An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 117

   

“I am so glad that your husband is come, madam,” she whispered to me in a soft German accent. “It—it is a comfort, perhaps. That our dear friend shall have the solace of a kinsman by his side.”

Two of them, I thought, biting my tongue, and by an effort of will didn’t look in William’s direction. The awful thought came suddenly to me that William might recognize me, and make some effort to come and speak with me. Which might well mean disaster, if…

The baroness—for she must be von Riedesel’s wife—seemed to sway a little, though it might be only an effect of the shifting firelight and the press of bodies. I touched her arm.

“I need air,” I whispered to her. “Come outside with me.”

The surgeons were drifting back toward the bed, intent as vultures, and the Gaelic murmurings were broken suddenly by a terrible groan from Simon Fraser.

“Bring a candle!” one of the surgeons said sharply, moving quickly toward the bedside.

The baroness’s eyes shut tight, and I saw her throat move as she swallowed. I took her hand and led her quickly out.

IT WASN’T LONG but seemed an age before the men came out, heads bowed.

There was a short, sharp argument outside the cabin, conducted in low voices by reason of respect for the dead, but nonetheless heated. Jamie kept to one side, with his hat on, pulled well down, but one of the British officers turned to him now and then, obviously requesting his opinion.

Lieutenant William Ransom, aka Lord Ellesmere, kept to himself, too, as befitted his relatively lowly rank in this company. He didn’t join in the argument, seeming too much shocked by the death. I wondered whether he had seen anyone he knew die before—and then realized how idiotic that thought was.

But battlefield deaths, however violent, are not the same as the death of a friend. And from the looks of young William, Simon Fraser had been friend as well as commander to him.

Occupied by these surreptitious observations, I hadn’t been paying more than the most cursory attention to the main point of argument—that being the immediate disposition of General Fraser’s body—and none at all to the two medical men, who had come out of the cabin and now stood a little apart, murmuring to each other. From the corner of my eye, I saw one reach into his pocket and hand the other a twist of tobacco, wave off the other’s thanks, then turn away. What he said, though, seized my attention as effectively as though his head had burst into flame.

“See you a bit later, then, Dr. Rawlings,” he’d said.

“Dr. Rawlings?” I said by reflex, and the second doctor turned.

“Yes, ma’am?” he said politely, but with the air of an exhausted man struggling against an overwhelming urge to tell the world to go to hell. I recognized the impulse and sympathized—but having spoken, had no choice but to continue.

“I beg your pardon,” I said, flushing a little. “I just caught your name and was struck by it—I used to know a Dr. Rawlings.”

The effect of this casual remark was unexpected. His shoulders drew back abuptly and his dull gaze sharpened into eagerness.

“You did? Where?”

“Er …” I floundered for a moment, as in fact I had never actually met Daniel Rawlings—though I certainly felt I knew him—and temporized by saying, “His name was Daniel Rawlings. Would that perhaps be a relative of yours?”

His face lighted up and he seized me by the arm.

“Yes! Yes, he is my brother. Pray tell me, ma’am, do you know where he is?”

I had a nasty sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I did in fact know exactly where Daniel Rawlings was, but the news wasn’t going to be welcome to his brother. There was no choice, though; I had to tell him.

“I’m terribly sorry to have to tell you that he’s dead,” I said, as gently as I could. I put my own hand over his and squeezed, my throat constricting again as the light in his eyes died.

He stood unmoving for the space of several breaths, his eyes focused somewhere beyond me. Slowly, they refocused on me and he took one more deep breath and firmed his mouth.

“I see. I… had feared that. How did he—how did it happen, do you know?”

“I do,” I said hurriedly, seeing Colonel Grant shift his weight in a manner indicating imminent departure. “But it’s—a long story.”

“Ah.” He caught the direction of my glance and turned his head. All the men were moving now, straightening their coats, putting on their hats as they exchanged a few final words.

“I’ll find you,” he said abruptly, turning back to me. “Your husband—he is the tall Scottish rebel, I think they said he is kin to the general?”

