An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 66

   

WITHIN A QUARTER HOUR, I found myself back in the small forward cargo hold where I had roused from my fainting spell a few hours earlier, this being now designated as the sick bay.

The Asp did not travel with a surgeon, but had a small store of medicinals: a half-full bottle of laudanum, a fleam and bleeding bowl, a large pair of tweezers, a jar of dead and desiccated leeches, two rusty amputation saws, a broken tenaculum, a bag of lint for packing wounds, and a huge jar of camphorated grease.

I was strongly tempted to drink the laudanum myself, but duty called. I tied back my hair and began poking about among the cargo, in search of anything useful. Mr. Smith and Ian had rowed across to the Teal in hopes of retrieving my own kit, but given the amount of damage I could see in the area where our cabin had been, I didn’t have much hope. A lucky shot from the Asp had holed the Teal below the waterline; had she not run aground, she would likely have sunk sooner or later.

I’d done a rapid triage on deck; one man killed outright, several minor injuries, three serious but not instantly life-threatening. There were likely more on the Teal; from what the men said, the ships had exchanged broadsides at a distance of no more than a few yards. A quick and bloody little action.

A few minutes after the conclusion, the Pitt had limped into sight, her contentiously mixed crew having evidently come to a sufficient accommodation as to allow her to sail, and she was now occupied in ferrying the wounded. I heard the faint shout of her bosun’s hail over the whine of the wind above.

“Incoming,” I murmured, and, picking up the smaller of the amputation saws, prepared for my own quick and bloody action.

“YOU HAVE GUNS,” I pointed out to Abram Zenn, who was rigging a couple of hanging lanterns for me, the sun having now almost set. “Presumably this means that Captain Hickman was prepared to use them. Didn’t he think there might be a possibility of casualties?”

Abram shrugged apologetically.

“It’s our first voyage as a letter of marque, ma’am. We’ll do better next time, I’m sure.”

“Your first? What sort of—how long has Captain Hickman been sailing?” I demanded. I was ruthlessly rummaging the cargo by now, and was pleased to find a chest that held lengths of printed calico.

Abram frowned at the wick he was trimming, thinking.

“Well,” he said slowly, “he had a fishing boat for some time, out of Marblehead. Him—he, I mean—and his brother owned it together. But after his brother ran afoul of Captain Stebbings, he went to work for Emmanuel Bailey, as first mate on one of his—Mr. Bailey’s, I mean—ships. Mr. Bailey’s a Jew,” he explained, seeing my raised eyebrow. “Owns a bank in Philadelphia and three ships as sail regularly to the West Indies. He owns this ship, too, and it’s him who got the letter of marque from the Congress for Captain Hickman, when the war was announced.”

“I see,” I said, more than slightly taken aback. “But this is Captain Hickman’s first cruise as captain of a sloop?”

“Yes, ma’am. But privateers don’t usually have a supercargo, do you see,” he said earnestly. “It would be the supercargo’s job to provision the ship and see to such things as the medical supplies.”

“And you know this because—how long have you been sailing?” I asked curiously, liberating a bottle of what looked like very expensive brandy, to use as antiseptic.

“Oh, since I was eight years old, ma’am,” he said. He stood a-tiptoe to hang the lantern, which cast a warm, reassuring glow over my impromptu operating theater. “I’ve six elder brothers, and the oldest runs the farm, with his sons. The others… well, one’s a shipwright in Newport News, and he got to talking with a captain one day and mentioned me, and next thing I know, I’m one of the cabin boys on the Antioch, her being an Indiaman. I went back with the captain to London, and we sailed to Calcutta the very day after.” He came down onto his heels and smiled at me. “I’ve been a-sea ever since, ma’am. I find it suits me.”

“That’s very good,” I said. “Your parents—are they still alive?”

“Oh, no, ma’am. My mother died birthing me, and my pa when I was seven.” He seemed untroubled by this. But after all, I reflected, ripping calico into bandage lengths, that was half his lifetime ago.

“Well, I hope the sea will continue to suit you,” I said. “Do you have any doubts, though—after today?”

