“If you had, wouldn’t someone else have shot him?” William asked practically.
His father smiled, but without humor.
“Yes, they would. But that’s not the point. And it’s true that it never occurred to me that I had a choice in the matter—but that is the point. You always have a choice, William. Do remember that, will you?”
Without waiting for an answer, he’d leaned forward and plucked a quill from the blue-and-white Chinese jar on his desk, and flipped open his rock-crystal inkwell.
“You’re sure?” he’d said, looking seriously at William, and at the latter’s nod, signed his name with a flourish. Then had looked up and smiled.
“I’m proud of you, William,” he’d said quietly. “I always will be.”
William sighed. He didn’t doubt that his father would always love him, but as for making him proud … this particular expedition did not seem likely to cover him in glory. He’d be lucky to get back to his own troops before someone noticed how long he’d been gone and raised the alarm. God, how ignominious, to get lost and robbed, as his first notable act!
Still, better than having his first notable act being killed by bandits.
He continued to make his way cautiously through the fog-draped woods. The footing wasn’t bad, though there were boggy places where the rain had pooled in low spots. Once, he heard the ragged crack of musket fire and hurried toward it, but it stopped before he came in sight of whoever had been firing.
He trudged grimly along, wondering just how long it might take to traverse the whole of the bloody island on foot, and how close he was to having done so? The ground had risen sharply; he was climbing now, sweat running freely down his face. He fancied the fog was thinning as he climbed, and sure enough, at one point he emerged onto a small rocky promontory and had a brief glimpse of the ground below—completely covered in swirling gray fog. The sight gave him vertigo, and he was obliged to sit down on a rock for a few moments with his eyes closed before continuing.
Twice, he heard the sound of men and horses, but the sound was subtly wrong; the voices didn’t have the rhythms of the army, and he turned away, edging cautiously in the opposite direction.
He found the ground change abruptly, becoming a sort of scrub forest, full of stunted trees poking from a light-colored soil that scrunched under his boots. Then he heard water—waves lapping on a beach. The sea! Well, thank God for that, he thought, and hastened his steps toward the sound.
As he made his way toward the sound of the waves, though, he suddenly perceived other sounds.
Boats. The grating of hulls—more than one—on gravel, the clank of oarlocks, splashing. And voices. Hushed voices, but agitated. Bloody hell! He ducked under the limb of a runty pine, hoping for a break in the drifting fog.
A sudden movement sent him lunging sideways, hand reaching for his pistol. He barely remembered that the pistol was gone, before realizing that his adversary was a great blue heron, which eyed him with a yellow glare before launching itself skyward in a clatter of affront. A cry of alarm came from the bushes, no more than ten feet away, together with the boom of a musket, and the heron exploded in a shower of feathers, directly over his head. He felt drops of the bird’s blood, much warmer than the cold sweat on his face, and sat down very suddenly, black spots dizzy before his eyes.
He didn’t dare move, let alone call out. There was a whisper of voices from the bushes, but not loud enough that he could make out any words. After a few moments, though, he heard a stealthy rustling that moved gradually away. Making as little noise as possible, he rolled onto hands and knees and crawled for some distance in the other direction, until he felt it safe to rise to his feet again.
He thought he still heard voices. He crept closer, moving slowly, his heart thumping. He smelled tobacco, and froze.
Nothing moved near him, though—he could still hear the voices, but they were a good way distant. He sniffed, cautiously, but the scent had vanished; perhaps he was imagining things. He moved on, toward the sounds.
He could hear them clearly now. Urgent, low-voiced calls, the rattle of oarlocks and the splash of feet in the surf. The shuffle and murmur of men, blending—almost—with the susurrus of sea and grass. He cast one last desperate glance at the sky, but the sun was still invisible. He had to be on the western side of the island; he was sure of it. Almost sure of it. And if he was …
If he was, the sounds he was hearing had to be those of American troops, fleeing the island for Manhattan.