I saw his gaze flick momentarily toward something beyond me, and alarm pricked like needles in my skin. Rawlings’s brows were slightly knitted, and I knew, as clearly as if he had spoken, that the word “kin” had triggered some connection in his mind—and that he was looking at William.

“Yes. Colonel Fraser,” I said hurriedly, grasping him by the sleeve before he could look at Jamie and complete the thought that was forming.

I had been groping in my kit as we spoke and at this point found the folded square of paper I’d been looking for. I pulled it out and, unfolding it quickly, handed it to him. There was still room for doubt, after all.

“Is this your brother’s hand?”

He seized the paper from me and devoured the small, neat script with an expression in which eagerness, hope, and despair were mingled. He closed his eyes for an instant, then opened them, reading and rereading the receipt for Bowel-Bind as if it were Holy Writ.

“The page is burnt,” he said, touching the singed edge. His voice was husky. “Did Daniel… die in a fire?”

“No,” I said. There was no time; one of the British officers stood impatiently behind him, waiting. I touched the hand that held the page. “Keep that, please. And if you can manage to cross the lines—I suppose you can now—you’ll find me most easily in my tent, near the artillery park. They… er… they call me the White Witch,” I added diffidently. “Ask anyone.”

His bloodshot eyes widened at that, then narrowed as he examined me closely. But there was no time for further questions; the officer stepped forward and muttered something in Rawlings’s ear, with no more than a cursory glance in my direction.

“Yes,” Rawlings said. “Yes, certainly.” He bowed to me, deeply. “Your servant, madam. I am very much obliged to you. May I… ?” He lifted the paper, and I nodded.

“Yes, of course, please keep it.”

The officer had turned, obviously intent on chivvying another errant member of his party, and with a brief glance at his back, Dr. Rawlings stepped close and touched my hand.

“I’ll come,” he said, low-voiced. “As soon as I may. Thank you.” He looked up then at someone behind me, and I realized that Jamie had finished his business and come to fetch me.

He stepped forward and, with a brief nod to the doctor, took my hand.

“Where is your hat, Lieutenant Ransom?” The colonel spoke behind me, quietly reproving, and for the second time in five minutes I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Not at the colonel’s words but at the murmured reply.

“… rebel whoreson shot it off my head,” said a voice. It was an English voice, young, hoarse with suppressed grief, and tinged with anger. Other than that—it was Jamie’s voice, and Jamie’s hand tightened so abruptly on mine that he nearly crushed my fingers.

We were at the trailhead that led upward from the river; two more steps would see us safely into the shelter of the fog-veiled trees. Instead of taking those two steps, Jamie stopped dead for the space of a heartbeat, then dropped my hand, turned on his heel, and, taking the hat off his head, strode over and thrust it into Lieutenant Ransom’s hands.

“I believe I owe ye a hat, sir,” he said politely, and turned away at once, leaving the young man blinking at the battered tricorne in his hands. Glancing back, I caught a glimpse of William’s baffled face as he looked after Jamie, but Jamie was propelling me up the path as though Red Indians were at our heels, and a stand of fir saplings hid the lieutenant from view within seconds.

I could feel Jamie vibrating like a plucked violin string, and his breath was coming fast.

“Have you quite lost your mind?” I inquired conversationally.

“Very likely.”

“What on earth—” I began, but he only shook his head and pulled me along, until we were well out of both sight and hearing of the cabin. A fallen log that had so far escaped the woodcutters lay half across the path, and Jamie sat down suddenly on this and put a shaking hand to his face.

“Are you all right? What on earth is the matter?” I sat beside him and put a hand on his back, beginning to be worried.

“I dinna ken whether to laugh or to weep, Sassenach,” he said. He took his hand away from his face, and I saw that, in fact, he appeared to be doing both. His lashes were wet, but the corners of his mouth were twitching.

“I’ve lost a kinsman and found one, all in the same moment—and a moment later realize that for the second time in his life, I’ve come within an inch of shooting my son.” He looked at me and shook his head, quite helpless between laughter and dismay.

