An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 111

   

“Is the subject not that I’m not killed?” he asked, trying to raise one brow and failing, with another wince.

“No! The subject is your stupidity, your bloody selfish stubbornness!”

“Oh, that.”

“Yes, that! You—you—oaf! How dare you do that to me? You think I haven’t got anything better to do with my life than trot round after you, sticking pieces back on?” I was frankly shrieking at him by this time.

To my increased fury, he grinned at me, his expression made the more rakish by the half-closed eye.

“Ye’d have been a good fishwife, Sassenach,” he observed. “Ye’ve the tongue for it.”

“You shut up, you f**king bloody—”

“They’ll hear you,” he said mildly, with a wave toward the party of Continental soldiers making their way down the slope toward us.

“I don’t care who hears me! If you weren’t already hurt, I’d—I’d—”

“Be careful, Sassenach,” he said, still grinning. “Ye dinna want to knock off any more pieces; ye’ll only have to stick them back on, aye?”

“Don’t bloody tempt me,” I said through my teeth, with a glance at the sword I had dropped.

He saw it and reached for it, but couldn’t quite manage. With an explosive snort, I leaned across his body and grabbed the hilt, putting it in his hand. I heard a shout from the men coming down the hill and turned to wave at them.

“Anyone hearing ye just now would likely think ye didna care for me owermuch, Sassenach,” he said, behind me.

I turned to look down at him. The impudent grin was gone, but he was still smiling.

“Ye’ve the tongue of a venemous shrew,” he said, “but you’re a bonnie wee swordsman, Sassenach.”

My mouth opened, but the words that had been so abundant a moment before had all evaporated like the rising mist.

He laid his good hand on my arm. “For now, a nighean donn—thank ye for my life.”

I closed my mouth. The men had nearly reached us, rustling through the grass, their exclamations and chatter drowning out the ever-fainter moans of the wounded.

“You’re welcome,” I said.

“HAMBURGER,” I SAID under my breath, but not far enough under. He raised an eyebrow at me.

“Chopped meat,” I elaborated, and the eyebrow fell.

“Oh, aye, it is. Stopped a sword stroke wi’ my hand. Too bad I didna have a targe; I could have turned the stroke, easy.”

“Right.” I swallowed. It wasn’t the worst injury I’d seen, by a long shot, but it still made me slightly sick. The tip of his fourth finger had been sheared off cleanly, at an angle just below the nail. The stroke had sliced a strip of flesh from the inside of the finger and ripped down between the third and fourth fingers.

“You must have caught it near the hilt,” I said, trying for calm. “Or it would have taken off the outside half of your hand.”

“Mmphm.” The hand didn’t move as I prodded and poked, but there was sweat on his upper lip, and he couldn’t keep back a brief grunt of pain.

“Sorry,” I murmured automatically.

“It’s all right,” he said, just as automatically. He closed his eyes, then opened them.

“Take it off,” he said suddenly.

“What?” I drew back and looked at him, startled.

He nodded at his hand.

“The finger. Take it off, Sassenach.”

“I can’t do that!” Even as I spoke, though, I knew that he was right. Aside from the injuries to the finger itself, the tendon was badly damaged; the chances of his ever being able to move the finger, let alone move it without pain, were infinitesimal.

“It’s done me little good in the last twenty years,” he said, looking at the mangled stump dispassionately, “and likely to do no better now. I’ve broken the damned thing half a dozen times, from its sticking out like it does. If ye take it off, it willna trouble me anymore, at least.”

I wanted to argue, but there was no time; wounded men were beginning to drift up the slope toward the wagon. The men were militia, not regular army; if there was a regiment near, there might be a surgeon with them, but I was closer.

“Once a frigging hero, always a frigging hero,” I muttered under my breath. I thrust a wad of lint into Jamie’s bloody palm and wrapped a linen bandage swiftly around the hand. “Yes, I’ll have to take it off, but later. Hold still.”

“Ouch,” he said mildly. “I did say I wasna a hero.”

