An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 14

   

“Thank you, Perkins. Dismissed,” he added quickly, before Perkins could make off again. He watched the private disappear into the shifting mass of fog and bodies, then shook his head and went to hand command over to Corporal Evans.

The gelding didn’t like the fog. William didn’t like it, either. Fog gave him an uneasy feeling, as though someone was breathing on the back of his neck.

This was a sea fog, though: heavy, dank, and cold, but not smothering. It thinned and thickened, with a sense of movement to it. He could see a few feet before him, and could just make out the dim shape of the hillock Perkins had indicated, though the top kept appearing and disappearing like some fantastic conjuration in a fairy tale.

What might Sir Henry want with him? he wondered. And was it only him who’d been sent for, or was this a meeting called to apprise the line officers of some change of strategy?

Maybe Putnam’s men had surrendered. They should, certainly; they had no hope of victory in the circumstances, and that must be plain to them.

But he supposed Putnam would need, perhaps, to consult with Washington. During the fighting at the old stone farmhouse, he’d seen a small group of horsemen on the crest of a distant hill, an unfamiliar flag fluttering amongst them; someone at the time had pointed at it and said, “That’s him there, Washington. Shame we’ve not got a twenty-four in place—teach him to gawk!” and laughed.

Sense said they’d surrender. But he had an uneasy feeling that had nothing to do with the fog. During his month on the road, he’d had occasion to listen to a good many Americans. Most were uneasy themselves, not wanting conflict with England, particularly not wanting to be anywhere near armed strife—a very sensible conclusion. But the ones who were decided on revolt … were very decided indeed.

Maybe Ramsay had conveyed some of this to the generals; he hadn’t seemed at all impressed by any of William’s information, let alone his opinions, but perhaps—

The horse stumbled, and he lurched in his saddle, accidentally jerking the reins. The horse, annoyed, whipped round its head and bit him, big teeth scraping on his boot.

“Bastard!” He smacked the horse across the nose with the ends of the reins, and hauled the gelding’s head round forcibly, until the rolling eyes and curled lip were nearly in his lap. Then, his point made, he slowly released the pressure. The horse snorted and shook his mane violently, but resumed progress without further argument.

He seemed to have been riding for some time. But time as well as distance was deceiving in fog. He glanced up at the hillock that was his goal, only to discover that it had vanished again. Well, doubtless it would come back.

Only it didn’t.

The fog continued to shift around him, and he heard the dripping of moisture from the leaves of the trees that seemed to come suddenly out of the mist at him and as suddenly retreat again. But the hillock stayed stubbornly invisible.

It occurred to him that he hadn’t heard any sounds of men for some time now.

He should have.

If he were approaching Clinton’s headquarters, he should not only be hearing all the normal camp sounds, he should have encountered any number of men, horses, campfires, wagons, tents …

There was no noise anywhere near him, save the rushing of water. He’d bloody bypassed the camp.

“Damn you, Perkins,” he said under his breath.

He drew up for a moment and checked the priming of his pistol, sniffing at the powder in the pan; it smelled different when the damp got at it. Still all right, he thought; it smelled hot and nose-prickling, not so much of the rotten-egg scent of sulfur as wet powder had.

He kept the pistol in his hand, though so far he’d seen nothing threatening. The fog was too heavy to see more than a few feet in front of him, though; someone could come out of it suddenly, and he’d have to decide on the instant whether to shoot them or not.

It was quiet; their own artillery was silent; there was no random musket fire like the day before. The enemy was in retreat; no doubt about that. But if he should stumble across a stray Continental, lost in the fog like himself, ought he to shoot? The thought made his hands sweat, but he thought he must; the Continental would likely have no hesitation about shooting him, the instant he saw the red uniform.

He was somewhat more worried about the humiliation of being shot by his own troops than about the actual prospect of death, but was not entirely oblivious to the risk of that, either.

The bloody fog had got thicker, if anything. He looked in vain for the sun, to give some sense of direction, but the sky was invisible.