“Don’t. Stir.” The whisper behind him coincided exactly with the pressure of a gun’s barrel, jammed hard enough into his kidney as to freeze him where he stood. It withdrew for an instant and returned, rammed home with a force that blurred his eyes. He made a guttural sound and arched his back, but before he could speak, someone with horny hands had seized his wrists and jerked them back.
“No need,” said the voice, deep, cracked, and querulous. “Stand aside and I’ll shoot him.”
“No, ’ee won’t,” said another, just as deep but less annoyed. “ ’e’s nobbut a youngun. And pretty, too.” One of the horny hands stroked his cheek and he stiffened, but whoever it was had already bound his hands tight.
“And if ’ee meant to shoot ’im, you’m ’ve done it already, sister,” the voice added. “Turn y’self, boy.”
Slowly, he turned round, to see that he had been captured by a pair of old women, short and squat as trolls. One of them, the one with the gun, was smoking a pipe; it was her tobacco he’d smelled. Seeing the shock and disgust on his features, she lifted one corner of a seamed mouth while keeping a firm grip on the pipestem with the stumps of brown-stained teeth.
“ ’andsome is as ’andsome does,” she observed, looking him up and down. “Still, no need to waste shot.”
“Madam,” he said, collecting himself and trying for charm. “I believe you mistake me. I am a soldier of the King, and—”
Both of them burst into laughter, creaking like a pair of rusty hinges.
“Wouldn’t never’ve guessed,” the pipe-smoker said, grinning round the stem of her pipe. “Thought ’ee was a jakesman, sure!”
“Hush up, sonny,” her sister interrupted his further attempt to speak. “We bain’t going to harm ’ee, so long as ’ee stands still and keeps mum.” She eyed him, taking in the damage.
“Been in the wars, have ’ee?” she said, not without sympathy. Not waiting for an answer, she pushed him down onto a rock, this liberally crusted with mussels and dripping weed, from which he deduced his closeness to the shore.
He didn’t speak. Not for fear of the old women, but because there was nothing to say.
He sat, listening to the sounds of the exodus. No idea how many men might be involved, as he had no notion how long it had been going on. Nothing useful was said; there were only the breathless half-heard exchanges of men working, the mutter of waiting, here and there the sort of muffled laughter born of nervousness.
The fog was lifting off the water. He could see them now—not more than a hundred yards away, a tiny fleet of rowboats, dories, here and there a fishing ketch, moving slowly to and fro across water smooth as glass—and a steadily dwindling crowd of men on shore, keeping their hands on their guns, glancing continually over their shoulders, alert for pursuit.
Little did they know, he reflected bitterly.
At the moment, he had no concern for his own future; the humiliation of being an impotent witness as the entire American army escaped under his nose—and the further thought of being obliged to return and recount this occurrence to General Howe—was so galling that he didn’t care whether the old women had it in mind to cook and eat him.
Focused as he was on the scene on the beach, it didn’t occur to him at once that if he could now see the Americans, he was himself visible to them. In fact, so intent were the Continentals and militiamen on their retreat that none of them did notice him, until one man turned away from the retreat, seeming to search the upper reaches of the shore for something.
The man stiffened, then, with a brief glance back at his oblivious companions, came purposefully up across the shingle, eyes fixed on William.
“What’s this, Mother?” he asked. He was dressed in the uniform of a Continental officer, built short and wide, much like the two women, but a good deal bigger, and while his face was outwardly calm, there were calculations going on behind his bloodshot eyes.
“Been fishing,” said the pipe-smoker. “Caught this wee redfish, but we think we’ll throw ’im back.”
“Aye? Maybe not just yet.”
William had stiffened with the man’s appearance, and stared up at him, keeping his own face as grim as possible.
The man glanced up at the shredding fog behind William.
“More like you at home, are there, boy?”
William sat silent. The man sighed, drew back his fist, and hit William in the stomach. He doubled up, fell off the rock, and lay retching on the sand. The man grasped him by the collar and hauled him up, as though he weighed nothing.
“Answer me, lad. I haven’t much time, and ’ee don’t want me to be hasty in my asking.” He spoke mildly, but touched the knife at his belt.