“If you aren’t, it isn’t for lack of trying,” I said, yanking the linen knot tight with my teeth. “There, that will have to do for now; I’ll see to it when I have time.” I grabbed the wrapped hand and plunged it into the small basin of alcohol and water.

He went white as the alcohol seeped through the cloth and struck raw flesh. He inhaled sharply through his teeth, but didn’t say anything more. I pointed peremptorily at the blanket I had spread on the ground, and he lay back obediently, curling up under the shelter of the wagon, bandaged fist cradled against his breast.

I rose from my knees, but hesitated for a moment. Then I knelt again and hastily kissed the back of his neck, brushing aside the queue of his hair, matted with half-dried mud and dead leaves. I could just see the curve of his cheek; it tightened briefly as he smiled and then relaxed.

Word had spread that the hospital wagon was there; there was already a straggling group of walking wounded awaiting attention, and I could see men carrying or half-dragging their injured companions toward the light of my lantern. It was going to be a busy evening.

Colonel Everett had promised me two assistants, but God knew where the colonel was at the moment. I took a moment to survey the gathering crowd and picked out a young man who had just deposited a wounded friend beneath a tree.

“You,” I said, tugging on his sleeve. “Are you afraid of blood?”

He looked momentarily startled, then grinned at me through a mask of mud and powder smoke. He was about my height, broad-shouldered and stocky, with a face that might have been called cherubic had it been less filthy.

“Only if it’s mine, ma’am, and so far it ain’t, Lord be praised.”

“Then come with me,” I said, smiling back. “You’re now a triage aide.”

“Say what? Hey, Harry!” he yelled to his friend. “I been promoted. Tell your mama next time you write, Lester done amounted to something, after all!” He swaggered after me, still grinning.

The grin rapidly faded into a look of frowning absorption as I led him quickly among the wounded, pointing out degrees of severity.

“Men pouring blood are the first priority,” I told him. I thrust an armful of linen bandages and a sack of lint into his hands. “Give them these—tell their friends to press the lint hard on the wounds or put a tourniquet round the limb above the wound. You know what a tourniquet is?”

“Oh, yes, ma’am,” he assured me. “Put one on, too, when a panther clawed up my cousin Jess, down to Caroline County.”

“Good. Don’t spend time doing it yourself here unless you have to, though—let their friends do it. Now, broken bones can wait a bit—put them over there under that big beech tree. Head injuries and internal injuries that aren’t bleeding, back there, by the chestnut tree, if they can be moved. If not, I’ll go to them.” I pointed behind me, then turned in a half circle, surveying the ground.

“If you see a couple of whole men, send them up to put up the hospital tent; it’s to go in that flattish spot, there. And then a couple more, to dig a latrine trench … over there, I think.”

“Yes, sir! Ma’am, I mean!” Lester bobbed his head and took a firm grip on his sack of lint. “I be right after it, ma’am. Though I wouldn’t worry none about the latrines for a while,” he added. “Most of these boys already done had the shit scairt out of ’em.” He grinned and bobbed once more, then set out on his rounds.

He was right; the faint stink of feces hung in the air as it always did on battlefields, a low note amid the pungencies of blood and smoke.

With Lester sorting the wounded, I settled down to the work of repair, with my medicine box, suture bag, and bowl of alcohol set on the wagon’s tailboard and a keg of alcohol for the patients to sit on—provided they could sit.

The worst of the casualties were bayonet wounds; luckily there had been no grapeshot, and the men hit by cannonballs were long past the point where I could help them. As I worked, I listened with half an ear to the conversation of the men awaiting attention.

“Wasn’t that the damnedest thing ye ever saw? How many o’ the buggers were there?” one man was asking his neighbor.

“Damned if I know,” his friend replied, shaking his head. “For a space there, ever’thing I saw was red, and nothin’ but. Then a cannon went off right close, and I didn’t see nothin’ but smoke for a good long time.” He rubbed at his face; tears from watering eyes had made long streaks in the black soot that covered him from chest to forehead.

I glanced back at the wagon but couldn’t see under it. I hoped shock and fatigue had enabled Jamie to sleep, in spite of his hand, but I doubted it.

