An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 146

   

He began to hear them long before he reached the crest. It was three days before Samhain, and the stones knew it. The sound that wasn’t a sound at all vibrated through the marrow of his bones, made his skull ring and his teeth ache. He gritted his teeth together and kept on. By the time he reached the stones, he was on hands and knees, unable to stand upright.

Dear God, he thought, God, preserve me! Keep me alive long enough to find him!

He could barely form thoughts but recalled the flashlight. He’d brought it from the car and now fumbled it out of his pocket, dropping it, having to grope frantically over the short grass in the circle, finding it at last and squeezing the button with a finger that slipped off four times before finally achieving the strength to make the connection.

The beam of light sprang out, and he heard a muffled exclamation of amazement from the dark behind him. Of course, he thought dazedly, William Buccleigh hadn’t yet seen a flashlight. The wavering beam passed slowly round the circle, back. What was he looking for? Footprints? Something Jem had dropped, that would show he’d come this way?

There was nothing.

Nothing but the stones. It was getting worse, and he dropped the flashlight, clutching his head with both hands. He had to move… had to go … go get Jem…

He was dragging himself over the grass, white-blind with the pain and nearly mindless, when strong hands grabbed him by the ankles and hauled him backward. He thought there might have been a voice, but if so, it was lost in the piercing scream that echoed inside his head, inside his soul, and he cried out his son’s name as loud as he could to hear something besides that noise, felt his throat tear from the effort, but heard nothing.

Then the earth moved beneath him and the world fell away.

FELL AWAY QUITE literally. When he came to some time later, he found that he and William Buccleigh were resting in a shallow declivity in the side of the hill, forty feet below the stone circle. They’d fallen and rolled; he could tell that from the way he felt and the way Buccleigh looked. There was a hint of dawn in the sky, and he could see Buccleigh, scratched and torn, sitting hunched beside him, curled into himself as though his belly hurt.

“What… ?” Roger whispered. He cleared his throat and tried again to ask what had happened, but couldn’t manage more than a whisper—and even that made his throat burn like fire.

William Buccleigh muttered something under his breath, and Roger realized that he was praying. He tried to sit up and made it, though his head spun.

“Did ye drag me free?” he demanded in his harsh whisper. Buccleigh’s eyes were closed and stayed that way until he had finished his prayer. Then he opened them and glanced from Roger to the top of the hill, where the unseen stones still quired their ghastly song of time undone—no more from here, thank goodness, than an eerie whine that set his teeth on edge.

“I did,” Buccleigh said. “I didna think ye were going to make it out on your own.”

“I wasn’t.” Roger lowered himself back onto the ground, dizzy and aching. “Thanks,” he added a moment later. There was a great void inside him, vast as the fading sky.

“Aye, well. Maybe it’ll help to make up for getting ye hanged,” Buccleigh said, in an offhand way. “What now?”

Roger stared up at the sky, rotating slowly overhead. It made him dizzier, so he closed his eyes and reached out a hand.

“Now we go home,” he croaked. “And think again. Help me up.”

VALLEY FORGE

WILLIAM WORE HIS uniform. It was necessary, he told his father.

“Denzell Hunter is a man of great conscience and principle. I cannot engage to winkle him out of the American camp without proper leave of his officer. I think he would not come. But if I can obtain permission—and I think I can—then I believe he will.”

But to obtain formal permission for the services of a Continental surgeon, obviously he had to ask formally. Which meant riding into Washington’s new winter quarters at Valley Forge in a red coat, no matter what happened next.

Lord John had closed his eyes for a moment, plainly envisioning just what sort of thing might happen next, but then opened them and said briskly, “All right, then. Will you take a servant with you?”

“No,” William said, surprised. “Why would I need one?”

“To care for the horses, to manage your goods—and to be the eyes in the back of your head,” his father said, giving him a look indicating that he should already have been aware of some of this. He therefore did not say, “Horses?” or “What goods?” but merely nodded and said, “Thank you, Papa. Can you find me someone suitable?”

“Suitable” turned out to be one Colenso Baragwanath, a stunted youth from Cornwall who had come with Howe’s troops as a stable-boy. He did know horses, William would give him that.