He fought back the small quiver of panic that tickled his tailbone. Right, there were 34,000 British troops on this bloody island; he had to be within pistol shot of any number of them at this moment. And you only need be in pistol shot of one American, he reminded himself, grimly pushing through a growth of larches.

He heard rustlings and the cracking of branches nearby; the wood was inhabited, no doubt about it. But by whom?

The British troops wouldn’t be moving in this fog, that was one thing. Curse Perkins! If he heard movement, then, as of a body of men, he’d stop and stay hidden. And otherwise … all he could hope to do was to run across a body of troops, or to hear something unmistakably military in nature—shouted orders, perhaps …

He rode on slowly for some time, and finally put the pistol away, finding the weight of it wearisome. God, how long had he been out? An hour? Two? Ought he to turn around? But he had no way of knowing what “around” was—he might be traveling in circles; the ground all looked the same, a gray blur of trees and rocks and grasses. Yesterday, he’d spent every minute keyed to fever pitch, ready for the attack. Today, his enthusiasm for fighting had ebbed substantially.

Someone stepped out in front of him and the horse reared, so abruptly that William had only the vaguest impression of the man. Enough to know he wasn’t wearing a British uniform, though, and he would have snatched his pistol out, were both hands not occupied in trying to control the horse.

The horse, having given way to hysteria, crow-hopped in mad circles, jarring William to the spine with each landing. His surroundings spun past in a blur of gray and green, but he was half conscious of voices, whooping in what might be either derision or encouragement.

After what seemed an age, but must be only half a minute or so, William succeeded in bringing the bloody creature to a standstill, panting and blowing, still flinging its head around, the whites of its eyes showing, gleaming wet.

“You f**king piece of cat’s meat!” William said to it, hauling its head round. The horse’s breath sank damp and hot through the doeskin of his breeches, and its sides heaved under him.

“Not the best-tempered horse I ever seen,” a voice agreed, and a hand came up, seizing the bridle. “Healthy-looking, though.”

William got a glimpse of a man in hunting dress, stout and swarthy—and then someone else seized him round the waist from behind and hauled him bodily off the horse.

He hit the ground hard and flat on his back, knocking out his wind, but tried valiantly to get to his pistol. A knee pressed into his chest, and a large hand wrestled the pistol out of his grip. A bearded face grinned down at him.

“Not very sociable,” the man said, reproving. “Thought you-all was meant to be civilized, you British.”

“You let him get up and at you, Harry, I imagine he’d civilize you, all right.” This was another man, shorter and slightly built, with a soft, educated voice like a schoolmaster, who peered over the shoulder of the man kneeling on William’s chest. “You could let him breathe, though, I suppose.”

The pressure on William’s chest relaxed, and he got a whisper of air into his lungs. This was promptly driven out again when the man who had held him down punched him in the stomach. Hands promptly began to rifle his pockets, and his gorget was jerked off over his head, painfully scraping the underside of his nose. Someone reached round him and unbuckled his belt, neatly removing it with a whistle of pleasure at the equipment attached.

“Very nice,” said the second man, approving. He glanced down at William, lying on the ground and gasping like a landed fish. “I thank you, sir; we’re much obliged. All right, Allan?” he called, turning toward the man holding the horse.

“Aye, I’ve got ’im,” said a nasal Scottish voice. “Let’s be off!”

The men moved away, and for an instant, William thought they had left. Then a meaty hand seized his shoulder and flipped him over. He writhed up onto his knees by sheer will, and the same hand seized his pigtail and jerked his head back, exposing his throat. He caught the gleam of a knife, and the man’s broad grin, but had neither breath nor time for prayers or curses.

The knife slashed down, and he felt a yank at the back of his head that brought water to his eyes. The man grunted, displeased, and hacked twice more, finally coming away triumphant, William’s pigtail held up in a ham-sized hand.

“Souvenir,” he said to William, grinning, and whirling on his heel, made off after his friends. The horse’s whinny drifted back to William through the fog, mocking.

