An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 116

   

The men cheered and rushed after him, breaking branches and stumbling in their eagerness.

“Follow that goddamned fool,” Morgan said shortly, and Jamie glanced at him in surprise. Morgan scowled at Arnold’s back.

“He’ll be court-martialed, mark my words,” the old rifleman said. “He’d best have a good witness. You’re it, James. Go!”

Without a word, Jamie seized his rifle from the ground and set off at a run, leaving the wood with its gentle rain of gold and brown. Following Arnold’s broad-shouldered whooping form, his waving hat. Into the wheat.

THEY DID FOLLOW him. A bellowing horde, an armed rabble. Arnold was mounted, but his horse found it heavy going, and the men were not hard-pressed to keep up. Jamie saw the back of Arnold’s blue coat blotched black with sweat, molded like a rind to the burly shoulders. One shot from the rear, the confusion of battle … But it was no more than a passing thought, gone in an instant.

Arnold was gone, too, with a whoop, spurring his mare up and around, past the redoubt. Jamie assumed he must be meaning to ride in from the rear—suicide, as the place was crawling with German grenadiers; he could see their mitred hats poking up above the walls of the redoubt. Perhaps Arnold meant to commit suicide—perhaps only to create a diversion for the men attacking the redoubt from the front, with his own death an acceptable price to be paid for it.

The redoubt itself stood fifteen feet high, a packed earthen wall with a palisade of logs built atop it—and between earth and palisade were abatis, logs sharpened to a point and flung down pointing outward.

Balls were spattering the field before the redoubt, and Jamie ran, dodging bullets he couldn’t see.

He scrabbled with his feet, clawing for purchase on the logs of the abatis, got one hand through a gap and onto a log, but lost his grip on the flaking bark and fell back, landing bruisingly on his rifle and knocking out his wind. The man beside him fired up through the gap, and white smoke spurted over him, hiding him momentarily from the Hessian he’d glimpsed above. He rolled over and crawled fast away before the smoke could drift off or the fellow decide to drop a grenade through it.

“Get clear!” he shouted over his shoulder, but the man who’d fired was trying his own luck with a running jump. The grenade fell through the gap just as the man leapt upward. It caught him in the chest and went off.

Jamie rubbed his hand on his shirt, swallowing bile. The skin of his palm stung, scraped and full of bark splinters. Shards of metal and wood chips had exploded outward; something had struck Jamie in the face, and he felt the sting of his sweat and the warmth of blood running down his cheek. He could see the grenadier, a glimpse of green coat through the gap in the abatis. Quick, before he moved.

He grabbed a cartridge from his bag and ripped it with his teeth, counting. He could load a rifle in twelve seconds, he knew it, had timed it. Nine… eight… What was it Bree taught the weans, counting seconds? Hippopotami, aye. Six hippopotami… five hippopotami… He had an insane urge to laugh, seeing in his mind’s eye a group of several hippopotami solemnly watching him and making critical remarks regarding his progress. Two hippopotami… He wasn’t dead yet, so he pressed himself close up under the abatis, aimed the barrel through the gap, and fired at the smear of green that might be a fir tree but wasn’t, since it screamed.

He slung the rifle onto his back and once more leaped, fingers digging desperately into the unpeeled log. They slipped, splinters running up under his nails, and pain shot through his hand like lightning but now he had his other hand up, grabbed his right wrist with his sound left hand, and locked his grip round the log. His feet slid on the loose-packed dirt, and for an instant he swung free, like a squirrel hanging from a tree branch. He pulled upward against his weight and felt something tear in his shoulder, but couldn’t stop to favor it. A foot, he had his foot braced on the underside of the log now. A wild swing with his free leg and he was clinging like a sloth. Something chunked into the log he clung to; he felt the shiver through the wood.

“Hold on, Red!” someone screamed below him, and he froze. Another chunking sound and something came down on the wood an inch from his fingers—an ax? He didn’t have time to be scared; the man below fired past his shoulder—he heard the ball whiz past, buzzing like an angry hornet—and he pulled himself toward the base of the log in a rush, hand over hand as fast as he could, worming his way between the logs, clothes ripping, and his joints, too.

