An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 109

   

“Scout,” he said succinctly, and walked past the sentry without a backward glance, though he felt a spider strolling to and fro between his shoulder blades. Scout, he thought, and felt a small bubble of laughter rise up. Well, it was the truth, after all.

He strolled through the camp in the same manner, ignoring the occasional stare—though most of those who noticed him merely glanced at him and then away.

Burgoyne’s headquarters was easy to spot, a large tent of green canvas that sprouted like a toadstool among the neat aisles of small white tents that housed the soldiers. It was some distance away—and he didn’t mean to get any closer just now—but he could glimpse the comings and goings of staff officers, messengers … and the occasional scout, though none of these was Indian.

The Indian camps were on the far side of the army encampment, scattered in the forest outside the neat military grid. He was not sure whether he might meet some of Thayendanegea’s people, who might in turn recognize him. This wouldn’t be a difficulty, as he had said nothing regarding politics during his ill-fated visit to Joseph Brant’s house; they would likely accept him on sight without any awkward questions.

If he were to encounter some of the Huron and Oneida that Burgoyne employed to harass the Continentals, that might be a wee bit touchier. He had complete confidence in his ability to impress them with his identity as a Mohawk—but if they were either too suspicious or too impressed, he wouldn’t learn much.

He had learned a few things simply from his walk through the camp. Morale was not high; there was rubbish between some of the tents, and most of the washerwomen among the camp followers were sitting in the grass drinking gin, their kettles cold and empty. Still, the atmosphere in general seemed subdued but resolute; some men were dicing and drinking, but more were melting lead and making musket balls, repairing or polishing their weapons.

Food was short; he could sense hunger in the air, even without seeing the line of men waiting outside the baker’s tent. None of them looked at him; they were focused on the loaves that emerged—these broken in half before being handed out. Half rations, then; that was good.

None of this was important, though, and as for troop numbers and armament—these were well established by now. Uncle Jamie and Colonel Morgan and General Gates would like to know about the stores of powder and ammunition, but the artillery park and powder magazine would be well guarded, with no conceivable reason for an Indian scout to be nosing round there.

Something tugged at the corner of his vision and he glanced cautiously round, then hastily jerked his eyes forward, forcing himself to walk at the same pace. Jesus, it was the Englishman he’d saved from the swamp—the man who’d helped him get wee Denny free. And—

He clamped down on that thought. He kent it well enough; no one could look like that and not be. But he felt it dangerous even to acknowledge the thought to himself, lest it show somehow on his face.

He forced himself to breathe as usual and walk without concern, because a Mohawk scout would have none. Damn. He’d meant to spend the remaining hours of daylight with some of the Indians, picking up what information he could, and then after dark come quietly back into camp, stealing up within earshot of Burgoyne’s tent. If yon wee lieutenant was wuthering round, though, it might be too dangerous to try. The last thing he wanted was to meet the man face-to-face.

“Hey!” The shout ran into his flesh like a sharp splinter. He recognized the voice, knew it was aimed at him, but didn’t turn round. Six paces, five, four, three … He reached the end of an alley of tents and sheared off to the right, out of sight.

“Hey!” The voice was closer, almost behind him, and he broke into a run, heading for the cover of the trees. Only one or two soldiers saw him; one started to his feet but then stood, uncertain what to do, and he pushed past the man and dived into the trees.

“Well, that’s torn it,” he muttered, crouched behind a brush shelter. The tall lieutenant was questioning the man he’d shoved past. Both of them were looking toward the wood, the soldier shaking his head and shrugging helplessly.

Christ, the wee loon was coming toward him! He turned and stepped silently through the trees, working his way deeper into the wood. He could hear the Englishman behind him, crashing and rustling like a bear just out of its den in the spring.

“Murray!” he was shouting. “Murray—is that you? Wait!”

“Wolf’s Brother! Is that you?”

Ian said something very blasphemous under his breath in Gaelic, and turned to see who had addressed him in Mohawk.

“It is you! Where’s your demon wolf? Did something finally eat it?” His old friend Glutton was beaming at him, adjusting his breechclout after having a piss.

