An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 13


On the other hand, sometimes there was no doubt at all. With hoarse shouts, a number of Americans charged out of the trees near the front of the house and made for the doors and windows. Musket fire from the troops inside got several of them, but some made it as far as the house itself, where they began to clamber into the shattered windows. William automatically reined up and rode to the right, far enough to get a look at the rear of the house. Sure enough, a larger group was already at it, a number of them climbing the wall by means of the ivy that covered the back of the house.

“That way!” he bellowed, wheeling his horse around and waving his spontoon. “Olson, Jeffries, the back! Load and fire as soon as you’re in range!”

Two of his companies ran, ripping the ends of cartridges with their teeth, but a party of green-coated Hessians was there before him, seizing Americans by the legs and pulling them from the ivy to club them on the ground.

He reined round and dashed the other way, to see what was happening in front, and came in sight just in time to see a British artilleryman fly out of one of the open upper windows. The man landed on the ground, one leg bent under him, and lay screaming. One of William’s men, close enough, darted forward and grabbed the man’s shoulders, only to be shot by someone within the house. He crumpled and fell, his hat rolling off into the bushes.

They spent the rest of that day at the stone farmhouse; four times, the Americans made forays—twice, they succeeded in overcoming the inhabitants and briefly seizing the guns, but both times were overrun by fresh waves of British troops and evicted or killed. William never got closer than two hundred yards or so to the house itself, but once managed to interpose one of his companies between the house and a surge of desperate Americans dressed like Indians and yelling like banshees. One of them raised a long rifle and fired directly at him, but missed. He drew his sword, intending to ride the man down, but a shot from somewhere struck the man and sent him rolling down the face of a small hillock.

William urged his mount closer, to see whether the man was dead or not—the man’s companions had already fled round the far corner of the house, pursued by British troops. The gelding wasn’t having any; trained to the sound of musket fire, it found artillery unnerving, and the cannon happening to speak at this particular moment, the gelding laid its ears flat back and bolted.

William had his sword still in hand, the reins loosely wrapped round his other hand; the sudden jolt unseated him, and the horse whipped to the left, jerking his right foot from the stirrup and pitching him off. He had barely presence of mind to let go of the sword as he fell, and landed on one shoulder, rolling.

Simultaneously thanking God that his left foot hadn’t been trapped in its stirrup and cursing the horse, he scrambled up onto hands and knees, smeared with grass and mud, heart in his mouth.

The guns in the house had stopped; the Americans must be in there again, engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with the gun crews. He spat out mud, and began to make a cautious withdrawal; he thought he was in range of the upper windows.

To his left, though, he caught sight of the American who had tried to shoot him, still lying in the wet grass. With a wary glance at the house, he crawled to the man, who was lying on his face, unmoving. He wanted to see the man’s face, for what reason he couldn’t have said. He rose on his knees and took the man by both shoulders, pulling him over.

The man was clearly dead, shot through the head. Mouth and eyes sagged half open and his body felt strange, heavy and flopping. He wore a militia uniform of sorts; William saw the wooden buttons, with “PUT” burnt into them. That meant something, but his dazed mind made no sense of it. Gently laying the man back in the grass, he rose and went to fetch his sword. His knees felt peculiar.

Halfway to the spot where his sword lay, he stopped, turned round, and came back. Kneeling down, cold-fingered and hollow-bellied, he closed the man’s dead eyes against the rain.

THEY MADE CAMP that night, to the pleasure of the men. Camp kitchens were dug, the cook wagons brought up, and the scent of roasting meat and fresh bread filled the damp air. William had just sat down to eat when Perkins, that harbinger of doom, appeared apologetically at his side with a message: report to General Howe’s field headquarters at once. Snatching a loaf of bread and a steaming chunk of roast pork to put in it, he went, chewing.

He found the three generals and all of their staff officers gathered together, deep in a discussion of the day’s results. The generals sat at a small table thick with dispatches and hastily drawn maps. William found a place among the staff officers, standing respectfully back against the walls of the big tent.

