An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 108

   

“May you be held in God’s light, Friend William.” Denny’s whisper came breathless by Ian’s ear, but Ian was already going and didn’t know whether William had heard. He supposed it didn’t matter.

A few moments later, he heard the first shouts of “Fire!” behind him in the camp.

NO BETTER COMPANION THAN THE RIFLE

September 15, 1777

BY EARLY SEPTEMBER, we had reached the main army, en-camped on the Hudson near the village of Saratoga. General Horatio Gates was in command, and received the ragtag and bobtail refugees and random militia with pleasure. For once, the army was tolerably well supplied, and we were equipped with clothes, decent food—and the remarkable luxury of a small tent, in honor of Jamie’s status as a colonel of militia, in spite of the fact that he had no men.

Knowing Jamie as I did, I was reasonably sure this would be a temporary state of affairs. For my part, I was delighted to have an actual cot to sleep on, a tiny table to eat from—and food to put on it on a fairly regular basis.

“I’ve brought ye a present, Sassenach.” Jamie plumped the bag down on the table with a pleasantly meaty-sounding thump and a waft of fresh blood. My mouth began to water.

“What is it? Birds?” It wasn’t ducks or geese; those had a distinctive scent about them, a musk of body oils, feathers, and decaying waterweeds. But partridges, say, or grouse … I swallowed heavily at the thought of pigeon pie.

“No, a book.” He pulled a small package wrapped in tattered oilcloth from the bulging sack and proudly set it in my hands.

“A book?” I said blankly.

He nodded encouragingly.

“Aye. Words printed on paper, ye’ll recall the sort of thing? I ken it’s been a long time.”

I gave him an eye and, attempting to ignore the rumbling of my stomach, opened the package. It was a well-worn pocket-sized copy of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman—Vol. I, and despite my disgruntlement at being presented with literature instead of food, I was interested. It had been a long time since I’d had a good book in my hands, and this was a story I’d heard of but never read.

“The owner must have been fond of it,” I said, turning the little volume over gently. The spine was nearly worn through, and the edges of the leather cover were rubbed shiny. A rather nasty thought struck me.

“Jamie … you didn’t… take this from a, er, a body, did you?” Stripping weapons, equipment, and usable clothing from fallen enemies was not considered looting; it was an unpleasant necessity. Still …

He shook his head, though, still rummaging in the bag.

“Nay, I found it at the edge of a wee creek. Dropped in flight, I expect.”

Well, that was better, though I was sure the man who had dropped it would regret the loss of this treasured companion. I opened the book at random and squinted at the small type.

“Sassenach.”

“Hmm?” I glanced up, jerked out of the text, to see Jamie regarding me with a mixture of sympathy and amusement.

“Ye need spectacles, don’t ye?” he said. “I hadna realized.”

“Nonsense!” I said, though my heart gave a small jump. “I see perfectly well.”

“Oh, aye?” He moved beside me and took the book out of my hand. Opening it to the middle, he held it in front of me. “Read that.”

I leaned backward, and he advanced in front of me.

“Stop that!” I said. “How do you expect me to read anything that close?”

“Stand still, then,” he said, and moved the book away from my face. “Can ye see the letters clear yet?”

“No,” I said crossly. “Farther. Farther. No, bloody farther!”

And at last was obliged to admit that I could not bring the letters into focus at a distance of nearer than about eighteen inches.

“Well, it’s very small type!” I said, flustered and discomfited. I had, of course, been aware that my eyesight was not so keen as it once had been, but to be so rudely confronted with the evidence that I was, if not blind as a bat, definitely in competition with moles in the farsight sweepstakes was a trifle upsetting.

“Twelve-point Caslon,” Jamie said, giving the text a professional glance. “I will say the leading’s terrible,” he added critically. “And the gutters are half what they should be. Even so—” He flipped the book shut and looked at me, one eyebrow raised. “Ye need spectacles, a nighean,” he repeated gently.

“Hmph!” I said. And on impulse picked up the book, opened it, and handed it to him. “So—read it yourself, why don’t you?”

