An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 115

   

“You don’t know what small thing might affect someone’s mind,” I pointed out. “Look at Robert the Bruce and that spider.”

That made him smile.

“I’ll gang warily, Sassenach,” he said. “But I’ll watch him.”

HAT TRICK

October 7, 1777

… Well, then, order on Morgan to begin the Game.

General Horatio Gates

ON A QUIET autumn morning, crisp and golden, a British deserter entered the American camp. Burgoyne was sending out a reconnaissance force, he said. Two thousand men, to test the strength of the American right wing.

“Granny Gates’s eyes nearly popped through his spectacles,” Jamie told me, hastily reloading his cartridge box. “And nay wonder.”

General Arnold, present when the news came, urged Gates to send out a strong force against this foray. Gates, true to form, had been cautious, and when Arnold requested permission to go out and see for himself what the British were about, had given his subordinate a cold look and said, “I am afraid to trust you, Arnold.”

“Matters rather went downhill from there,” Jamie said, grimacing slightly. “The end of it all was that Gates said to him—and I quote ye exactly, Sassenach—‘General Arnold, I have nothing for you to do. You have no business here.’ ”

I felt a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature of the morning air. Was this the moment? The thing that had—or would—turn Benedict Arnold against the cause he had fought for? Jamie saw what I was thinking, for he lifted one shoulder and said simply, “At least it’s nothing to do wi’ us this time.”

“That is a comfort,” I said, and meant it. “Take care, will you?”

“I will,” he said, taking up his rifle.

This time, he was able to kiss me goodbye in person.

THE BRITISH reconnaissance had a double purpose: not only to see exactly where the Americans were—for General Burgoyne had no real idea; American deserters had stopped coming in long since—but also to acquire much-needed forage for the remaining animals. Consequently, the leading companies stopped in a promising wheat field.

William sent his infantrymen to sit down in double rows among the standing grain, while the foragers began cutting the grain and loading it on horses. A lieutenant of dragoons, a black-headed Welshman named Absolute, waved from the other side of the field and called him to a game of hazard in his tent in the evening. He had just taken breath to call back when the man beside him let out a gasp and crumpled to the ground. He never heard the bullet, but ducked to the ground, calling out to his men.

Nothing further happened, though, and after a few moments they rose cautiously and went about their work. They began to see small parties of rebels, though, stealing through the trees, and William became conscious of a growing conviction that they were being surrounded. When he spoke of this to another officer, though, the man assured him that the rebels had decided to remain behind their defenses to be attacked.

They were soon undeceived on this point when, in mid-afternoon, a large body of Americans appeared in the woods on their left and heavy cannon opened up, slamming six-and twelve-pound balls that would have done great damage, were it not for the intervening trees.

The infantrymen scattered like quail, despite the calls of their officers. William caught sight of Absolute, pelting down the field through the wheat after a group of his men, and, turning, seized a corporal of one of his own companies.

“Gather them!” he said, and, not waiting for an answer, grabbed the bridle of one of the foragers’ horses, a surprised-looking bay gelding. It was his intent to ride for the main camp for reinforcements, for plainly the Americans were out in force.

He never got there, for as he pulled the horse’s head around, the brigadier rode onto the field.

JAMIE FRASER CROUCHED in the grove at the base of the wheat field with a group of Morgan’s men, taking aim as he could. It was as hot a battle as he’d seen, and the smoke from the cannon in the wood drifted through the field in heavy, choking clouds. He saw the man on the horse, a high-ranking British officer, to judge from his braid. Two or three others, juniors, were near him, also on horseback, but he had eyes only for the one.

Grasshoppers flew out of the field like hailstones, panicked by the trampling feet; one struck him in the cheek, buzzing, and he slapped at it, heart thumping as though it had been a musket ball.

He knew the man, though only by his general’s uniform. He had met Simon Fraser of Balnain two or three times, but when they both were lads in the Highlands—Simon was a few years younger, and Jamie’s vague memories of a small, round, cheerful wee lad who trotted after the older boys, waving a shinty stick taller than himself, had nothing in common with the stout, solid man who rose now in his stirrups, calling out and brandishing his sword, attempting to rally his panicked troops by sheer force of personality.