“I shouldna have done it, I ken that. It’s only—I thought all at once, What if I dinna miss, a third time? And—and I thought I must just… speak to him. As a man. In case it should be the only time, aye?”

COLONEL GRANT cast a curious look at the trailhead, where a trembling branch marked the passage of the rebel and his wife, then turned his gaze on the hat in William’s hands.

“What the devil was that about?”

William cleared his throat. “Evidently, Colonel Fraser was the, um, rebel whoreson who deprived me of my hat during the battle yesterday,” he said, hoping for a tone of dry detachment. “He has … recompensed me.”

A hint of humor came into Grant’s strained face.

“Really? Decent of him.” He peered dubiously at the object in question. “Has it got lice, do you think?”

In another man, at another time, this might have been interpreted as calumny. But Grant, while more than ready to denigrate the Colonials’ courage, abilities, and dispositions, clearly intended the question only as a practical discovery of fact; most of the English and Hessian troops were crawling with lice, and so were the officers.

William tilted the hat, scrutinizing it as well as the dim light allowed. The thing was warm in his hands, but nothing moved along the seams.

“Don’t think so.”

“Well, put it on, then, Captain Ransom. We must show a good example to the men, you know.”

William had in fact assumed the object, feeling slightly queer at the warmth of it on his head, before properly hearing what Grant had said.

“Captain… ?” he said faintly.

“Congratulations,” Grant said, the ghost of a smile lightening the exhaustion on his face. “The brigadier…” He glanced back at the reeking, silent cabin, and the smile faded. “He wanted you made captain after Ticonderoga—should have been done then, but… well.” His lips thinned, but then relaxed. “General Burgoyne signed the order last night, after hearing several accounts of the battle. I gather that you distinguished yourself.”

William ducked his head awkwardly. His throat was thick and his eyes burned. He couldn’t remember what he’d done—only that he’d failed to save the brigadier.

“Thank you,” he managed, and could not keep from glancing back himself. They had left the door open. “Do you know—did he—no, it doesn’t matter.”

“Did he know?” Grant said gently. “I told him. I brought the order.”

Unable to speak, William bobbed his head. The hat, for a wonder, fit him, and stayed in place.

“God, it’s cold,” Grant said softly. He tugged his coat closer, glancing round at the dripping trees and the fog that lay thick among them. The others had gone back to their duties, leaving them alone. “What a desolate place. Terrible time of day, too.”

“Yes.” William felt a momentary relief at being able to admit his own sense of desolation—though the hour and the place had little to do with it. He swallowed, glancing back at the cabin. The open door bothered him; while the fog lay heavy as a feather bed on the forest, the mist near the cabin was rising, drifting around the windows, and he had the uneasy fancy that it was somehow… coming for the brigadier.

“I’ll just… close that door, shall I?” He’d started for the cabin, but was arrested by Grant’s gesture.

“No, don’t.”

William glanced at him in surprise, and the captain shrugged, trying to make light of it.

“The donor of your hat said we must leave it open. Some Highland fancy—something about the, um, soul requiring an exit,” he said delicately. “And at least it’s too bloody cold for the flies,” he added, with no delicacy at all.

William’s shriveled stomach clenched, and he swallowed the bitterness that rose in the back of his throat at the vision of swarming maggots.

“But surely we can’t… How long?” he demanded.

“Not long,” Grant assured him. “We’re only waiting for a burial detail.”

William stifled the protest that rose to his lips. Of course. What else could be done? And yet the memory of the trenches they had dug by the Heights, the dirt freckling his corporal’s cold round cheeks… After the last ten days, he would have thought himself beyond sensitivity to such things. But the sounds of the wolves that came to eat the dying and the dead echoed suddenly in the hollow pit of his stomach.

With a muttered excuse, he stepped aside into the wet shrubbery and threw up, as quietly as he could. Wept a little, silent, then wiped his face with a handful of wet leaves and came back.

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