Looking surprised and a little wary, he took the book and looked into it. Then extended his arm a little. And a little more. I watched, experiencing that same odd mix of amusement and sympathy, as he finally held the book nearly at arm’s length, and read, “So that the life of a writer, whatever he might fancy to the contrary, was not so much a state of composition, as a state of warfare; and his probation in it, precisely that of any other man militant upon earth—both depending alike, not half so much upon the degrees of his WIT—as his RESISTANCE.”

He closed it and looked at me, the edge of his mouth tucked back.

“Aye, well,” he said. “I can still shoot, at least.”

“And I can tell one herb from another by smell, I suppose,” I said, and laughed. “Just as well. I don’t suppose there’s a spectacle-maker this side of Philadelphia.”

“No, I suppose not,” he said ruefully. “When we get to Edinburgh, though, I ken just the man. I’ll buy ye a tortoiseshell pair for everyday, Sassenach, and a pair wi’ gold rims for Sundays.”

“Expect me to read the Bible with them, do you?” I inquired.

“Ah, no,” he said, “that’s just for show. After all”—he picked up my hand, which smelled of dill weed and coriander, and, lifting it to his mouth, ran the point of his tongue delicately down the lifeline in my palm—“the important things ye do by touch, aye?”

WE WERE INTERRUPTED by a cough from the door of the tent, and I turned to see a large, bearlike man with long gray hair loose upon his shoulders. He had an amiable face with a scar through the upper lip and a mild but keen eye, which went at once to the bag on the table.

I stiffened a little; there were strict prohibitions against the looting of farms, and while Jamie had taken these particular hens scratching in the wild, there was no way of proving that, and this gentleman, while dressed in casual homespun and hunting shirt, bore himself with the unmistakable authority of an officer.

“You’d be Colonel Fraser?” he said, with a nod toward Jamie, and extended a hand. “Daniel Morgan.”

I recognized the name, though the only thing I knew about Daniel Morgan—a footnote in Brianna’s eighth-grade history book—was that he was a famous rifleman. This wasn’t particularly useful; everyone knew that, and the camp had buzzed with interest when he had arrived at the end of August with a number of men.

He now glanced with interest at me, and then at the bag of chickens, flecked with incriminating tufts of feather.

“By your leave, ma’am,” he said, and without waiting for my leave, picked up the sack and pulled out a dead chicken. The neck flopped limp, showing the large, bloody hole through its head where an eye—well, two eyes—had once been. His scarred mouth pursed in a soundless whistle and he looked sharply up at Jamie.

“You do that a-purpose?” he asked.

“I always shoot them through the eye,” Jamie replied politely. “Dinna want to spoil the meat.”

A slow grin spread over Colonel Morgan’s face, and he nodded. “Come with me, Mr. Fraser. Bring your rifle.”

WE ATE THAT night at Daniel Morgan’s fire, and the company—filled with chicken stew—raised cups of beer and hooted to toast the addition of a new member to their elite corps. I hadn’t had a chance of private conversation with Jamie since Morgan’s abduction of him that afternoon, and rather wondered what he made of his apotheosis. But he seemed comfortable with the riflemen, though he glanced now and then at Morgan, with the look that meant he was still making up his mind.

For my part, I was extremely pleased. By their nature, riflemen fought from a distance—and often a distance much greater than a musket’s range. They were also valuable, and commanders were not likely to risk them in close combat. No soldier was safe, but some occupations had a much higher rate of mortality—and while I accepted the fact that Jamie was a born gambler, I liked him to have the best odds possible.

Many of the riflemen were Long Hunters, others what they called “over-mountain men,” and thus had no wives with them here. Some did, and I made instant acquaintance with the women by the simple expedient of admiring one young woman’s baby.

“Mrs. Fraser?” one older lady said, coming to plump down on the log beside me. “Are you the conjure-woman?”

“I am,” I said pleasantly. “They call me the White Witch.” That reared them back a bit, but the forbidden has its own strong appeal—and after all, what could I do in the middle of military camp, surrounded by their husbands and sons, all armed to the teeth?