There were four horses and a pack mule, this last laden with sides of pork, four or five fat turkeys, a bag of rough-skinned potatoes, another of turnips, and a large keg of cider.

“If conditions there are half as bad as I think they are,” his father had told him, while overseeing the loading of the mule, “the commander would lend you the services of half a battalion in exchange for this, let alone a surgeon.”

“Thank you, Papa,” he said again, and swung into his saddle, his new captain’s gorget about his neck and a white flag of truce folded neatly into his saddlebag.

Valley Forge looked like a gigantic encampment of doomed charcoal-burners. The place was essentially a wood lot, or had been before Washington’s soldiers began felling everything in sight. Hacked stumps were everywhere, and the ground was strewn with broken branches. Huge bonfires burned in random spots, and piles of logs were stacked everywhere. They were building huts as fast as possible—and none too soon, for snow had begun falling three or four hours before, and the camp was already blanketed with white.

William hoped they’d be able to see the flag of truce.

“Right, up you go and ride ahead of me,” he told Colenso, handing the boy the long stick to which he’d tied the flag. The youth’s eyes widened in horror.

“What, me?”

“Yes, you,” said Willie impatiently. “Up, or I’ll kick your arse.”

William’s back itched between the shoulder blades as they entered the camp, Colenso crouched like a monkey on his horse’s back, holding the flag as low as he dared and muttering strange oaths in Cornish. William’s left hand itched, too, wanting to go for the hilt of his sword, the handle of his pistol. But he’d come unarmed. If they meant to shoot him, they’d shoot him, armed or not, and to come unarmed was a sign of good faith. So he put back his cloak, in spite of the snow, to show his lack of weapons, and rode slowly into the storm.

THE PRELIMINARIES went well. No one shot him, and he was directed to a Colonel Preston, a tall, ragged man in the remnants of a Continental uniform, who had eyed him askance but listened with surprising courtesy to his request. Permission was granted—but this being the American army, the permission granted was not license to take the surgeon away but rather license to ask the surgeon if he would go.

Willie left Colenso with the horses and mule, with strict instructions to keep his eyes open, and made his way up the little hill where he had been told Denzell Hunter likely was. His heart was beating fast, and not only from the exertion. In Philadelphia, he had been sure Hunter would come at his request. Now he wasn’t quite so sure.

He had fought Americans, knew a great many of them who were in no respect different from the Englishmen they’d been two years previous. But he’d never walked through an American army camp before.

It seemed chaotic, but all camps did in their early stages, and he was able to perceive the rough order that did in fact exist among the piles of debris and butchered tree stumps. But there was something very different about the feel of this camp, something almost exuberant. The men he passed were ragged in the extreme; not one in ten had shoes, despite the weather, and groups of them huddled like beggars around the bonfires, wrapped in blankets, shawls, the remnants of canvas tents and burlap sacks. And yet they didn’t huddle in miserable silence. They talked.

Conversed amiably, telling jokes, arguing, getting up to piss in the snow, to stamp round in circles to get the blood going. He’d seen a demoralized camp before, and this one wasn’t. Which was, all things considered, amazing. He assumed Denzell Hunter must share this spirit. That being so, would he consent to leave his fellows? No way to tell, save by asking.

There was no door to knock on. He came round a stand of leafless oak saplings that had so far escaped the ax and found Hunter crouched on the ground, sewing up a gash in the leg of a man who lay before him on a blanket. Rachel Hunter held the man’s shoulders, her capped head bent over him as she spoke encouragingly to him.

“Did I not tell thee he was quick?” she was saying. “No more than thirty seconds, I said, and so it has been. I counted it out, did I not?”

“Thee counts in a most leisurely fashion, Rachel,” the doctor said, smiling as he reached for his scissors and clipped the thread. “A man might walk three times around St. Paul’s in one of your minutes.”

“Stuff,” she said mildly. “’Tis done, in any case. Here, sit thee up and take some water. Thee does not—” She had turned toward the bucket that sat beside her and, as she did so, perceived William standing there. Her mouth opened in shock, and then she was up and flying across the clearing to embrace him.

