An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 42

   

“A cache of what?” Perkins asked, mouth hanging half open as usual.

“Lobsters,” William answered flippantly, but relented at Perkins’s look of confusion. “I don’t know, but you’ll probably recognize it if you find it. Don’t drink it, though—come fetch me.”

Smugglers’ boats brought almost everything into Long Island, but the odds of the current rumor concerning a cache of bed linens or boxes of Dutch platters were low. Might be brandy, might be ale, but almost certainly something drinkable; liquor was by far the most profitable contraband. William sorted the men into pairs and sent them off, watching until they were a decent distance away before heaving a deep sigh and leaning back against a tree.

Such trees as grew near the shore here were runty twisted pines, but the sea wind moved pleasantly among their needles, soughing in his ears with a soothing rush. He sighed again, this time in pleasure, remembering just how much he liked solitude; he hadn’t had any in a month. If he took Richardson’s offer, though … Well, there’d be Randall-Isaacs, of course, but still—weeks on the road, free of the army constraints of duty and routine. Silence in which to think. No more Perkins!

He wondered idly whether he might be able to sneak into the junior officers’ quarters and pound Chinless to a pulp before vanishing into the wilderness like a red Indian. Need he wear a disguise? Not if he waited ’til after dark, he decided. Ned might suspect, but couldn’t prove anything if he couldn’t see William’s face. Was it cowardly to attack Ned in his sleep, though? Well, that was all right; he’d douse Chinless with the contents of his chamber pot to wake him up before setting in.

A tern swept by within inches of his head, startling him out of these enjoyable cogitations. His movement in turn startled the bird, which let out an indignant shriek at finding him not edible after all and sailed off over the water. He scooped up a pinecone and flung it at the bird, missing by a mile, but not caring. He’d send a note to Richardson this very evening, saying yes. The thought of it made his heart beat faster, and a sense of exhilaration filled him, buoyant as the tern’s drift upon the air.

He rubbed sand off his fingers onto his breeches, then stiffened, seeing movement on the water. A sloop was tacking to and fro, just offshore. Then he relaxed, recognizing it—that villain Rogers.

“And what are you after, I should like to know?” he muttered. He stepped out onto the sandy edge of the shore and stood amid the marram grass, fists on his hips, letting his uniform be seen—just in case Rogers had somehow missed the sight of William’s men strung all down the shore, reddish dots crawling over the sandy dunes like bedbugs. If Rogers had heard about the smuggler’s cache, too, William meant to make sure Rogers knew that William’s soldiers had rights over it.

Robert Rogers was a shady character who’d come slinking into New York a few months before and somehow wangled a major’s commission from General Howe and a sloop from his brother, the admiral. Said he was an Indian fighter, and was fond of dressing up as an Indian himself. Effective, though: he’d recruited men enough to form ten companies of nattily uniformed rangers, but Rogers continued to prowl the coastline in his sloop with a small company of men as disreputable-looking as he was, looking for recruits, spies, smugglers, and—William was convinced—anything that wasn’t nailed down.

The sloop came in a little closer, and he saw Rogers on deck: a dark-skinned man in his late forties, seamed and battered-looking, with an evil cast to his brow. He spotted William, though, and waved genially. William raised a civil hand in reply; if his men found anything, he might need Rogers to carry the booty back to the New York side—accompanied by a guard to keep it from disappearing en route.

There were a lot of stories about Rogers—some plainly put about by Rogers himself. But so far as William knew, the man’s chief qualification was that he had at one point attempted to pay his respects to General Washington, who not only declined to receive him but had him slung unceremoniously out of the Continentals’ camp and refused further entry. William considered this evidence of good judgment on the part of the Virginian.

Now what? The sloop had dropped her sails, and was putting out a small boat. It was Rogers, rowing over on his own. William’s wariness was roused at once. Still, he waded in and grabbed the gunwale, helping Rogers to drag the boat up onto the sand.

“Well met, Lieutenant!” Rogers grinned at him, gap-toothed but self-confident. William saluted him briefly and formally.

“Major.”

“Your fellows looking for a cache of French wine, by chance?”