Sir Henry was arguing for an attack on the Brooklyn Heights, come morning.

“We could dislodge them easily,” Clinton said, waving a hand at the dispatches. “They’ve lost half their men, if not more—and weren’t such a lot of ’em to start with.”

“Not easily,” said my lord Cornwallis, pursing fat lips. “You saw them fight. Yes, we could get them out of there—but at some cost. What say you, sir?” he added, turning deferentially to Howe.

Howe’s lips all but disappeared, only a white line marking their former existence.

“I can’t afford another victory like the last one,” he snapped. “Or if I could, I don’t want it.” His eyes left the table and passed over the juniors standing against the wall. “I lost every man on my staff at that damned hill in Boston,” he said, more quietly. “Twenty-eight of them. Every one.” His eyes lingered on William, the youngest of the junior officers present, and he shook his head, as though to himself, and turned back to Sir Henry.

“Stop the fighting,” he said.

Sir Henry wasn’t pleased, William could see that, but he merely nodded.

“Offer them terms?”

“No,” Howe said shortly. “They’ve lost nearly half their men, as you said. No one but a madman would go on fighting without cause. They—you, sir. Did you have an observation to make?”

With a start, William realized that Howe was addressing this remark to him; those round eyes were boring into his chest like bird shot.

“I—” he began, but then caught himself and drew up straight. “Yes, sir. It’s General Putnam in command. There at the creek. He’s … perhaps not a madman, sir,” he added carefully, “but he has the name of a stubborn man.”

Howe paused, eyes narrowed.

“A stubborn man,” he repeated. “Yes. I should say he is.”

“He was one of the commanders at Breed’s Hill, wasn’t he?” objected Lord Cornwallis. “The Americans ran fast enough away from there.”

“Yes, but—” William stopped dead, paralyzed by the fixed joint stares of three generals. Howe motioned him impatiently to go on.

“With respect, my lord,” he said, and was glad that his voice didn’t shake, “I … hear that the Americans did not run in Boston until they had exhausted every scrap of ammunition. I think … that is not the case, here. And with regard to General Putnam—there was no one behind him at Breed’s Hill.”

“And you think that there is now.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, sir.” William tried not to look pointedly at the stack of dispatches on Sir William’s table. “I’m sure of it, sir. I think nearly all of the Continentals are on the island, sir.” He tried not to make that sound like a question; he’d heard as much from a passing major the day before, but it might not be true. “If Putnam’s in command here—”

“How do you know it’s Putnam, Lieutenant?” Clinton interrupted, giving William the fish-eye.

“I am lately come from an—an intelligencing expedition, sir, which took me through Connecticut. I heard there, from many people, that militia were gathering to accompany General Putnam, who was to join with General Washington’s forces near New York. And I saw a button on one of the rebel dead near the creek this afternoon, sir, with ‘PUT’ carved on it. That’s what they call him, sir—General Putnam: ‘Old Put.’ ”

General Howe straightened himself before Clinton or Cornwallis could interject anything further.

“A stubborn man,” he repeated. “Well, perhaps he is. Nonetheless … suspend the fighting. He is in an untenable position, and must know it. Give him a chance to think it over—to consult with Washington if he likes. Washington is perhaps a more sensible commander. And if we might gain the surrender of the whole Continental army without further bloodshed … I think it worth the risk, gentlemen. But we will not offer terms.”

Which meant that if the Americans saw sense, it would be an unconditional surrender. And if they didn’t? William had heard stories about the fight at Breed’s Hill—granted, stories told by Americans, and therefore he took them with several grains of salt. But by account, the rebels there had taken the nails from the fencing of their fortifications—from the very heels of their shoes—and fired them at the British when their shot ran out. They had retreated only when reduced to throwing stones.

“But if Putnam’s expecting reinforcement from Washington, he’ll only sit and wait,” Clinton said, frowning. “And then we’ll have the whole boiling of them. Had we best not—”

“That’s not what he meant,” Howe interruputed. “Was it, Ellesmere? When you said there was no one behind him at Breed’s Hill?”