There were two Hessians lying just above his gap, dead or wounded. Another, ten feet away, saw his head pop through and reached into his sack, teeth bared beneath a waxed mustache. A bloodcurdling yell came from behind the Hessian, though, and one of Morgan’s men brought down a tomahawk on his skull.

He heard a noise and turned in time to see a corporal step on one of the Hessian bodies, which abruptly came to life, rolling up with musket in hand. The Hessian struck up with all his force, the blade of the bayonet ripping up through the corporal’s breeches as he stumbled, tearing free in a spray of blood.

By reflex, Jamie seized his rifle by the barrel and swung it, the motion snapping through his shoulders, arms, and wrists as he tried to drive the butt through the man’s head. The jolt of collision wrenched his arms, and he felt the bones of his neck pop and his sight go white. He shook his head to clear it and smeared sweat and blood from his eye sockets with the heel of his hand. Shit, he’d bent the rifle.

The Hessian was dead for good, a look of surprise on what was left of his face. The wounded corporal was crawling away, one leg of his breeches soaked with blood, his musket slung onto his back, his own bayonet blade in his hand. He glanced over his shoulder and, seeing Jamie, shouted, “Rifleman! Your back!”

He didn’t turn to see what it was but dived headlong and to the side, rolling into leaves and trampled earth. Several bodies rolled over him in a grunting tangle and crashed against the palisades. He got up slowly, took one of the pistols from his belt, cocked it, and blew out the brains of a grenadier poised to throw one of his grenades over the edge.

A few more shots, groans, and thumps, and as quickly as that, the fight died down. The redoubt was littered with bodies—most of them green-clad. He caught a glimpse of Arnold’s little mare, white-eyed and limping, riderless. Arnold was on the ground, struggling to stand.

Jamie felt nearly unable to stand himself; his knees had gone to water and his right hand was paralyzed, but he wobbled over to Arnold and half-fell down beside him. The general had been shot; his leg was all-over blood, and his face was white and clammy, his eyes half-closing from the shock. Jamie reached out and gripped Arnold’s hand, calling his name to pull him back, thinking even as he did so that this was madness; he should slip his dirk into the man’s ribs and spare both him and the victims of his treachery. But the choice was made and past before he had time to think about it. Arnold’s hand tightened on his.

“Where?” Arnold whispered. His lips were blanched. “Where am I hit?”

“It’s your leg, sir,” Jamie said. “The same where ye were hit before.”

Arnold’s eyes opened and fixed upon his face.

“I wish it had been my heart,” he whispered, and closed them again.

DEATHBED

A BRITISH ENSIGN came just after nightfall, under a flag of truce. General Gates sent him to our tent; Brigadier Simon Fraser had learned of Jamie’s presence and wished to see him. “Before it’s too late, sir,” the ensign said, low-voiced. He was very young and looked shattered. “Will you come?”

Jamie was already rising, though it took him two tries to get up. He wasn’t hurt, beyond a number of spectacular bruises and a sprained shoulder, but he hadn’t had the strength even to eat when he staggered back after the battle. I’d washed his face for him and given him a glass of beer. He was still holding it, undrunk, and now set it down.

“My wife and I will come,” he said hoarsely.

I reached for my cloak—and, just in case, my kit.

I NEEDN’T HAVE bothered with the kit. General Fraser lay on a long dining table in the main room of a large log cabin—the Baroness von Riedesel’s house, the little ensign had murmured—and it was apparent from a glance that he was beyond any aid I could offer. His broad face was almost bloodless in the candlelight, and his body was wrapped in bandages, these soaked with blood. Fresh blood, too; I saw the wet patches slowly spreading, darker than the patches of dried blood already there.

Absorbed by the dying man, I’d only dimly registered the presence of several other people in the room and had consciously noticed only two: the surgeons who stood near the bed, bloodstained and white-faced with fatigue. One of them darted a glance at me, then stiffened a little. His eyes narrowed, and he nudged his fellow, who looked up from his contemplation of General Fraser, frowning. He looked at me with no particular comprehension and went back to his fruitless meditation.

I gave the first surgeon a straight look, but without any hint of confrontation. I did not mean to intrude on his territory. There was nothing I could do here, nothing anyone could do, as the surgeons’ exhausted attitudes clearly showed. The second man hadn’t given up, and I admired him for it, but the scent of putrefaction in the air was unmistakable, and I could hear the general’s breathing—long, stertorous sighs, with a nerve-wringing silence between them.

