An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 119

   

“I’ll take your word for it. Do you know who that man is? The one standing by my fire?”

Ian squinted against the low sun, then suddenly frowned.

“No, but he’s just spat in your soup.”

“He what?!” I spun on my heel, in time to see the anonymous gentleman stalk away, back stiff. “Why, that bloody filthy arsehole!”

Ian cleared his throat and nudged me, indicating one of the militia wives, who was viewing me with considerable disapproval. I cleared my own throat, swallowed my further remarks on the subject, and gave her what I hoped was an apologetic smile. We were, after all, probably going to be obliged to beg her hospitality, if we were to get any supper now.

When I looked back at our own fire, the man was gone.

“Shall I tell ye something, Auntie?” Ian said, frowning thoughtfully at the empty shadows lengthening beneath the trees. “He’ll be back.”

JAMIE AND HAMISH did not return for supper, leading me to suppose that the loo must be going well for them. Things were going reasonably well for me, too; Mrs. Kebbits, the militia wife, did feed Ian and myself, and very hospitably, with fresh corn dodgers and rabbit stew with onions. Best of all, my sinister visitor didn’t return.

Ian had gone off about his own business, Rollo at heel, so I banked the fire and prepared to set off for the hospital tents for evening rounds. Most of the severely injured had died within the first two or three days after the battle; of the rest, those who had wives, friends, or relatives to care for them had been taken off to their own camps. There were three dozen or so left, men on their own, with lingering but not immediately life-threatening injuries or illnesses.

I put on a second pair of stockings, wrapped my thick wool cloak around myself, and thanked God for the cold weather. A chill had struck in late September, setting the woods afire with a glory of red and gold, but also helpfully killing off the insects. The relief of camp life without flies was marvelous in itself—no surprise to me that flies had been one of the Ten Plagues of Egypt. The lice, alas, were still with us, but without flies, fleas, and mosquitoes, the threat of epidemic illness was tremendously decreased.

Still, every time I came near the hospital tent, I found myself sniffing the air, alert for the telltale fecal stench that might portend a sudden irruption of cholera, typhus, or the lesser evils of a salmonella outbreak. Tonight, though, I smelled nothing beyond the usual cesspit smell of the latrines, overlaid by the funk of unwashed bodies, filthy linens, and a lingering tang of old blood. Reassuringly familiar.

Three orderlies were playing cards under a canvas lean-to next to the biggest tent, their game lit by a rush dip whose flame rose and flickered in the evening wind. Their shadows swelled and shrank on the pale canvas, and I caught the sound of their laughter as I passed. That meant none of the regimental surgeons was about; just as well.

Most of them were simply grateful for whatever help was offered and thus left me to do what I would. There were always one or two who’d stand on their dignity and insist on their authority, though. Usually no more than a nuisance, but very dangerous in case of emergency.

No emergencies tonight, thank God. There were a number of tin candlesticks and stubs of varying lengths in a bowl outside the tent; I lit a candle from the fire and, ducking inside, made my way through the two large tents, checking vital signs, chatting with the men who were awake, and evaluating their condition.

Nothing very bad, but I had some concern for Corporal Jebediah Shoreditch, who had suffered three separate bayonet wounds during the storming of the great redoubt. By some miracle, none had hit any vital organs, and while the corporal was rather uncomfortable—one thrust having plowed upward through his left buttock—he wasn’t displaying any major signs of fever. There was some sign of infection in the buttock wound, though.

“I’m going to irrigate this,” I told him, eyeing my half-full bottle of tincture of gentian. This was nearly the last of it, but with luck, there shouldn’t be great need again until I was in a position to make more. “Wash it out, I mean, to rid you of the pus. How did it happen?” The irrigation wasn’t going to be comfortable; better if he could be distracted a little by telling me the details.

“Wasn’t retreatin’, ma’am, and don’t you think it,” he assured me, taking a good grip on the edge of his pallet as I turned back the blanket and peeled away the crusty bits of a tar-and-turpentine dressing. “One o’ them sneaky Hessian sons of bitches was a-playin’ dead, and when I went to step over him, he come to life and reared up like a copperhead, bay’net in hand.”

