An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 110

   

Jamie had slept, with the stubborn concentration of a soldier, but had waked in the deep hours of the night, his shirt soaked with sweat in spite of the chill, trembling. I didn’t ask what he had been dreaming about; I knew. I had got him a dry shirt and made him lie down again with his head in my lap, then stroked his head until he closed his eyes—but I thought he hadn’t slept again.

It wasn’t chilly now; the fog had burned away, and we heard sustained rattles of gunfire, patchy, but repeated volleys. Faint, distant shouting, but impossible to make out who was shouting what at whom. Then the sudden crash of a British fieldpiece, a resounding boom that struck the camp silent. A lull, and then full-scale battle broke out, shooting and screaming and the intermittent thud of cannon. Women huddled together or set about grimly packing up their belongings, in case we should have to flee.

About midday, a relative silence fell. Was it over? We waited. After a little, children began whining to be fed and a sort of tense normality descended—but nothing happened. We could hear moaning and calls for help from men wounded—but no wounded were brought in.

I was ready. I had a small mule-drawn wagon, equipped with bandages and medical equipment, and a small tent as well, which I could set up in case I needed to perform surgery in the rain. The mule was staked nearby, grazing placidly and ignoring both the tension and the occasional burst of musketry.

In the middle of the afternoon, hostilities broke out again, and this time the camp followers and cook wagons actually began to retreat. There was artillery on both sides, enough of it that the continuous cannonading rolled like thunder, and I saw a huge cloud of black powder smoke rise up from the bluff. It was not quite mushroom-shaped, but made me think nonetheless of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I sharpened my knife and scalpels for the dozenth time.

IT WAS NEAR evening; the sun sank invisibly, staining the fog with a dull and sullen orange. The evening wind off the river was rising, lifting the fog from the ground and sending it scudding in billows and swirls.

Clouds of black powder smoke lay heavy in the hollows, lifting more slowly than the lighter shreds of mist and lending a suitable stink of brimstone to a scene that was—if not hellish—at least bloody eerie.

Here and there a space would suddenly be cleared, like a curtain pulled back to show the aftermath of battle. Small dark figures moved in the distance, darting and stooping, stopping suddenly, heads uplifted like baboons keeping watch for a leopard. Camp followers; the wives and whores of the soldiers, come like crows to scavenge the dead.

Children, too. Under a bush, a boy of nine or ten straddled the body of a red-coated soldier, smashing at the face with a heavy rock. I stopped, paralyzed at the sight, and saw the boy reach into the gaping, bloodied mouth and wrench out a tooth. He slipped the bloody prize into a bag that hung by his side, groped farther, tugging, and, finding no more teeth loose, picked up his rock in a businesslike way and went back to work.

I felt bile rise in my throat and hurried on, swallowing. I was no stranger to war, to death and wounds. But I had never been so near a battle before; I had never before come on a battlefield where the dead and wounded still lay, before the ministrations of medics and burial details.

There were calls for help and occasional moans or screams, ringing disembodied out of the mist, reminding me uncomfortably of Highland stories of the urisge, the doomed spirits of the glen. Like the heroes of such stories, I didn’t stop to heed their call but pressed on, stumbling over small rises, slipping on damp grass.

I had seen photographs of the great battlefields, from the American Civil War to the beaches of Normandy. This was nothing like that—no churned earth, no heaps of tangled limbs. It was still, save for the noises of the scattered wounded and the voices of those calling, like me, for a missing friend or husband.

Shattered trees lay toppled by artillery; in this light, I might have thought the bodies turned into logs themselves, dark shapes lying long in the grass—save for the fact that some of them still moved. Here and there, a form stirred feebly, victim of war’s sorcery, struggling against the enchantment of death.

I paused and shouted into the mist, calling his name. I heard answering calls, but none in his voice. Ahead of me lay a young man, arms outflung, a look of blank astonishment on his face, blood pooled round his upper body like a great halo. His lower half lay six feet away. I walked between the pieces, keeping my skirts close, nostrils pinched tight against the thick iron smell of blood.