He thought about that, his earnest young face furrowed in the lantern shadows.

“No,” he said slowly, and looked up at me, his eyes serious—and not nearly so young as they had been a few hours ago. “I knew when I signed on with Captain Hickman that there might be fighting.” His lips tightened, perhaps to keep them from quivering. “I don’t mind killing a man, if I have to.”

“Not now… you don’t,” said one of the wounded men, very softly. He was lying in the shadows, stretched across two crates of English china, breathing slowly.

“No, not now, you don’t,” I agreed dryly. “You might want to speak to my nephew or my husband about it, though, when things have settled a bit.”

I thought that would be the end of it, but Abram followed me as I laid out my rudimentary tools and set about such sterilization as could be managed, splashing out brandy with abandon, ’til the hold smelled like a distillery—this to the scandalization of the wounded men, who thought it waste to use good drink so. The galley fire had been put out during the battle, though; it would be some time before I had hot water.

“Are you a patriot, ma’am? If you don’t mind me asking,” he added, blushing with awkwardness.

The question took me back a bit. The straightforward answer would be “Yes, of course.” Jamie was, after all, a rebel, so declared by his own hand. And while he had made the original declaration out of simple necessity, I thought necessity had now become conviction. But me? Certainly I had been, once.

“Yes,” I said—I couldn’t very well say anything else. “Plainly you are, Abram. Why?”

“Why?” He seemed staggered that I would ask, and stood blinking at me over the top of the lantern he held.

“Tell me later,” I suggested, taking the lantern. I’d done what I could on deck; the wounded who needed further attention were being brought down. It was no time for political discussion. Or so I thought.

Abram bravely settled down to help me and did fairly well, though he had to stop now and then to vomit into a bucket. After the second occurrence of this, he took to asking questions of the wounded—those in any condition to answer. I didn’t know whether this was simple curiosity or an attempt to distract himself from what I was doing.

“What do you think of the Revolution, sir?” he earnestly asked one grizzled seaman from the Pitt with a crushed foot. The man gave him a distinctly jaundiced look but replied, probably in order to distract himself.

“Bloody waste of time,” he said gruffly, digging his fingers into the edge of the chest he sat on. “Better to be fighting the frogs than Englishmen. What’s to be gained by it? Dear Lord,” he said under his breath, going pale.

“Give him something to bite on, Abram, will you?” I said, busy picking shattered bits of bone out of the wreckage and wondering whether he might do better with a swift amputation. Perhaps less risk of infection, and he would always walk with a painful limp in any case, but still, I hated to …

“No, that’s all right, mum,” he said, sucking in a breath. “What do you think of it, then, youngster?”

“I think it is right and necessary, sir,” Abram replied stoutly. “The King is a tyrant, and tyranny must be resisted by all proper men.”

“What?” said the seaman, shocked. “The King, a tyrant? Who says such a naughty thing?”

“Why… Mr. Jefferson. And—and all of us! We all think so,” Abram said, taken aback at such vehement disagreement.

“Well, then, you’re all a pack of bleedin’ fools—saving your presence, mum,” he added, with a nod to me. He got a look at his foot and swayed a bit, closing his eyes, but asked, “You don’t think such a silly thing, do you, mum? You ought to talk sense into your boy here.”

“Talk sense?” cried Abram, roused. “You think it sense that we may not speak or write as we wish?”

The seaman opened one eye.

“Of course that’s sense,” he said, with an evident attempt to be reasonable. “You get silly buggers—your pardon, mum—a-saying all kinds of things regardless, stirrin’ folk up to no good end, and what’s it lead to? Riot, that’s what, and what you may call disorderliness, with folk having their houses burnt and being knocked down in the street. Ever hear of the Cutter riots, boy?”

Abram rather obviously had not, but countered with a vigorous denunciation of the Intolerable Acts, which caused Mr. Ormiston—we had got onto personal terms by now—to scoff loudly and recount the privations Londoners endured by comparison with the luxury enjoyed by the ungrateful colonists.

“Ungrateful!” Abram said, his face congested. “And what should we be grateful for, then? For having soldiers foisted upon us?”