Damn, he’d already found it!

“We had word of smuggling activities taking place in this vicinity,” William said stiffly. “We are investigating.”

“’Course you are,” Rogers agreed amiably. “Save you a bit of time? Try up the other way …” He turned, lifting his chin toward a cluster of dilapidated fishing shacks a quarter mile in the distance. “It’s—”

“We did,” William interrupted.

“It’s buried in the sand behind the shacks,” Rogers finished, ignoring the interruption.

“Much obliged, Major,” William said, with as much cordiality as he could manage.

“Saw two fellows a-burying it last evening,” Rogers explained. “But I don’t think they’ve come back for it yet.”

“You’re keeping an eye on this stretch of shore, I see,” William observed. “Anything in particular you’re looking for? Sir,” he added.

Rogers smiled.

“Since you mention it, sir, I am. There’s a fellow walking round asking questions of a damnable inquisitive sort, and I should very much like to talk to him. If might be as you or your men should spot the man … ?”

“Certainly, sir. Do you know his name, or his appearance?”

“Both, as it happens,” Rogers replied promptly. “Tall fellow, with scars upon his face from a gunpowder explosion. You’d know him if you saw him. A rebel, from a rebel family in Connecticut—Hale is his name.”

William experienced a sharp jolt to the midsection.

“Oh, you have seen him?” Rogers spoke mildly, but his dark eyes had sharpened. William felt a stab of annoyance that his face should be so readable, but inclined his head.

“He passed the customs point yesterday. Very voluble fellow,” he added, trying to recall the details of the man. He’d noticed the scars: faded welts that mottled the man’s cheeks and forehead. “Nervous; he was sweating and his voice shook—the private who stopped him thought he had tobacco or something else concealed, and made him turn out his pockets, but he hadn’t any contraband.” William closed his eyes, frowning in the effort of recall. “He had papers…. I saw them.” He’d seen them, all right, but had not had the chance to examine them himself, as he’d been concerned with a merchant bringing in a cartload of cheeses, bound—he said—for the British commissary. By the time he’d done with that, the man had been waved on.

“The man who spoke with him …” Rogers was peering down the shore toward the desultory searchers in the distance. “Which is he?”

“A private soldier named Hudson. I’ll call him for you if you like,” William offered. “But I doubt he can tell you much about the papers; he can’t read.”

Rogers looked vexed at this, but nodded for William to call Hudson anyway. Thus summoned, Hudson verified William’s account of the matter, but could recall nothing regarding the papers, save that one of the sheets had had some numbers written upon it. “And a drawing, I think,” he added. “Didn’t notice what it was, though, sir, I’m afraid.”

“Numbers, eh? Good, good,” Rogers said, all but rubbing his hands together. “And did he say whence he was bound?”

“To visit a friend, sir, as lived near Flushing.” Hudson was respectful, but looked curiously at the ranger; Rogers was barefoot and dressed in a pair of ratty linen breeches with a short waistcoat made of muskrat fur. “I didn’t ask the friend’s name, sir. Didn’t know as it might be important.”

“Oh, I doubt it is, Private. Doubt the friend exists at all.” Rogers chuckled, seeming delighted at the news. He stared into the hazy distance, eyes narrowed as though he might distinguish the spy among the dunes, and nodded slowly in satisfaction.

“Very good,” he said softly, as though to himself, and was turning to go when William stopped him with a word.

“My thanks for the information regarding the smuggler’s cache, sir.” Perkins had overseen the digging whilst William and Rogers were interviewing Hudson, and was now chivying a small group of soldiers along, several sand-caked casks rolling bumpily down the dunes before them. One of the casks hit a hard spot in the sand, bounced into the air, and landed hard, rolling off at a crazy angle, pursued with whoops by the soldiers.

William flinched slightly, seeing this. If the wine survived its rescue, it wouldn’t be drinkable for a fortnight. Not that that was likely to stop anyone trying.

“I should like to request permission to bring the seized contraband aboard your sloop for transport,” he said formally to Rogers. “I will accompany and deliver it myself, of course.”

