An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 113

   

I laid Jamie’s hand on the cot, near his face. He was pale, but not excessively so, and his lips were a light rosy color, not blue. I dropped the instruments into a bucket of alcohol and water, suddenly too tired to clean them properly. I wrapped the discarded finger in a linen bandage, not quite sure what to do with it, and left it on the table.

“Rise and shine! Rise and shine!” came the sergeants’ rhythmic cry from outside, punctuated by witty variations and crude responses from reluctant risers.

I didn’t bother to undress; if there was fighting today, I would be roused soon enough. Not Jamie, though. I had nothing to worry about; no matter what happened, he wouldn’t fight today.

I unpinned my hair and shook it down over my shoulders, sighing with relief at its looseness. Then I lay down on the cot beside him, close against him. He lay on his stomach; I could see the small, muscular swell of his bu**ocks, smooth under the blanket that covered him. On impulse, I laid my hand on his rump and squeezed.

“Sweet dreams,” I said, and let the tiredness take me.

SEPARATED FOREVER FROM MY FRIENDS AND KIN

LIEUTENANT LORD ELLESMERE had finally killed a rebel. Several, he thought, though he could not be sure of those he’d shot at; some of them fell but might be only wounded. He was sure of the man who had attacked one of the British cannon, with a party of other rebels. He’d hacked that man half through the body with a cavalry saber, and he felt a strange numbness in his sword arm for several days after, this making him flex his left hand every few minutes to be sure he could still use it.

The numbness was not limited to his arm.

The days after the battle in the British camp were spent partially in the orderly retrieval of the wounded, the burial of the dead, and in regathering their forces. What forces remained to be gathered. Desertion was rife; there was a constant small stream of furtive departures—one day a whole company of Brunswickers defected.

He oversaw more than one burial detail, watching with set face as men—and boys—he knew were consigned to the earth. On the first couple of days, they hadn’t buried the bodies deep enough, and were obliged to listen all night to the howling and snarling of wolves fighting over the carcasses they had dragged from the shallow graves. They reburied what was left the next day, deeper.

Fires burned every hundred yards around the camp at night, for American sharpshooters came close in the dark, taking out the pickets.

The days were blazingly hot, the nights miserably cold—and no one rested. Burgoyne had issued an order that no officer nor soldier should ever sleep without his cloaths, and William had not changed his linen in more than a week. It didn’t matter what he smelled like; his own reek was undetectable. The men were obliged to be in the lines, with their arms, an hour before dawn, and to remain there until the sun had burned away the fog, to be sure the fog did not hide Americans ready to attack.

The daily bread allowance was cut. Salt pork and flour were running out, and the sutlers lacked tobacco and brandy, to the disgruntlement of the German troops. On the good side, the British defenses were in splendid order, with two large redoubts built and a thousand men sent out to cut trees to open fields of fire for the artillery. And Burgoyne had announced that General Clinton was expected within ten days, with a supporting force—and food, it was to be hoped. All they had to do was wait.

“The Jews wait the Messiah not more than we wait General Clinton,” joked Ober-Leftenant Gruenwald, who had by some miracle survived his wound at Bennington.

“Ha-ha,” said William.

THE AMERICAN CAMP was in good spirits, more than ready to finish the job they had started. Unfortunately, while the British camp was short of rations, the Americans were short of ammunition and powder. The result was a period of restless stasis, during which the Americans picked constantly at the periphery of the British camp but could make no real progress.

Ian Murray found this tedious in the extreme, and after a token foray in the fog had resulted in a careless companion’s stepping on a discarded gun spike and puncturing his foot, he decided this was adequate excuse to pay a visit to the hospital tent where Rachel Hunter was assisting her brother.

The prospect so animated him, though, that he paid inadequate attention to his own footing in the fog and plunged headfirst into a ravine, striking his head a glancing blow on a rock. Thus it was that the two men limped into camp, supporting each other, and made their halting way to the hospital tent.

It was busy in the tent; this was not where the battle-wounded lay but where those with trivial afflictions came for treatment. Ian’s head was not broken, but he was seeing two of everything, and closed one eye in hopes that this might help him spot Rachel.