“Oh, foisted, is it?” cried Mr. Ormiston in righteous indignation. “Such a word! And if it means what I think it does, young man, you should get down on your knees and thank God for such foistingness! Who do you think saved you all from being scalped by red Indians or overrun by the French? And who do you think paid for it all, eh?”

This shrewd riposte drew cheers—and not a few jeers—from the waiting men, who had all been drawn into the discussion by now.

“That is absolute … desolute … stultiloquy,” began Abram, puffing up his insignificant chest like a scrawny pigeon, but he was interrupted by the entrance of Mr. Smith, a canvas bag in hand and an apologetic look on his face.

“I’m afraid your cabin was all ahoo, ma’am,” he said. “But I picked up what bits was scattered on the floor, in case they—”

“Jonah Marsden!” Mr. Ormiston, on the verge of standing up, plumped back onto the chest, openmouthed. “Bless me if it isn’t!”

“Who?” I asked, startled.

“Jonah—well, ’tisn’t his real name, what was it… oh, Bill, I think it was, but we took to calling him Jonah, owing to him being sunk so many times.”

“Now, Joe.” Mr. Smith—or Mr. Marsden—was backing toward the door, smiling nervously. “That was all a long time ago, and—”

“Not so long as all that.” Mr. Ormiston got ponderously to his feet, balancing with one hand on a stack of herring barrels so as not to put weight on his bandaged foot. “Not so long as would make the navy forget you, you filthy deserter!”

Mr. Smith disappeared abruptly up the ladder, pushing past two seamen attempting to come down these, handling a third like a side of beef between them. Muttering curses, they dropped him on the deck in front of me with a thud and stood back, gasping. It was Captain Stebbings.

“ ’e’s not dead,” one of them informed me helpfully.

“Oh, good,” I said. My tone of voice might have left something to be desired, for the captain opened one eye and glared at me.

“You’re leaving me… to be butchered… by this bitch?” he said hoarsely, between labored gasps. “I’d ra-rather die honhonorablblbl…” The sentiment gurgled off into a bubbling noise that made me rip open his smoke-stained, blood-soaked second-best coat and shirt. Sure enough, there was a neat round hole in his right breast and the nasty wet slurp of a sucking chest wound coming from it.

I said a very bad word, and the two men who had brought him to me shuffled and muttered. I said it again, louder, and, seizing Stebbings’s hand, slapped it over the hole.

“Hold that there, if you want a chance at an honorable death,” I said to him. “You!” I shouted at one of the men trying to edge away. “Bring me some oil from the galley. Now! And you—” My voice caught the other, who jerked guiltily to a halt. “Sailcloth and tar. Fast as you can!”

“Don’t talk,” I advised Stebbings, who seemed inclined to make remarks. “You have a collapsed lung, and either I get it reinflated or you die like a dog, right here.”

“Hg,” he said, which I took for assent. His hand was a nice meaty one, and doing a reasonably good job of sealing the hole for the moment. The trouble was that he undoubtedly had not only a hole in his chest but a hole in the lung, too. I had to provide a seal for the external hole so air couldn’t get into the chest and keep the lung compressed, but had also to make sure there was a way for air from the pleural space around the lung to make an exit. As it was, every time he exhaled, air from the injured lung went straight into that space, making the problem worse.

He might also be drowning in his own blood, but there wasn’t a hell of a lot I could do about that, so I wouldn’t worry about it.

“On the good side,” I told him, “it was a bullet, and not shrapnel or a splinter. One thing about red-hot iron: it sterilizes the wound. Lift your hand for a moment, please. Breathe out.” I grabbed his hand myself and lifted it for the count of two while he exhaled, then slapped it back over the wound. It made a squelching sound, owing to the blood. It was a lot of blood for a hole like that, but he wasn’t coughing or spitting blood…. Where—oh.

“Is this blood yours or someone else’s?” I demanded, pointing at it.

His eyes were half shut, but at this he turned his head and bared his bad teeth at me in a wolf’s grin.

“Your… husband’s,” he said in a hoarse whisper.

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