There was nothing I could do for General Fraser as a doctor, and there were people here who could offer better comfort than I could. Jamie, perhaps, among them.

“He hasn’t long,” I whispered to Jamie. “If there’s anything you want to say to him…”

He nodded, swallowing, and went forward. A British colonel at the side of the impromptu deathbed narrowed his eyes but, at a murmur from another officer, stepped back a little so that Jamie could approach.

The room was small and very crowded. I kept back, trying to stay out of the way.

Jamie and the British officer murmured together for a moment. A young officer, no doubt the general’s aide, knelt in the shadow on the far side of the table, holding the general’s hand, his own head bowed in obvious distress. I pushed the cloak back over my shoulders. Cold as it was outside, the air inside was beastly hot, unhealthy and suffocating, as though the fever that was devouring General Fraser before our eyes had risen from the bed and spread through the cabin, unsatisfied with its meager prey. It was a miasma, thick with decaying bowels, stale sweat, and the taste of black powder that hung in the men’s clothes.

Jamie bent, then knelt himself, to come closer to Fraser’s ear. The general’s eyes were closed, but he was conscious; I saw his face twitch at the sound of Jamie’s voice. His head turned and his eyes opened, the dullness in them brightening momentarily in recognition.

“Ciamar a tha thu, a charaid?” Jamie asked softly. How are you, cousin?

The general’s mouth twitched a little.

“Tha ana-cnàmhadh an Diabhail orm,” he replied hoarsely. “Feumaidh gun do dh'ìth mi rudegin nach robh dol leam.” I have the devil of an indigestion. I must have eaten something that disagreed with me.

The British officers stirred a little, hearing the Gaelic, and the young officer on the far side of the bed looked up, startled.

Not nearly as startled as I was.

The shadowed room seemed to shift around me, and I half-fell against the wall, pressing my hands against the wood in hopes of finding something solid to hold on to.

Sleeplessness and grief lined his face, and it was still grimed with smoke and blood, smeared racoonlike across his brow and cheekbones by a careless sleeve. None of that made the slightest difference. His hair was dark, his face narrower, but I would have known that long, straight nose and those slanted blue cat-eyes anywhere. He and Jamie knelt on either side of the general’s deathbed, no more than five feet apart. Surely, no one could fail to see the resemblance, if…

“Ellesmere.” A captain of infantry stepped forward and touched the young man’s shoulder with a murmured word and a small jerk of the head, plainly telling him to leave the general’s side, in order to give General Fraser a moment’s privacy, should he desire it.

Don’t look up! I thought as fiercely as I could in Jamie’s direction. For God’s sake, don’t look up!

He didn’t. Whether he had recognized the name or had caught a glimpse of that soot-smeared face across the bed, he kept his own head bent, his features hid in shadow, and leaned nearer, speaking very low to his cousin Simon.

The young man rose to his feet, slow as Dan Morgan on a cold morning. His shadow wavered on the rough-cut logs behind him, tall and spindly. He was paying no attention to Jamie; every fiber of his being was focused on the dying general.

“It is gladness to be seeing you once more on earth, Seaumais mac Brian,” Fraser whispered, bringing both his hands across with an effort to clasp Jamie’s. “I am content to die among my comrades, whom I love. But you will tell this to those of our blood in Scotland? Tell them…”

One of the other officers spoke to William, and he turned reluctantly away from the bedside, answering low-voiced. My fingers were damp with sweat, and I could feel beads of perspiration running down my neck. I wanted desperately to take off my cloak but feared to make any movement that might draw William’s attention to me and thus toward Jamie.

Jamie was still as a rabbit under a bush. I could see his shoulders tight under the damp-dark coat, his hands gripping the general’s, and only the flicker of the firelight on the ruddy crown of his head gave any illusion of movement.

“It shall be as you say, Shimi mac Shimi.” I could barely hear his whisper. “Lay your wish upon me; I will bear it.”

I heard a loud sniff beside me and glanced aside to see a small woman, dainty as a porcelain doll despite the hour and the circumstance. Her eyes shone with unshed tears; she turned her head to dab at them, saw me watching, and gave me a tremulous attempt at a smile.

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