“Bayonet in your hand, you mean, Jeb,” joked a friend who lay nearby.

“Nah, that was another un.” Shoreditch shrugged off the joke with a casual glance at his right hand, wrapped in bandages. One of the Hessians had pinned his hand to the ground with a bayonet blade, he told me—whereupon Shoreditch had snatched up his fallen knife with his left hand and swiped it murderously across the Hessian’s calves, felling him, and then had cut the Hessian’s throat—disregarding a third attacker, whose thrust had removed the top part of his left ear.

“Somebody shot that un, Lord be praised, afore he could improve his aim. Speak of hands, Ma’am, is the colonel’s hand a-doing well?” His forehead shone with sweat in the lantern light, and the tendons stood out in his forearms, but he spoke courteously.

“I think it must be,” I said, pressing slowly on the plunger of my irrigating syringe. “He’s been at cards with Colonel Martin since this afternoon—and if his hand was poor, he’d have come back by now.”

Shoreditch and his friend both chuckled at this feeble pun, but he let go a long sigh when I took my hands away from the new dressing, and rested his forehead on the pallet for a moment before rolling painfully onto his good side.

“Thank you kindly, ma’am,” he said. His eyes passed with apparent casualness over the figures that moved to and fro in the darkness. “If you was to see Friend Hunter or Doc Tolliver, might you ask ’em to stop a moment?”

I raised a brow at this, but nodded and poured him a cup of ale; there was plenty now that the supply lines from the south had caught up, and it would do him no harm.

I did the same for his friend, a man from Pennsylvania named Neph Brewster, who was suffering from dysentery, though I added a small handful of Dr. Rawling’s Bowel-Bind mixture before handing over the cup.

“Jeb ain’t meanin’ no disrespect to you, ma’am,” Neph whispered, leaning confidentially close as he took the drink. “It’s only as he can’t shit ’thout help, and that ain’t somethin’ he wants to ask a lady. Mr. Denzell or the Doc don’t come by soon, I’ll help him, though.”

“Shall I fetch one of the orderlies?” I asked, surprised. “They’re just outside.”

“Oh, no, ma’am. Once the sun goes down, they figure as how they’re off duty. Won’t come in, save there’s a fight or the tent catches fire.”

“Hmm,” I said. Plainly attitudes among medical orderlies weren’t that different from one time to another.

“I’ll find one of the surgeons,” I assured him; Mr. Brewster was thin and yellow, and his hand shook so badly that I had to put my own fingers round his to help him drink. I doubted he could stand long enough to manage his own necessities, let alone help Corporal Shoreditch with his. Mr. Brewster was game, though.

“Shittin’ is somethin’ I can claim to have some skill at by now,” he said, grinning at me. He wiped his face with a trembling hand and paused between swallows to breathe heavily. “Ah … might you have a bit o’ cooking grease to hand, ma’am? My arsehole’s raw as a fresh-skinned rabbit. I can put it on myself—unless you’d like to help, o’ course.”

“I’ll mention it to Dr. Hunter,” I replied dryly. “I’m sure he’d be delighted.”

I finished my rounds quickly—most of the men were asleep—and went in search of Denny Hunter, who I found outside his own tent, bundled up against the cold with a muffler round his neck, dreamily listening to a ballad being sung at a nearby campfire.

“Who?” He came out of his trance at my appearance, though it took him a moment to return fully to earth. “Oh, Friend Jebediah, to be sure. Of course—I’ll go at once.”

“Have you got any goose or bear grease?”

Denny settled his spectacles more firmly on his nose, giving me a quizzical look.

“Friend Jebediah is not constipated, is he? I understood his difficulty to be more one of engineering than of physiology.”

I laughed, and explained.

“Oh. Well. I do have some ointment,” he said doubtfully. “But it is mentholated—for the treatment of grippe and pleurisy, thee knows. I fear that will do Friend Brewster’s arse no favors.”

“I fear not,” I agreed. “Why don’t you go and help Mr. Shoreditch, and I’ll find a bit of plain grease and bring it along?”