“Ho ro,” someone behind him said in open approval, “mo nighean donn boidheach!” For one head-spinning instant, he thought it was his uncle speaking and blinked stupidly, wondering why Uncle Jamie should be making flirtatious remarks to his aunt while she was working—but Auntie Claire wasn’t here at all, his slow wits reminded him, so what…

One hand over his eye to keep it from falling out of his head, he turned carefully and saw a man in the opening of the tent.

The morning sun struck sparks from the man’s hair, and Ian’s mouth fell open, feeling that he had been struck in the pit of the stomach.

It wasn’t Uncle Jamie, he could see that at once as the man came in, also helping a limping comrade. The face was wrong: red and weather-beaten, with cheerful, snub features; the hair was ginger, not rufous, and receded sharply from the man’s temples. He was solidly built, not terribly tall, but the way he moved… like a catamount, even burdened with his friend, and for some reason Ian could not remove the lingering impression of Jamie Fraser.

The red-haired man was kilted; they both were. Highlanders, he thought, thoroughly fuddled. But he’d known that from the moment the man spoke.

“Có thu?” Ian asked abruptly. Who are you?

Hearing the Gaelic, the man looked at him, startled. He gave Ian a quick up-and-down, taking in his Mohawk dress, before answering.

“Is mise Seaumais Mac Choinnich à Boisdale,” he answered, courteously enough. “Có tha faighneachd?” I am Hamish MacKenzie, of Boisdale. Who asks?

“Ian Murray,” he replied, trying to focus his addled wits. The name sounded faintly familiar—but why would it not? He knew hundreds of MacKenzies. “My grandmother was a MacKenzie,” he offered, in the usual way of establishing relations among strangers. “Ellen MacKenzie, of Leoch.”

The man’s eyes sprang wide

“Ellen, of Leoch?” cried the man, very excited. “Daughter of him they called Jacob Ruaidh?”

In his excitement, Hamish’s grip had tightened on his friend, and the man gave a yelp. This attracted the attention of the young woman—the one Hamish had greeted as “O, beautiful nut-brown maiden”—and she came hurrying to see the matter.

She was nut brown, Ian saw; Rachel Hunter, tanned by the sun to the exact soft shade of a hickory nut, what showed of her hair beneath her kerchief the shade of walnut hulls, and he smiled at the thought. She saw him and narrowed her eyes.

“Well, and if thee is able to grin like an ape, thee is not much hurt. Why—” She stopped, astonished at the sight of Ian Murray locked in embrace with a kilted Highlander, who was weeping with joy. Ian was not weeping, but was undeniably pleased.

“Ye’ll want to meet my uncle Jamie,” he said, adroitly disentangling himself. “Seaumais Ruaidh, I think ye called him.”

JAMIE FRASER HAD his eyes shut, cautiously exploring the pain in his hand. It was sharp-edged, strong enough to make him queasy, but with that deep, grinding ache common to broken bones. Still, it was a healing ache. Claire spoke of bones knitting—and he’d often thought this was more than a metaphor; it sometimes felt that someone was indeed stabbing steel needles into the bone and forcing the shattered ends back into some pattern, heedless of how the flesh around them felt about it.

He should look at his hand, he knew that. He had to get used to it, after all. He’d had the one quick glance, and it had left him dizzy and on the point of vomiting out of sheer confoundment. He could not reconcile the sight, the feel of it, with the strong memory of how his hand ought to be.

He’d done it before, though, he reminded himself. He’d got used to the scars and the stiffness. And yet… he could remember how his young hand had felt, had looked, so easy, limber and painless, folded round the handle of a hoe, the hilt of a sword. Clutching a quill—well, no. He smiled ruefully to himself. That hadn’t been either easy or limber, even with his fingers at their unmarred best.

Would he be able to write at all with his hand now? he wondered suddenly, and in curiosity flexed his hand a little. The pain made him gasp, but… his eyes were open, fixed on his hand. The disconcerting sight of his little finger pressed close to the middle one did make his belly clench, but… his fingers curled. It hurt like Christ crucified, but it was just pain; there was no pull, no stubborn hindrance from the frozen finger. It… worked.