The aides were urging their mounts round his, trying to shield him, plainly urging him to come away, but he ignored them. Jamie caught a white glimpse of a face turned toward the wood, then away—plainly they knew the trees were full of riflemen, or could be, and were trying to keep out of range.

“There he is!” It was Arnold, crashing his small brown mare regardless through the heavy brush, his face alight with savage glee. “The generals!” he bellowed, rising in his own stirrups and throwing out an arm. “Shoot the generals, boys! Five dollars to the man who shoots yon fat bastard from his saddle!”

The random crack of rifle fire answered him at once. Jamie saw Daniel Morgan’s head turn sharp, eyes fierce at Arnold’s voice, and the rifleman started toward him, moving as fast as his rheumatism-crippled limbs would let him.

“Again! Try again!” Arnold smote a fist on his thigh, caught sight of Jamie watching him. “You—shoot him, can’t you?”

Jamie shrugged and, lifting the rifle to his shoulder, aimed deliberately high and wide. The wind had turned and the smoke of the shot stung his eyes, but he saw one of the junior officers near Simon jump and clap a hand to his head, twisting in the saddle to see his hat roll away into the wheat.

He wanted to laugh, though his wame curled a bit, realizing that he had nearly shot the man through the head, entirely by accident. The young man—yes, he was young, tall, and thin—rose in his stirrups and shook a fist at the wood.

“You owe me a hat, sir!” he shouted.

Arnold’s high, piercing laugh echoed through the wood, clear over the shouting, and the men with him hooted and screamed like crows.

“Come over here, younker, and I’ll buy you two!” Arnold shouted back, then reined his horse in a restless circle, bellowing at the riflemen. “Damn your eyes for a crew of blind men, will nobody kill me that frigging general?”

One or two shots spattered through the branches, but most of the men had seen Daniel Morgan stumping toward Arnold like an animated tree, gnarled and implacable, and held their fire.

Arnold must have seen him, too, but ignored him. He jerked a pistol from his belt and fired sideways across his body at Fraser, though he could not hope to hit anything at that distance, and his horse startled at the noise, ears flat back. Morgan, who had nearly reached him, was obliged to jerk back to avoid being trampled; he stumbled, and fell flat.

Without an instant’s hesitation, Arnold leapt off his horse and bent to raise the older man, apologizing with a completely sincere solicitude. Which, Jamie saw, was unappreciated by Morgan. He thought old Dan might just give Arnold one in the stones, rank and rheumatism notwithstanding.

The general’s horse was trained to stand, but the unexpected shot over her ears had spooked her; she was dancing nervously, feet a-rattle in the drifts of dead leaves and eyes showing white.

Jamie seized the reins and pulled the mare’s nose down, blowing into her nostrils to distract her. She whuffed and shook her head, but ceased to dance. He stroked her neck, clicking his tongue, and her ears rose a bit; his hand was bleeding again, he saw, but it was a slow seep through the bandage, not important. Over the solid curve of the mare’s neck, he could see Morgan, upright now and violently rejecting Arnold’s efforts to dust the leaf mold from his clothes.

“You are relieved of command, sir! How dare you to order my men?”

“Oh, f**k that for a game of soldiers!” Arnold said, impatient. “I’m a general. He’s a general”—he jerked his head toward the distant figure on horseback—“and I want him dead. Time enough for politics when it’s over—this is a fight, dammit!” Jamie caught a sudden strong whiff of rum, sweet and fierce under the smell of smoke and trampled wheat. Aye, well, perhaps that had somewhat to do with it—though from what he knew of Arnold, there was little enough to choose between the man stone sober and another raving with drink.

The wind came in gusts, hot past his ears, thick with smoke and random sounds: the rattle of muskets punctuated by the crash of artillery to the left, and through it the shouting of Simon Fraser and his juniors, calling the Hessians and English to rally, the grunts of impact and shrieks of pain from farther away, where the Hessians fought to break through General Enoch Poor’s advancing men.