Within minutes, I was dispensing advice on everything from menstrual cramps to colic. I caught a glimpse of Jamie, grinning at sight of my popularity, and gave him a discreet wave before turning back to my audience.

The men, of course, continued drinking, with outbreaks of raucous laughter, then the fall of voices as one man took over a story, only to have the cycle repeat. At one point, though, the atmosphere changed, so abruptly that I broke off an intense discussion of diaper rash and looked over toward the fire.

Daniel Morgan was rising laboriously to his feet, and there was a distinct air of anticipation among the watching men. Was he about to make a speech, welcoming Jamie?

“Oh, dear Lord,” said Mrs. Graham under her breath beside me. “He’s a-doing it again.”

I hadn’t time to ask her what he was a-doing, before he a-did it.

He shambled to the center of the gathering, where he stood swaying like an old bear, his long gray hair wafting in the wind of the fire and his eyes creased with amiability. They were focused on Jamie, though, I saw.

“Got something to show you, Mr. Fraser,” he said, loudly enough that the women who had still been talking stopped, every eye going to him. He took hold of the hem of his long woolen hunting shirt and pulled it off over his head. He dropped it on the ground, spread his arms like a ballet dancer, and stumped slowly round.

Everyone gasped, though from Mrs. Graham’s remark, most of them must have seen it before. His back was ridged with scars from neck to waist. Old scars, to be sure—but there wasn’t a square inch of unmarked skin on his back, massive as it was. Even I was shocked.

“The British did that,” he said conversationally, turning back and dropping his arms. “Give me four hundred and ninety-nine lashes. I counted.” The gathering erupted in laughter, and he grinned. “Was supposed to give me five hundred, but he missed one. I didn’t point it out to him.”

More laughter. Obviously, this was a frequent performance, but one that his audience loved. There were cheers and more toasts when he finished and went to sit beside Jamie, still naked to the waist, his shirt wadded casually in his hand.

Jamie’s face gave nothing away—but I saw that his shoulders had relaxed. Evidently he had made up his mind about Dan Morgan.

JAMIE LIFTED THE LID of my small iron pot, with an expression somewhere between caution and hope.

“Not food,” I informed him, rather unnecessarily, as he was wheezing in the manner of one who has inadvertently inhaled horseradish into the sinuses.

“I should hope not,” he said, coughing and wiping his eyes. “Christ, Sassenach, that’s worse than usual. D’ye mean to poison someone?”

“Yes, Plasmodium vivax. Put the lid back on.” I was simmering a decoction of cinchona bark and gallberries, for the treatment of malarial cases.

“Have we got any food?” he asked plaintively, dropping the lid back in place.

“In fact we have.” I reached into the cloth-covered pail at my feet and triumphantly pulled out a meat pie, its crust golden and shimmering with lard.

His face assumed the expression of an Israelite beholding the promised land, and he held out his hands, receiving the pie with the reverence due a precious object, though this impression was dispelled in the next instant as he took a large bite out of it.

“Where did ye get it?” he asked, after a few moments of blissful mastication. “Are there more?”

“There are. A nice prostitute named Daisy brought them for me.”

He paused, examined the pie critically for signs of its provenance, then shrugged and took another bite.

“Do I want to know what it was ye did for her, Sassenach?”

“Well, probably not while you’re eating, no. Have you seen Ian?”

“No.” The response might have been abbreviated by the exigencies of eating pie, but I caught the slightest shiftiness in his manner and stopped, staring at him.

“Do you know where Ian is?”

“More or less.” He kept his eyes fixed firmly on the meat pie, thus confirming my suspicions.

“Do I want to know what he’s doing?”

“No, ye don’t,” he said definitely.

“Oh, God.”

IAN MURRAY, having carefully dressed his hair with bear grease and a pair of turkey feathers, removed his shirt, leaving this rolled up with his tattered plaid under a log, and told Rollo to guard it, then walked across a small stretch of open ground toward the British camp.

“Hold!”

He turned a face of bored impassivity toward the sentry who had hailed him. The sentry, a boy of fifteen or so, was holding a musket whose barrel shook noticeably. Ian hoped the numpty wouldn’t shoot him by accident.

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