“I mean to leave you with a working hand,” He could hear Claire’s voice, breathless but sure.

He smiled a little. It didn’t do to argue with the woman over any matter medical.

I CAME INTO the tent to fetch my small cautery iron and found Jamie sitting on the cot, slowly flexing his injured hand and contemplating his severed finger, which lay on a box beside him. I had wrapped it hastily in a plaster bandage, and it looked like a mummified worm.

“Er,” I said delicately. “I’ll, um, dispose of that, shall I?”

“How?” He put out a tentative forefinger, touched it, then snatched back his hand as though the detached finger had moved suddenly. He made a small, nervous sound that wasn’t quite a laugh.

“Burn it?” I suggested. That was the usual method for disposing of amputated limbs on battlefields, though I had never personally done it. The notion of building a funeral pyre for the cremation of a single finger seemed suddenly absurd—though no more so than the idea of simply tossing it into one of the cookfires and hoping no one noticed.

Jamie made a dubious noise in his throat, indicating that he wasn’t keen on the idea.

“Well… I suppose you could smoke it,” I said, with equal dubiety. “And keep it in your sporran as a souvenir. Like Young Ian did with Neil Forbes’s ear. Has he still got that, do you know?”

“Aye, he does.” Jamie’s color was beginning to come back, as he regained his self-possession. “But, no, I dinna think I want to do that.”

“I could pickle it in spirits of wine,” I offered. That got the ghost of a smile.

“Ten to one, someone would drink it before the day was out, Sassenach.” I thought that was generous odds, myself. More like a thousand to one. I managed to keep my medicinal alcohol mostly intact only by virtue of having one of Ian’s more ferocious Indian acquaintances guard it, when I wasn’t using it—and sleeping with the keg next to me at night.

“Well, I think that leaves burial as the only other option.”

“Mmphm.” That sound indicated agreement, but with reservations, and I glanced up at him.

“What?”

“Aye, well,” he said, rather diffidently. “When wee Fergus lost his hand, we … well, it was Jenny’s notion. But we held a bit of a funeral, ken?”

I bit my lip. “Well, why not? Will it be a family affair, or shall we invite everyone?”

Before he could answer this, I heard Ian’s voice outside, talking to someone, and an instant later his disheveled head pushed through the flap. One of his eyes was black and swollen and there was a sizable lump on his head, but he was grinning from ear to ear.

“Uncle Jamie?” he said. “There’s someone here to see ye.”

“HOW IS IT that ye come to be here, a charaid?” Jamie asked, somewhere after the third bottle. We had had supper long since, and the campfire was burning low.

Hamish wiped his mouth and handed the new bottle back.

“Here,” he repeated. “Here in the wilderness, d’ye mean? Or here, fighting against the King?” He gave Jamie a direct blue look, so like one of Jamie’s own that Jamie smiled, recognizing it.

“Is the second of those questions the answer to the first?” he said, and Hamish gave him the shadow of a smile in return.

“Aye, that would be it. Ye were always quick as the hummingbird, a Sheaumais. In body and mind.” Seeing from my expression that I was perhaps not quite so swift in my perceptions, he turned to me.

“It was the King’s troops who killed my uncle, the King’s soldiers who killed the fighting men of the clan, who destroyed the land, who left the women and the bairns to starve—who battered down my home and exiled me, who killed half the people left to me with cold and hunger and the plagues of the wilderness.” He spoke quietly, but with a passion that burned in his eyes.

“I was eleven years old when they came to the castle and put us out. I turned twelve on the day that they made me swear my oath to the King—they said I was a man. And by the time we reached Nova Scotia… I was.”

He turned to Jamie.

“They made ye swear, too, a Sheaumais?”

“They did,” Jamie said softly. “A forced oath canna bind a man, though, or keep him from his knowledge of right.”

Hamish put out a hand, and Jamie gripped it, though they did not look at each other.

“No,” he said, with certainty. “That it cannot.”

Perhaps not; but I knew they were both thinking, as I was, of the language of that oath: May I lie in an unconsecrated grave, separated forever from my friends and kin. And both thinking—as I was—how great the odds were that that fate was exactly what would happen to them.

And to me.

I cleared my throat.

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