“I hope something eats you,” Ian said to his friend, keeping his voice low. “I need to get away. There is an Englishman following me.”

Glutton’s face changed at once, though it didn’t lose either its smile or its eager expression. The wide grin widened further, and he jerked his head behind him, indicating the opening to a trail. Then his face went suddenly slack, and he staggered from one side to the other, lurching in the direction Ian had come.

Ian barely made it out of sight before the Englishman called William came rushing into the clearing, only to run slap into Glutton, who clutched him by the lapels of his coat, gazed up soulfully into his eyes, and said, “Whisky?”

“I haven’t any whisky,” William said, brusque but not impolite, and tried to detach Glutton. This proved a difficult proposition; Glutton was much more agile than his squat appearance suggested, and the instant a hand was removed from one spot, it clung limpetlike to another. To add to the performance, Glutton began to tell the lieutenant—in Mohawk—the story of the famous hunt that had given him his name, pausing periodically to shout, “WHISHKEE!” and fling his arms about the Englishman’s body.

Ian spared no time to admire the Englishman’s own facility with language, which was considerable, but made off as fast as possible, circling to the west. He couldn’t go back through the camp. He might take refuge in one of the Indian camps, but it was possible that William would look for him there, once he’d escaped from Glutton.

“What the hell does he want with me?” he muttered, no longer bothering with silence but cleaving the brush with a minimum of breakage. William the lieutenant had to know he was a Continental, because of Denny Hunter and the deserter game. Yet he had not raised a general alarm upon seeing him—only called out in surprise, and then as one wanting conversation.

Well, maybe that was a trick. Wee William might be young, but he was not stupid. Couldn’t be, considering who his fath—and the man was chasing him.

He could hear voices fading behind him—he thought that William had perhaps now recognized Glutton, in spite of the fact that he had been half dead with fever when they met. If so, he would know Glutton was his, Ian’s, friend—and instantly detect the ruse. But it didn’t matter; he was well into the wood by now. William would never catch him.

The smell of smoke and fresh meat caught his nose, and he turned, going downhill toward the bank of a small stream. There was a Mohawk camp there; he knew it at once.

He paused, though. The scent of it, the knowledge of it, had drawn him like a moth—but he mustn’t enter. Not now. If William had recognized Glutton, the first place he would look for Ian was the Mohawks’ camp. And if she should be there…

“You, again?” said an unpleasant Mohawk voice. “You don’t learn, do you?”

Actually, he did. He’d learned enough to hit first. He turned on his heel and swung from somewhere behind his knees, continuing up with all the power in his body. “Aim to hit through the bugger’s face,” Uncle Jamie had instructed him when he began to go about in Edinburgh alone. It was, as usual, good advice.

His knuckles burst with a crunch that shot blue lightning straight up his arm and into his neck and jaw—but Sun Elk flew backward two paces and crashed into a tree.

Ian stood panting and gently touching his knuckles, recalling too late that Uncle Jamie’s advice had begun with, “Hit them in the soft parts if ye can.” It didn’t matter; it was worth it. Sun Elk was moaning softly, his eyelids fluttering. Ian was debating the merits of saying something of a dismissive nature and walking grandly away, versus kicking him in the balls again before he could get up, when William the Englishman walked out from the trees.

He looked from Ian, still breathing as though he’d run a mile, to Sun Elk, who had rolled onto his hands and knees but didn’t seem to want to get up. Blood was dripping from his face onto the dead leaves. Splat. Splat.

“I have no wish to intrude upon a private affair,” William said politely. “But I would appreciate a word with you, Mr. Murray.” He turned, not waiting to see if Ian would come, and walked back into the trees.

Ian nodded, having no notion what to say, and followed the Englishman, cherishing in his heart the last faint splat! of Sun Elk’s blood.

The Englishman was leaning against a tree, watching the Mohawk camp by the stream below. A woman was stripping meat from a fresh deer’s carcass, hanging it to dry on a frame. She wasn’t Works With Her Hands.