HE WISHED, URGENTLY, that he had managed to kill at least one of them. But they’d taken him as easily as a child, plucked him like a goose and left him lying on the ground like a f**king turd! His rage was so overwhelming that he had to stop and punch a tree trunk. The pain of that left him gasping, still murderous but breathless.

He clutched the injured hand between his thighs, hissing between his teeth until the pain abated. Shock was mingling with fury; he felt more disoriented than ever, his head spinning. Chest heaving, he reached behind his head with his sound hand, feeling the bristly stumpage left there—and overcome with fresh rage, kicked the tree with all his strength.

He limped round in circles, swearing, then finally collapsed onto a rock and put his head down on his knees, panting.

Gradually, his breath slowed, and his ability to think rationally began to return.

Right. He was still lost in the wilds of Long Island, only now minus horse, food, or weapons. Or hair. That made him sit up straight, fists clenched, and he fought back the fury, with some difficulty. Right. He hadn’t time to be angry now. If he ever laid eyes on Harry, Allan, or the little man with the educated voice … well, time enough for that when it happened.

For now, the important thing was to locate some part of the army. His impulse was to desert on the spot, take ship to France, and never come back, leaving the army to presume that he’d been killed. But he couldn’t do that for assorted reasons, not least his father—who’d probably prefer that he was killed than run cravenly away.

No help for it. He rose resignedly to his feet, trying to feel grateful that the bandits had at least left him his coat. The fog was lifting a little here and there, but still lay damp and chilly on the ground. Not that he was troubled by that; his own blood was still boiling.

He glared round at the shadowy shapes of rocks and trees. They looked just like all the other f**king rocks and trees he’d encountered in the course of this misbegotten day.

“Right,” he said aloud, and stabbed a finger into the air, turning as he did so. “Eeny-meeny-miney-mo, catch a Frenchy by the toe, if he’s squealing—oh, the hell with it.”

Limping slightly, he set off. He had no idea where he was going, but he had to move, or burst.

He entertained himself for some little time in reimagining the recent encounter, with satisfying visions of himself seizing the fat man named Harry and wringing his nose into bloody pulp before smashing his head on a rock. Grabbing the knife away from him and gutting that supercilious little bastard … ripping his lungs out … there was a thing called the “blood eagle” that the savage German tribes used to do, slitting a man’s back and dragging out his lungs through the slits, so they flapped like wings as he died …

Gradually, he grew calmer, only because it was impossible to sustain such a level of fury.

His foot felt better; his knuckles were skinned, but not throbbing as much, and his fantasies of revenge began to seem faintly absurd to him. Was that what the fury of battle was like? he wondered. Did you want not just to shoot and stab because it was your duty to kill, but did you like it? Want it like wanting a woman? And did you feel like a fool after doing it?

He’d thought about killing in battle. Not all the time, but on and off. He’d made a great effort to visualize it when he’d made up his mind to join the army. And he did realize that there might be regret attached to the act.

His father had told him, baldly and with no effort at self-justification, about the circumstances under which he had killed his first man. Not in battle, but following one. The point-blank execution of a Scot, wounded and left on the field at Culloden.

“Under orders,” his father had said. “No quarter to be given; those were our written orders, signed by Cumberland.” His father’s eyes had been fixed on his bookshelves during the telling, but at this point he’d looked at William directly.

“Orders,” he repeated. “You follow orders, of course; you have to. But there will be times when you have no orders, or find yourself in a situation which has changed suddenly. And there will be times—there will be times, William—when your own honor dictates that you cannot follow an order. In such circumstances, you must follow your own judgment, and be prepared to live with the consequences.”

William had nodded, solemn. He’d just brought his commission papers for his father to look over, Lord John’s signature being required as his guardian. He’d regarded the signing as a mere formality, though; he hadn’t been expecting either a confession or a sermon—if that’s what this was.

“I shouldn’t have done it,” his father had said abruptly. “I shouldn’t have shot him.”

“But—your orders—”

“They didn’t affect me, not directly. I hadn’t yet got my commission; I’d gone with my brother on campaign, but I wasn’t a soldier yet; I wasn’t under the army’s authority. I could have refused.”

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