Despite the fact that nearly everyone near me was wounded in some fashion, their spirits were high and the general mood was one of exuberant relief and exultation. Farther down the hill, in the mists near the river, I could hear whoops and shouts of victory and the undisciplined racket of fifes and drums, rattling and screeching in random exhilaration.

Among the noise, a nearer voice called out: a uniformed officer, on a bay horse.

“Anybody seen that big redheaded bastard who broke the charge?”

There was a murmur and a general looking around, but no one answered. The horseman dismounted and, wrapping his reins over a branch, made his way through the throng of wounded toward me.

“Whoever he is, I tell you, he’s got balls the size of ten-pound shot,” remarked the man whose cheek I was stitching.

“And a head of the same consistency,” I murmured.

“Eh?” He glanced sideways at me in bewilderment.

“Nothing,” I said. “Hold still just a moment longer; I’m nearly done.”

IT WAS A HELLISH night. Some of the wounded still lay in the ravines and hollows, as did all the dead. The wolves that came silently out of the wood did not distinguish between them, judging from the distant screams.

It was nearly dawn before I came back to the tent where Jamie lay. I lifted the flap quietly, so as not to disturb him, but he was already awake, lying curled on his side facing the flap, head resting on a folded blanket.

He smiled faintly when he saw me.

“A hard night, Sassenach?” he asked, his voice slightly hoarse from cold air and disuse. Mist seeped under the edge of the flap, tinted yellow by the lantern light.

“I’ve had worse.” I smoothed the hair off his face, looking him over carefully. He was pale but not clammy. His face was drawn with pain, but his skin was cool to the touch—no trace of fever. “You haven’t slept, have you? How do you feel?”

“A bit scairt,” he said. “And a bit sick. But better now you’re here.” He gave me a one-sided grimace that was almost a smile.

I put a hand under his jaw, fingers pressed against the pulse in his neck. His heart bumped steadily under my fingertips, and I shivered briefly, remembering the woman in the field.

“You’re chilled, Sassenach,” he said, feeling it. “And tired, too. Go and sleep, aye? I’ll do a bit longer.”

I was tired. The adrenaline of the battle and the night’s work was fading fast; fatigue was creeping down my spine and loosening my joints. But I had a good idea of what the hours of waiting had cost him already.

“It won’t take long,” I reassured him. “And it will be better to have it over. Then you can sleep easy.”

He nodded, though he didn’t look noticeably reassured. I unfolded the small worktable I had carried in from the operating tent and set it up in easy reach. Then I took out the precious bottle of laudanum and poured an inch of the dark, odorous liquid into a cup.

“Sip it slowly,” I said, putting it into his left hand. I began to lay out the instruments I would need, making sure that everything lay orderly and to hand. I had thought of asking Lester to come and assist me, but he had been asleep on his feet, swaying drunkenly under the dim lanterns in the operating tent, and I had sent him off to find a blanket and a spot by the fire.

A small scalpel, freshly sharpened. The jar of alcohol, with the wet ligatures coiled inside like a nest of tiny vipers, each toothed with a small, curved needle. Another with the waxed dry ligatures for arterial compression. A bouquet of probes, their ends soaking in alcohol. Forceps. Long-handled retractors. The hooked tenaculum, for catching the ends of severed arteries.

The surgical scissors with their short, curved blades and the handles shaped to fit my grasp, made to my order by the silversmith Stephen Moray. Or almost to my order. I had insisted that the scissors be as plain as possible, to make them easy to clean and disinfect. Stephen had obliged with a chaste and elegant design, but had not been able to resist one small flourish—one handle boasted a hooklike extension against which I could brace my little finger in order to exert more force, and this extrusion formed a smooth, lithe curve, flowering at the tip into a slender rosebud against a spray of leaves. The contrast between the heavy, vicious blades at one end and this delicate conceit at the other always made me smile when I lifted the scissors from their case.

Strips of cotton gauze and heavy linen, pads of lint, adhesive plasters stained red with the dragon’s-blood juice that made them sticky. An open bowl of alcohol for disinfection as I worked, and the jars of cinchona bark, mashed garlic paste, and yarrow for dressing.

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