He hadn’t expected that, but was delighted and returned the embrace with great feeling. She smelled of herself and of smoke, and it made his blood run faster.

“Friend William! I thought never to see thee again,” she said, stepping back with glowing face. “What does thee here? For I think thee has not come to enlist,” she added, looking him up and down.

“No,” he said, rather gruffly. “I have come to beg a favor. From your brother,” he added, a little belatedly.

“Oh? Come, then, he is nearly finished.” She led him to Denny, still looking up at him in great interest.

“So thee is indeed a British soldier,” she remarked. “We thought thee must be but feared thee might be a deserter. I am pleased thee is not.”

“Are you?” he asked, smiling. “But surely you would prefer that I abjure my military service and seek peace?”

“Of course I would that thee should seek peace—and find it, too,” she said matter-of-factly. “But thee cannot find peace in oath-breaking and illegal flight, knowing thy soul steeped in deceit and fearing for thy life. Denny, look who has come!”

“Yes, I saw. Friend William, well met!” Dr. Hunter helped his freshly bandaged patient to his feet and came toward William, smiling. “Did I hear thee would ask a favor of me? If it is my power to grant it, it is thine.”

“I won’t hold you to that,” William said, smiling and feeling a knot relax at the base of his neck. “But hear me out, and I hope you will see fit to come.”

As he had half-expected, Hunter was at first hesitant to leave the camp. There were not many surgeons, and with so much illness due to the cold and the crowded conditions… it might be a week or more before he could return to camp … but William wisely kept silence, only glancing once at Rachel and then meeting Denzell’s eyes straight on.

Would you have her stay here through the winter ?

“Thee wishes Rachel to come with me?” Hunter asked, instantly divining his meaning.

“I will come with thee whether he wishes it or not,” Rachel pointed out. “And both of you know it perfectly well.”

“Yes,” said Denzell mildly, “but it seemed mannerly to ask. Besides, it is not only a matter of thy coming. It—”

William didn’t hear the end of his sentence, for a large object was thrust suddenly between his legs from behind, and he emitted an unmanly yelp and leaped forward, whirling round to see who had assaulted him in this cowardly fashion.

“Yes, I was forgetting the dog,” Rachel said, still composed. “He can walk now, but I doubt he can manage the journey to Philadelphia on foot. Can thee make shift to transport him, does thee think?”

He recognized the dog at once. There couldn’t possibly be two like him.

“Surely this is Ian Murray’s dog?” he asked, putting out a tentative fist for the enormous beast to sniff. “Where is his master?”

The Hunters exchanged a brief glance, but Rachel answered readily enough.

“Scotland. He has gone to Scotland on an urgent errand, with his uncle, James Fraser. Does thee know Mr. Fraser?” It seemed to William that both Hunters were staring at him rather intently, but he merely nodded and said, “I met him once, many years ago. Why did the dog not go to Scotland with his master?”

Again that glance between them. What was it about Murray? he wondered.

“The dog was injured, just before they took ship. Friend Ian was kind enough to leave his companion in my care,” Rachel said calmly. “Can thee procure a wagon, perhaps? I think thy horse may not like Rollo.”

LORD JOHN FITTED the leather strap between Henry’s teeth. The boy was half unconscious from a dose of laudanum but knew enough still of his surroundings to give his uncle the bare attempt at a grin. Grey could feel the fright pulsing through Henry—and shared it. There was a ball of venomous snakes in his belly, a constant slithering sensation, punctuated by sudden stabs of panic.

Hunter had insisted upon binding Henry’s arms and legs to the bed, that there should be no movement during the operation. The day was brilliant; sun coruscated from the frozen snow that rimmed the windows, and the bed had been moved to take best advantage of it.

Dr. Hunter had been told of the dowser but declined courteously to have the man come again, saying that this smacked of divination, and if he were to ask God’s help in this endeavor, he thought he could not do so sincerely were there anything of witchcraft about the process. That had rather affronted Mercy Woodcock, who puffed up a bit, but she kept silence, too glad—and too anxious—to argue.

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