Grease—any kind of grease—was a staple of cooking, and it took only two inquiries at campfires to procure a cup of it. It was, the donor informed me, rendered possum fat. “Greasier than grease,” the lady assured me. “Tasty, too.” This last characteristic was unlikely to be of much interest to Mr. Brewster—or at least I hoped not—but I thanked her effusively and set off through the darkness, back toward the small hospital tent.

At least I intended to head in that direction. The moon had not yet risen, though, and within a few minutes I found myself on a thickly wooded hillside that I didn’t remember, stumbling over roots and fallen branches.

Muttering to myself, I turned left—surely that was… No, it wasn’t. I stopped, cursing silently. I couldn’t be lost; I was in the middle of a campground containing at least half the Continental army, to say nothing of dozens of militia companies. Exactly where I was on said campground, though… I could see the glimmer of several fires through the trees, but the configuration of them seemed unfamiliar. Disoriented, I turned the other way, straining my eyes in search of the patched roof of Colonel Martin’s large tent, that being the biggest landmark likely to be visible in the darkness.

Something ran over my foot, and I jerked in reflex, slopping liquefied possum fat over my hand. I gritted my teeth and wiped it gingerly on my apron. Possum fat is extremely greasy, its major drawback as a general-purpose lubricant being that it smells like dead possum.

My heart was beating fast from the shock and gave a convulsive leap when an owl came out of the copse to my right, a piece of the night taking sudden silent flight a few feet from my face. Then a branch cracked suddenly, and I heard the movements of several men, murmuring together as they pushed through the undergrowth nearby.

I stood quite still, teeth set in my lower lip, and felt a wave of sudden, irrational terror.

It’s all right! I told myself, furious. It’s only soldiers looking for a shortcut. No threat, no threat at all!

Tell that to the Marines, my nervous system replied, at the sound of a muffled curse, the scuffle and crunch of dry leaves and breaking branches, and the sudden kicked-melon thump of a solid object meeting someone’s head. A cry, the crash of a falling body, and hurried rustling as the thieves rifled their victim’s pockets.

I couldn’t move. I wanted desperately to run but was rooted to the spot; my legs simply wouldn’t respond. It was exactly like a nightmare, with something terrible coming my way but no ability to move.

My mouth was open, and I was exerting all my strength to keep from screaming, while at the same time terrified that I couldn’t scream. My own breathing was loud, echoing inside my head, and all of a sudden I felt my throat harsh with swallowed blood, my breath labored, nostrils blocked. And the weight on me, heavy, amorphous, crushing me into ground rough with stones and fallen pinecones. I felt hot breath in my ear.

There, now. I’m sorry, Martha, but you got to take it. I got to give it to you. Yeah, there… oh, Christ, there… there…

I didn’t remember falling to the ground. I was curled into a ball, face pressed to my knees, shaking with rage and terror. Crashing in the brush nearby, several men passed within a few feet of me, laughing and joking.

And then some small fragment of my sanity spoke up in the recesses of my brain, cool as dammit, dispassionately remarking, Oh, so that’s a flashback. How interesting.

“I’ll show you interesting,” I whispered—or thought I did. I don’t believe I made a sound. I was fully dressed—swaddled against the cold—I could feel the cold on my face, but it made no difference. I was naked, felt cool air on my br**sts, my thighs—between my thighs …

I clamped my legs together as tightly as I could and bit my lip as hard as I could. Now I really did taste blood. But the next thing didn’t happen. I remembered it vividly. But it was a memory. It didn’t happen again.

Very slowly, I came back. My lip hurt, and I was drooling blood; I could feel the gouge, a loose flap of flesh in my inner lip, and taste silver and copper, as though my mouth was filled with pennies.

I was breathing as though I’d run a mile, but I could breathe; my nose was clear, my throat soft and open, not bruised, not abraded. I was drenched in sweat, and my muscles hurt from being clenched so hard.

I could hear moaning in the brush to my left. They didn’t kill him, then, I thought dimly. I supposed I should go and see, help him. I didn’t want to, didn’t want to touch a man, see a man, be anywhere near one. It didn’t matter, though; I couldn’t move.

I was no longer frozen in the grip of terror; I knew where I was, that I was safe—safe enough. But I couldn’t move. I stayed crouched, sweating and trembling, and listened.

The man groaned a few times, then rolled slowly over, branches rustling.

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