William switched his dark-blue gaze to Ian, giving him an odd feeling. Ian already felt odd, though, so it didn’t really matter.

“I am not going to ask what you were doing in the camp.”

“Oh, aye?”

“No. I wished to thank you for the horse and money and to ask you whether you have seen Miss Hunter, since you so kindly left me in the keeping of her and her brother.”

“I have, aye.” The knuckles on his right hand were already puffed to twice their size and starting to throb. He’d go and see Rachel; she’d bandage them for him. The thought was so intoxicating that he didn’t at first realize that William was waiting—not all that patiently—for him to expound on his statement.

“Ah. Aye, the… er… the Hunters are wi’ the army. The… um… other army,” he said, a little awkwardly. “Her brother’s an army surgeon.”

William’s face didn’t change but seemed somehow to solidify. Ian watched it in fascination. He’d seen Uncle Jamie’s face do the exact same thing, many times, and knew what it meant.

“Here?” William said.

“Aye, here.” He inclined his head toward the American camp. “There, I mean.”

“I see,” William said calmly. “When you see her again, will you give her my kindest regards, then? And her brother, too, of course.”

“Oh… aye,” Ian said, thinking, Like that, is it? Well, ye’re no going to see her yourself, and she’d have nothing to do wi’ a soldier anyway, so think again! “Certainly,” he added, belatedly aware that his only value to William at this point lay in his supposed role as messenger to Rachel Hunter, and wondering just how much that was worth.

“Thank you.” William’s face had lost that look of iron; he was examining Ian carefully, and at last nodded.

“A life for a life, Mr. Murray,” he said quietly. “We’re quits. Don’t let me see you next time. I may not have a choice.”

He turned and left, the red of his uniform visible for some time through the trees.

ONE JUST MAN

September 19, 1777

THE SUN ROSE invisible, to the sound of drums. Drums on both sides; we could hear the British reveille, and by the same token they must hear ours. The riflemen had had a brief skirmish with British troops two days before, and owing to the work of Ian and the other scouts, General Gates knew very well the size and disposition of Burgoyne’s army. Ko?ciuszko had chosen Bemis Heights for a defensive position; it was a high river bluff, with numerous small ravines down to the river, and his crews had labored like madmen for the last week with shovels and axes. The Americans were ready. More or less.

The women were not, of course, admitted to the councils of the generals. Jamie was, though, and thus I heard all about the argument between General Gates, who was in command, and General Arnold, who thought he should be. General Gates, who wanted to sit tight on Bemis Heights and wait for the British attack, versus General Arnold, who argued vehemently that the Americans must make the first move, forcing the British regulars to fight through the thickly wooded ravines, ruining their formations and making them vulnerable to the riflemen’s sniper fire, falling back—if necessary—to the breastworks and entrenchments on the Heights.

“Arnold’s won,” Ian reported, popping briefly up out of the fog to snag a piece of toasted bread. “Uncle Jamie’s away wi’ the riflemen already. He says he’ll see ye this evening, and in the meantime …” He bent and gently kissed my cheek, then grinned impudently and vanished.

My own stomach was knotted, though with the pervasive excitement as much as with fear. The Americans were a ragged, motley lot, but they had had time to prepare, they knew what was coming, and they knew what was at stake. This battle would decide the campaign in the north. Either Burgoyne would overcome and march on, trapping George Washington’s army near Philadelphia between his forces and General Howe’s—or his army of invasion would be brought to a halt and knocked out of the war, in which case Gates’s army could move south to reinforce Washington. The men all knew it, and the fog seemed electric with their anticipation.

By the sun, it was near ten o’clock when the fog lifted. The shots had begun some time earlier, brief, distant pings of rifle fire. Daniel Morgan’s men were taking out the pickets, I thought—and knew from what Jamie had said the night before that they were meant to aim for the officers, to kill those soldiers wearing silver gorgets. I hadn’t slept the night before, envisioning Lieutenant Ransom and the silver gorget at his throat. In fog, in the dust of battle, at a distance… I swallowed, but my throat stayed stubbornly closed; I couldn’t even drink water.

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