“Oh, of course.” Rogers seemed amused, but nodded agreement. He scratched his nose, considering something. “We shan’t be sailing back until tomorrow—d’you want to come along of us tonight? You might be of help, as you’ve actually seen the fellow we’re after.”

William’s heart leapt with excitement. Miss Beulah’s stew paled in comparison with the prospect of hunting a dangerous spy. And being in at the capture could do nothing but good to his reputation, even if the major share of the credit was Rogers’s.

“I should be more than pleased to assist you in any way, sir!”

Rogers grinned, then eyed him up and down.

“Good. But you can’t go spy-catching like that, Lieutenant. Come aboard, and we’ll fit you out proper.”

WILLIAM PROVED TO BE six inches taller than the tallest of Rogers’s crew, and thus ended up awkwardly attired in a flapping shirt of rough linen—the tails left out by necessity, to disguise the fact that the top buttons of his flies were left undone—and canvas breeches that threatened to emasculate him should he make any sudden moves. These could not be buckled, of course, and William elected to emulate Rogers and go barefoot, rather than suffer the indignity of striped stockings that left his knees and four inches of hairy shin exposed between stocking-top and breeches.

The sloop had sailed to Flushing, where Rogers, William, and four men disembarked. Rogers maintained an informal recruiting office here, in the back room of a merchant’s shop in the high road of the village. He vanished into this establishment momentarily, returning with the satisfactory news that Hale had not been seen in Flushing and was likely therefore stopping at one of the two taverns to be found at Elmsford, two or three miles from the village.

The men accordingly walked in that direction, dividing for the sake of caution into smaller groups, so that William found himself walking with Rogers, a ragged shawl slung round his shoulders against the evening chill. He had not shaved, of course, and fancied that he looked a proper companion for the ranger, who had added a slouch hat with a dried flying fish stuck through the brim to his costume.

“Do we pose as oystermen, or carters, perhaps?” William asked. Roger grunted in brief amusement and shook his head.

“You’d not pass for either, should anyone hear you talk. Nay, lad, keep your mouth shut, save to put something in it. The boys and I ’ull manage the business. All you need do is nod, if you spot Hale.”

The wind had come onshore and blew the scent of cold marshes toward them, spiced with a distant hint of chimney smoke. No habitation was yet in sight, and the fading landscape was desolate around them. The cold, sandy dirt of the road was soothing to his bare feet, though, and he did not find the bleakness of their surroundings depressing in the least; he was too eager at thought of what lay ahead.

Rogers was silent for the most part, pacing with his head down against the cold breeze. After a bit, though, he said casually, “I carried Captain Richardson over from New York. And back.”

William thought momentarily of saying, “Captain Richardson?” in tones of polite ignorance, but realized in time that this wouldn’t do.

“Did you?” he said instead, and kept his own silence. Rogers laughed.

“Fly cove, aren’t you? Perhaps he’s right, then, choosing you.”

“He told you that he had chosen me for … something?”

“Good lad. Never give anything away for free—but sometimes it pays to oil the wheels a bit. Nay, Richardson’s a downy bird—he said not a word about you. But I know who he is, and what he does. And I know where I left him. He wasn’t calling upon the Culpers, I’ll warrant that.”

William made an indeterminate sound of interest in his throat. Plainly, Rogers meant to say something. Let him say, then.

“How old are you, lad?”

“Nineteen,” William said, with an edge. “Why?”

Rogers shrugged, his outline little more than a shadow among many in the gathering dusk.

“Old enough to risk your neck on purpose, then. But you might want to think twice before saying yes to whatever Richardson’s suggesting to you.”

“Assuming that he did indeed suggest something—again, why?”

Rogers touched his back, urging him forward.

“You’re about to see that for yourself, lad. Come on.”

THE WARM SMOKY LIGHT of the tavern and the smell of food embraced William. He had not been really conscious of cold, dark, or hunger, his mind intent on the adventure at hand. Now, though, he drew a long, lingering breath, filled with the scent of fresh bread and roast chicken, and felt like an insensible corpse, newly roused from the grave and restored to full life upon the day of Resurrection.

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