“No, sir,” William said, grateful. “I meant … he has something to protect. Behind him. I don’t think he’s waiting for the rest of the army to come to his aid. I think he’s covering their retreat.”

Lord Cornwallis’s hooped brows shot up at that. Clinton scowled at William, who recalled too late that Clinton had been the field commander at the Pyrrhic victory of Breed’s Hill and was likely sensitive on the subject of Israel Putnam.

“And why are we soliciting the advice of a boy still wet behind the—have you ever even seen combat, sir?” he demanded of William, who flushed hotly.

“I’d be fighting now, sir,” he said, “were I not detained here!”

Lord Cornwallis laughed, and a brief smile flitted across Howe’s face.

“We shall make certain to have you properly blooded, Lieutenant,” he said dryly. “But not today. Captain Ramsay?” He motioned to one of the senior staff, a short man with very square shoulders, who stepped forward and saluted. “Take Ellesmere here and have him tell you the results of his … intelligencing. Convey to me anything which strikes you as being of interest. In the meantime”—he turned back to his two generals—“suspend hostilities until further notice.”

WILLIAM HEARD NO MORE of the generals’ deliberations, he being led away by Captain Ramsay.

Had he spoken too much out of turn? he wondered. Granted, General Howe had asked him a direct question; he had had to answer. But to put forward his paltry month’s intelligencing, against the combined knowledge of so many experienced senior officers …

He said something of his doubts to Captain Ramsay, who seemed a quiet sort but friendly enough.

“Oh, you hadn’t any choice but to speak up,” Ramsay assured him. “Still …”

William dodged round a pile of mule droppings in order to keep up with Ramsay.

“Still?” he asked.

Ramsay didn’t answer for a bit, but led the way through the encampment, down neat aisles of canvas tents, waving now and then at men round a fire who called out to him.

At last, they arrived at Ramsay’s own tent, and he held back the flap for William, gesturing him in.

“Heard of a lady called Cassandra?” Ramsay said at last. “Some sort of Greek, I think. Not very popular.”

THE ARMY SLEPT SOUNDLY after its exertions, and so did William.

“Your tea, sir?”

He blinked, disoriented and still wrapped in dreams of walking through the Duke of Devonshire’s private zoo, hand in hand with an orangutan. But it was Private Perkins’s round and anxious face, rather than the orangutan’s, that greeted him.

“What?” he said stupidly. Perkins seemed to swim in a sort of haze, but this was not dispelled by blinking, and when he sat up to take the steaming cup, he discovered the cause of it was that the air itself was permeated with a heavy mist.

All sound was muffled; while the normal noises of a camp rising were to be heard, they sounded far away, subdued. No surprise, then, when he poked his head out of his tent a few minutes later, to find the ground blanketed with a drifting fog that had crept in from the marshes.

It didn’t matter much. The army was going nowhere. A dispatch from Howe’s headquarters had made the suspension of hostilities official; there was nothing to do but wait for the Americans to see sense and surrender.

The army stretched, yawned, and sought distraction. William was engaged in a hot game of hazard with Corporals Yarnell and Jeffries when Perkins came up again, breathless.

“Colonel Spencer’s compliments, sir, and you’re to report to General Clinton.”

“Yes? What for?” William demanded. Perkins looked baffled; it hadn’t occurred to him to ask the messenger what for.

“Just … I suppose he wants you,” he said, in an effort to be helpful.

“Thank you very much, Private Perkins,” William said, with a sarcasm wasted on Perkins, who beamed in relief and retired without being dismissed.

“Perkins!” he bellowed, and the private turned, round face startled. “Which way?”

“What? Er … what, sir, I mean?”

“In which direction does General Clinton’s headquarters lie?” William asked, with elaborate patience.

“Oh! The hussar … he came from …” Perkins rotated slowly, like a weather vane, frowning in concentration. “That way!” He pointed. “I could see that bit of hillock behind him.” The fog was still thick near the ground, but the crests of hills and tall trees were now and then visible, and William had no difficulty in spotting the hillock to which Perkins referred; it had an odd lumpy look to it.