General Ebenezer Learned’s column was pressing the Hessians from above; Jamie could see the knot of green German uniforms, struggling amid a surge of Continentals but being forced back from the edge of the field. Some were trying to break away, to head downfield toward General Fraser. A glimpse of motion drew his eye; the young man he had deprived of a hat was galloping up the field, bent low over his horse’s neck, saber drawn.

The general had moved a little, away from the wood. He was nearly out of range for most of Morgan’s men—but Jamie was well placed; he had a clear shot from here. He glanced down. He had dropped his rifle when he took the horse, but the gun was loaded; he had reloaded by reflex after his first shot. The half-empty cartridge was still folded in the hand that held the reins; priming would take but an instant.

“Sheas, a nighean,” he murmured to the horse, and took a deep breath, trying to will himself to calm, will that calmness into the mare, though his hand was throbbing with the rush of his blood. “Cha chluinn thu an còrr a chuireas eagal ort,” he said, under his breath. No more. Ye’ll hear nay more to fright ye.

He had not even thought about it when he’d fired to miss Fraser. He would kill any other man on the field—but not that one. Then he caught sight of the young soldier on the horse, coat bright red among the thrashing sea of green and blue and homespun, laying about him with his saber, and felt his mouth twitch. Not that one, either.

It seemed the young man was having a lucky day. He had cut through Learned’s column at the gallop, taking most of the Continentals unaware, and those who saw him were too much occupied with fighting or unable to shoot him because they had discharged their weapons and were fixing bayonets.

Jamie stroked the horse absently, whistling gently through his teeth and watching. The young officer had reached the Hessians, had got the attention of some, and was now fighting his way back down the field, a stream of dark green coats in his wake, Hessians at the trot, making for the narrowing gap as Poor’s men rushed in from the left.

Jamie was so much occupied by this entertaining spectacle that he had ignored the shouting match taking place between Dan Morgan and General Arnold. The sound of a whoop from overhead interrupted both.

“I got him, by Jaysus!”

Jamie looked up, startled, and saw Tim Murphy perched in the branches of an oak, grinning like a goblin, the barrel of his rifle snug in a fork. Jamie jerked his head round and saw Simon Fraser, slumped and swaying in his saddle, arms folded round his body.

Arnold let out a matching whoop, and Morgan glanced up at Murphy, nodding grudging approval.

“Good shot,” he called.

Simon Fraser was wobbling, about to fall—one of his aides reached for him, shouting desperately for help, another reined his horse to and fro, undecided where to go, what to do. Jamie clenched his fist, felt a jolt of pain shoot through his maimed hand, and stopped, palm flat on the saddle. Was Simon dead?

He couldn’t tell. The aides had overcome their panic; two of them rode close on either side, supporting the slumping figure, fighting to keep him in the saddle, heedless of the cheering from the wood.

He glanced up the field, searching for the young man with the saber. He couldn’t find him and felt a small stab of loss—then picked him up, engaged in a hand-to-hand with a mounted militia captain. No kind of finesse in that sort of fight; it was as much the horse as the man, and as he watched, the horses were forced apart by the crush of bodies round them. The British officer didn’t try to force his mount back; he had a goal in mind and shouted and gestured, urging on the small company of Hessians he had extracted from the melee above. Then he turned back toward the wood and saw what was happening, General Fraser’s horse being urged away, the general’s swaying body a splotch of red against the trampled wheat.

The young man stood in his stirrups for an instant, dropped, and spurred his horse toward the general, leaving his Hessians to follow as they might.

Jamie was close enough to see the darker crimson of the blood that soaked the middle of Simon Fraser’s body. If Simon wasn’t dead already, he thought, it wouldn’t be long. Grief and fury at the waste of it burned in his throat. Tears from the smoke were already running down his cheeks; he blinked and shook his head violently to clear his eyes.

A hand jerked the reins unceremoniously from his fingers, and Arnold’s stocky body brushed him away from the mare in a gust of rum. Arnold swung up into the saddle, face red as the scarlet maple leaves with excitement and victory.

“Follow me, boys!” he shouted, and Jamie saw that the wood was aswarm with militia, companies Arnold had collected on his mad dash for the battlefield. “To the redoubt!”

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