The light was fading now, but I saw Jamie as soon as I came over the edge of the next rise. He was lying on his face in the hollow, one arm flung out, the other curled beneath him. The shoulders of his dark blue coat were nearly black with damp, and his legs thrown wide, booted heels askew.

The breath caught in my throat, and I ran down the slope toward him, heedless of grass clumps, mud, and brambles. As I got close, though, I saw a scuttling figure dart out from behind a nearby bush and dash toward him. It fell to its knees beside him and, without hesitation, grasped his hair and yanked his head to one side. Something glinted in the figure’s hand, bright even in the dull light.

“Stop!” I shouted. “Drop it, you bastard!”

Startled, the figure looked up as I flung myself over the last yards of space. Narrow red-rimmed eyes glared up at me out of a round face streaked with soot and grime.

“Get off!” she snarled. “I found ’im first!” It was a knife in her hand; she made little jabbing motions at me, in an effort to drive me away.

I was too furious—and too afraid for Jamie—to be scared for myself.

“Let go of him! Touch him and I’ll kill you!” I said. My fists were clenched, and I must have looked as though I meant it, for the woman flinched back, loosing her hold on Jamie’s hair.

“He’s mine,” she said, thrusting her chin pugnaciously at me. “Go find yourself another.”

Another form slipped out of the mist and materialized by her side. It was the boy I had seen earlier, filthy and scruffy as the woman herself. He had no knife but clutched a crude metal strip, cut from a canteen. The edge of it was dark, with rust or blood.

He glared at me. “He’s ours, Mum said! Get on wi’ yer! Scat!”

Not waiting to see whether I would or not, he flung a leg over Jamie’s back, sat on him, and began to grope in the side pockets of his coat.

“ ’E’s still alive, Mum,” he advised. “I can feel ’is ’eart beatin’. Best slit his throat quick; I don’t think ’e’s bad hurt.”

I grabbed the boy by the collar and jerked him off Jamie’s body, making him drop his weapon. He squealed and flailed at me with arms and elbows, but I kneed him in the rump, hard enough to jar his backbone, then got my elbow locked about his neck in a stranglehold, his skinny wrist vised in my other hand.

“Leave him go!” The woman’s eyes narrowed like a weasel’s, and her eye-teeth shone in a snarl.

I didn’t dare take my eyes away from the woman’s long enough to look at Jamie. I could see him, though, at the edge of my vision, head turned to the side, his neck gleaming white, exposed and vulnerable.

“Stand up and step back,” I said, “or I’ll choke him to death, I swear I will!”

She crouched over Jamie’s body, knife in hand, as she measured me, trying to make up her mind whether I meant it. I did.

The boy struggled and twisted in my grasp, his feet hammering against my shins. He was small for his age, and thin as a stick, but strong nonetheless; it was like wrestling an eel. I tightened my hold on his neck; he gurgled and quit struggling. His hair was thick with rancid grease and dirt, the smell of it rank in my nostrils.

Slowly, the woman stood up. She was much smaller than I, and scrawny with it—bony wrists stuck out of the ragged sleeves. I couldn’t guess her age—under the filth and the puffiness of malnutrition, she might have been anything from twenty to fifty.

“My man lies yonder, dead on the ground,” she said, jerking her head at the fog behind her. “ ’E hadn’t nothing but his musket, and the sergeant’ll take that back.”

Her eyes slid toward the distant wood, where the British troops had retreated. “I’ll find a man soon, but I’ve children to feed in the meantime—two besides the boy.” She licked her lips, and a coaxing note entered her voice. “You’re alone; you can manage better than we can. Let me have this one—there’s more over there.” She pointed with her chin toward the slope behind me, where the rebel dead and wounded lay.

My grasp must have loosened slightly as I listened, for the boy, who had hung quiescent in my grasp, made a sudden lunge and burst free, diving over Jamie’s body to roll at his mother’s feet.

He got up beside her, watching me with rat’s eyes, beady-bright and watchful. He bent and groped about in the grass, coming up with the makeshift dagger.

“Hold ’er off, Mum,” he said, his voice raspy from the choking. “I’ll take ’im.”

From the corner of my eye, I had caught the gleam of metal, half buried in the grass.

