise.

How do you know? it said, plain as words. He lifted a shoulder and inclined his head toward a spot a little farther down the hill, where an outcrop of rock covered in moss and bearberry would give them cover. They moved off silently, keeping low, making their movements in the same slow rhythm to which the wood was moving. It was twilight and the world was full of shadows; it was no trick to be two more.

He knew they hadn’t hanged Denny Hunter yet, because he’d seen men hanged. Execution left a stain upon the air and marked the souls of those who saw it.

The camp was quiet. Not literally—the soldiers were making considerable racket, and a good thing, too—but in terms of its spirit. There was neither a sense of dread oppression nor the sick excitement that sprang from the same source; you could feel such things. So Denny Hunter was either here, alive—or had been sent elsewhere. If he was here, where would he be?

Confined somehow, and under guard. This wasn’t a permanent camp; there was no stockade. It was a big camp, though, and it took them some time to circle it, checking to see whether Hunter might be somewhere in the open, tied to a tree or shackled to a wagon. He was nowhere in sight, though. That left the tents.

There were four large ones, and one of these plainly housed the commissary; it stood apart and had a small cluster of wagons near it. It had also a constant stream of men going in and out, emerging with sacks of flour or dried peas. No meat, though he could smell cooking rabbit and squirrel from some of the campfires. The German deserters had been right, then; the army was living off the land, as well as it could.

“The commander’s tent?” Ian whispered softly to him. It was plain to see, with its pennants and the knot of men who stood about just outside its entrance.

“I hope not.” Plainly they’d have taken Denny Hunter to the commander for interrogation. And if he were still in doubt as to Hunter’s bona fides, he might have kept the man close at hand for further questioning.

Had he already made up his mind on the matter, though—and Rachel had been convinced of it—he wouldn’t keep him. He would have been sent somewhere under guard to await his reckoning. Under guard and out of sight, though Jamie doubted the British commander feared a rescue attempt.

“Eeny-meeny-miney-mo,” he muttered under his breath, twitching a finger back and forth between the two remaining tents. A guard with a musket was standing more or less between them; no telling which he was set to guard. “That one.” He lifted his chin to the one on the right, but even as he did so felt Ian stiffen beside him.

“Nay,” Ian said softly, eyes riveted. “The other.”

There was something strange in Ian’s voice, and Jamie glanced at him in surprise, then down at the tent.

At first, his only thought was a fleeting sense of confusion. Then the world changed.

It was twilight, but they were by now no more than fifty yards away; there was no mistaking it. He hadn’t seen the boy since he was twelve, but he had memorized every moment they’d spent in each other’s presence: the way he carried himself, the quick, graceful movement—that’s from his mother, he thought in a daze of shock, seeing the tall young officer make a gesture of the hand that was Geneva Dunsany to the life—the shape of his back, his head and ears, though the slender shoulders had thickened to a man’s. Mine, he thought, with a surge of pride that shocked him nearly as much as William’s sudden appearance had. They’re mine.

Jarring as they were, these thoughts took less than half a second to dash through his head and out again. He breathed in, very slowly, and out again. Had Ian remembered William from their meeting seven years earlier? Or was the resemblance so instantly visible to a casual eye?

It didn’t matter now. The camp was beginning its supper preparations; within minutes everyone would be engrossed in the meal. It was better to move then, even without the cover of darkness.

“It has to be me, aye?” Ian gripped his wrist, compelling his attention. “D’ye want to make the diversion before or after?”

“After.” He’d been thinking, in the back of his mind, all the time they were creeping toward the camp, and now the decision lay ready, as though someone else had made it. “Best if we can get him away quiet. Try, and if things go wrong, screech.”

Ian nodded and, with no further conversation, dropped to his belly and began a stealthy worming through the brush. The evening was cool and pleasant after the heat of the day, but Jamie’s hands felt cold and he cupped them round the clay belly of the little firepot. He’d carried it from their own camp, feeding it bits of dry stick along the way. It was hissing softly to itself as it fed on a chunk of dried hickory, both the sight and the smell of it safely hidden in the haze of campfire smoke that drifted through the trees, dispelling the gnats and the bloodthirsty mosquitoes, thank God and His mother.

Wondering at his own twitching—it wasn’t like him—he touched his sporran, checking yet again that the cork had not come loose from the bottle of turpentine, even though he knew well it hadn’t; he’d smell it.

The arrows in his quiver shifted as he shifted his weight, the fletchings rustling. He was in easy bowshot of the commander’s tent, could have the canvas well alight in seconds if Ian screeched. If he didn’t…

He began to move again, eyes flitting over the ground, searching for a patch that would do. Dry grass there was in plenty, but it would go up too fast if that was all there was. He wanted a fast flame but a big one.