William wiped his mouth, as well as he could, on his shoulder and faced the man, eyes burning. All right, he thought, and felt a certain calmness descend on him. If this is where I die, at least I’ll die for something. The thought was almost a relief.
The pipe-smoker’s sister put paid to the dramatics, though, poking his interrogator in the ribs with her musket.
“If there was more, sister and I’d’a heard ’em long since,” she said, mildly disgusted. “They ain’t quiet, sojers.”
“True, that,” the pipe-smoker agreed, and paused to remove her pipe long enough to spit. “This ’un’s only lost, ’ee can see as much. ’Ee can see he won’t talk to ’ee, either.” She grinned familiarly at William, displaying one remaining yellow dogtooth. “Rather die than speak, eh, lad?”
William inclined his head a stiff inch, and the women giggled. No other word for it: they giggled at him.
“Get on with ’ee," the aunt told the man, waving a hand at the beach behind him. “They’ll leave without ’ee.”
The man didn’t look at her—didn’t take his eyes off William’s. After a moment, though, he nodded briefly and turned on his heel.
William felt one of the women behind him; something sharp touched his wrist, and the twine they’d bound him with parted. He wanted to rub his wrists, but didn’t.
“Go, boy,” the pipe-smoker said, almost gently. “Before someun else sees ’ee and gets ideas.”
At the top of the beach, he paused and looked back. The old women had vanished, but the man was sitting in the stern of a rowboat, drawing rapidly away from the shore, now nearly empty. The man was staring at him.
William turned away. The sun was finally visible, a pale orange circle burning through the haze. It was coming down the sky now, early afternoon. He turned inland and struck southwest, but felt eyes on his back for a long time after the shore had fallen out of sight behind him.
His stomach was sore, and the only thought in his mind was what Captain Ramsay had said to him. Heard of a lady called Cassandra?
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
NOT ALL OF the letters were dated, but some were. Bree sorted gingerly through the half-dozen on top, and with a sense of being poised at the top of a roller coaster, chose one with 2 March, A.D. 1777 written across the flap.
“I think this one’s next.” She had trouble taking a full breath. “It’s—thin. Short.”
It was, no more than a page and a half, but the reason for its brevity was clear; her father had written the whole of it. His awkward, determined writing wrung her heart.
“We are never letting a teacher try to make Jemmy write with his right hand,” she said fiercely to Roger. “Never!”
“Right,” he said, surprised and a little amused at her outburst. “Or left, if you prefer.”
2 March, Anno Domini 1777
Fraser’s Ridge, colony of North Carolina
My dearest daughter—
We prepare now to remove to Scotland. Not forever, or even for long. My Life—our Lives—lie here in America. And in all Honesty, I should greatly prefer to be stung to Death by Hornets than set foot on board another Ship; I try not to dwell upon the Prospect. But there are two chief Concerns which compel me to this Decision.
Had I not the Gift of Knowledge that you and your Mother and Roger Mac have brought me, I would likely think—as the great Majority of People in the Colony do think—that the Continental Congress will not last six Months, and Washington’s Army less than that. I have spoken myself with a man from Cross Creek, who was discharged (honourably) from the Continental army on account of a festering Wound in the Arm—your Mother has of course dealt with this; he screamed a great Deal and I was pressed into service to sit upon him—who tells me that Washington has no more than a few thousand regular Soldiers, all very poor in Equipment, Clothes, and Arms, and all owed Money, which they are unlikely to receive. Most of his men are Militia, enlisted on short Contracts of two or three Months, and already melting away, needing to return Home for the Planting.
But I do know. At the same Time, I cannot be sure how the Things that I know will come about. Am I meant to be in some Way Part of this? Should I hold back, will that somehow damage or prevent the Success of our Desires? I often wish I could discuss these Questions with your Husband, though Presbyterian that he is, I think he would find them even more unsettling than I do. And in the end, it does not matter. I am what God has made me, and must deal with the Times in which He has placed me.