“Wait!” I said, and took a step back. “Don’t kill him. Don’t.” A step to the side, another back. “I’ll go, I’ll let you have him, but…” I lunged to the side and got my hand on the cold metal hilt.

I had picked up Jamie’s sword before. It was a cavalry sword, larger and heavier than the usual, but I didn’t notice now.

I snatched it up and swung it in a two-handed arc that ripped the air and left the metal ringing in my hands.

Mother and son jumped back, identical looks of ludicrous surprise on their round, grimy faces.

“Get away!” I said.

Her mouth opened, but she didn’t say anything.

“I’m sorry for your man,” I said. “But my man lies here. Get away, I said!” I raised the sword, and the woman stepped back hastily, dragging the boy by the arm.

She turned and went, muttering curses at me over her shoulder, but I paid no attention to what she said. The boy’s eyes stayed fixed on me as he went, dark coals in the dim light. He would know me again—and I him.

They vanished in the mist, and I lowered the sword, which suddenly weighed too much to hold. I dropped it on the grass and fell to my knees beside Jamie.

My own heart was pounding in my ears and my hands were shaking with reaction, as I groped for the pulse in his neck. I turned his head and could see it, throbbing steadily just below his jaw.

“Thank God!” I whispered to myself. “Oh, thank God!”

I ran my hands over him quickly, searching for injury before I moved him. I didn’t think the scavengers would come back; I could hear the voices of a group of men, distant on the ridge behind me—a rebel detail coming to fetch the wounded.

There was a large knot on his brow, already turning purple. Nothing else that I could see. The boy had been right, I thought, with gratitude; he wasn’t badly hurt. Then I rolled him onto his back and saw his hand.

Highlanders were accustomed to fight with sword in one hand, targe in the other, the small leather shield used to deflect an opponent’s blow. He hadn’t had a targe.

The blade had struck him between the third and fourth fingers of his right hand and sliced through the hand itself, a deep, ugly wound that split his palm and the body of his hand, halfway to the wrist.

Despite the horrid look of the wound, there wasn’t much blood; the hand had been curled under him, his weight acting as a pressure bandage. The front of his shirt was smeared with red, deeply stained over his heart. I ripped open his shirt and felt inside, to be sure that the blood was from his hand, but it was. His chest was cool and damp from the grass but unscathed, his ni**les shrunken and stiff with chill.

“That… tickles,” he said in a drowsy voice. He pawed awkwardly at his chest with his left hand, trying to brush my hand away.

“Sorry,” I said, repressing the urge to laugh with the joy of seeing him alive and conscious. I got an arm behind his shoulders and helped him to sit up. He looked drunk, with one eye swollen half shut and grass in his hair. He acted drunk, too, swaying alarmingly from side to side.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

“Sick,” he said succinctly. He leaned to the side and threw up.

I eased him back on the grass and wiped his mouth, then set about bandaging his hand.

“Someone will be here soon,” I assured him. “We’ll get you back to the wagon, and I can take care of this.”

“Mmphm.” He grunted slightly as I pulled the bandage tight. “What happened?”

“What happened?” I stopped what I was doing and stared at him. “You’re asking me?”

“What happened in the battle, I mean,” he said patiently, regarding me with his one good eye. “I know what happened to me—roughly,” he added, wincing as he touched his forehead.

“Yes, roughly,” I said rudely. “You got yourself chopped like a butchered hog, and your head half caved in. Being a sodding bloody hero again, that’s what happened to you!”

“I wasna—” he began, but I interrupted, my relief over seeing him alive being rapidly succeeded by rage.

“You didn’t have to go to Ticonderoga! You shouldn’t have gone! Stick to the writing and the printing, you said. You weren’t going to fight unless you had to, you said. Well, you didn’t have to, but you did it anyway, you vain glorious, pigheaded, grandstanding Scot!”

“Grandstanding?” he inquired.

“You know just what I mean, because it’s just what you did! You might have been killed!”

“Aye,” he agreed ruefully. “I thought I was, when the dragoon came down on me. I screeched and scairt his horse, though,” he added more cheerfully. “It reared up and got me in the face with its knee.”

“Don’t change the subject!” I snapped.

Loading...