The soldiers would have already scavenged the nearby forest for firewood, but he spotted a fallen fir snag, too heavy to carry away. Foragers had snapped the lower branches off, but there were plenty left, thick with dried needles that the wind hadn’t taken yet. He moved back slowly, far enough out of sight that he could move quickly again, gathering armfuls of dry grass, bark scraped hasty from a log, anything that would kindle.

Flaming arrows in the commander’s tent would compel instant attention, to be sure, but they would also cause widespread alarm; soldiers would boil out of the camp like hornets, looking for attackers. A grass fire, no. Such things were common, and while it would certainly create diversion, no one would be looking further once they’d seen it was nothing.

A few minutes and he had his diverson ready. So busy he’d been, he hadn’t even taken thought to look again at his son.

“God damn ye for a liar, Jamie Fraser,” he said under his breath, and looked.

William was gone.

THE SOLDIERS WERE at their supper; cheerful talk and the sounds of eating covered any small noises Ian made as he walked softly round the side of the left-hand tent. If someone saw him, he’d speak to them in Mohawk, claim to be a scout from Burgoyne’s camp, come with information. By the time they got him in front of the commander, he’d either have thought of some good, picturesque information, or he’d scream and reckon to fight his way out while they were distracted by flaming arrows.

That wouldn’t help Denny Hunter, though, and he was careful. There were pickets posted, but he and Uncle Jamie had watched long enough to see the pattern of them and spy the dead spot where a picket’s vision was obstructed by the trees. He knew he couldn’t be seen behind the tent, save someone heading for the woods for a piss stumbled over him.

There was a gap at the bottom of the tent and a candlestick lit inside; a spot in the canvas glowed dim in the twilight. He watched the gap and saw no shadow move. Right, then.

He lay down and inserted a cautious hand, feeling along the dirt floor, hoping no one inside stamped on his hand. If he could find a cot, he could squirm in and lie under it. If—something touched his hand and he bit his tongue, hard.

“Is thee a friend?” whispered Denny’s voice. Ian could see the Quaker’s shadow on the canvas, a squatting blur, and Denny’s hand held his hard.

“Aye, it’s me,” he whispered back. “Keep quiet. Stand back.”

Denny moved, and Ian heard the clink of metal. Dammit, the buggers had him in fetters. He compressed his lips and slid under the edge of the tent.

Denny greeted him silently, his face alight with hope and alarm. The little Quaker lifted his hands, nodded to his feet. Full irons. Christ, they did mean to hang him.

Ian leaned in close to whisper in Denny’s ear.

“I go out before ye. Lie down there, easy as ye can, close as ye can.” He jerked his chin at the back wall of the tent. “Dinna move yourself; I’ll pull ye through.” Then get Denny onto his shoulders like a dead fawn and head for the woods, hooting like an owl to let Uncle Jamie know it was time to set the fire.

It wasn’t possible to move a man in chains in total silence, but with any luck at all, the scraping of spoons on mess kits and the soldiers’ conversation would cover any stray clinking. He pulled the canvas out as far as he could, reached under, and took firm hold of Denny’s shoulders. The wee bugger was heavier than he looked, but Ian got Denny’s upper body mostly clear of the tent without too much trouble. Sweating, he scuttled to the side and reached in to take hold of Denny’s ankles, wrapping the chain round his own wrist to take up the slack.

There was no sound, but Ian’s head jerked up before his mind even told him that the air near him had moved in a way that meant someone was standing there.

“Hush!” he said by reflex, not knowing whether he was talking to Denny or to the tall soldier who had stepped out of the wood behind him.

“What the devil—” the soldier began, sounding startled. He didn’t finish the question, but took three paces fast and grabbed Ian by the wrist.

“Who are you and what are you—Good God, where did you come from?” William the soldier stared into Ian’s face, and Ian thanked God briefly for the fact that his other wrist was immobilized by Denny’s chain, for otherwise William would be already dead. And he didn’t want to have to tell Uncle Jamie that.

“He has come to help me escape, Friend William,” Denny Hunter said mildly from the shadows on the ground behind Ian. “I would take it kindly if thee did not hinder him, though I will understand if thy duty compels thee.”

William’s head jerked, looked wildly round, then down. Had the circumstances been less dire, Ian would have laughed at the expressions—for there were a great number of them, run through in the course of a heartbeat—on it. William closed his eyes for an instant, then opened them again.

“Don’t tell me,” he said shortly. “I don’t want to know.” He squatted beside Ian and, between them, they had Denny out in a matter of seconds. Ian took a deep breath, put his hands to his mouth, and hooted, then paused a moment and did it once again. William stared at him in mingled puzzlement and anger. Then Ian ducked the point of his shoulder into Denny’s midriff and, with William heaving, got the doctor onto his shoulders with little more than a startled grunt and a slight clanking of fetters.

William’s hand closed on Ian’s forearm, and his head, a dark oval in the last traces of light, jerked toward the woods.

“Left,” he whispered. “There are latrine trenches on the right. Two pickets, a hundred yards out.” He squeezed hard and let go.

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