An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 67

   

“Wanker,” I said crossly, lifting his hand again. “Breathe out.” The men had seen me dealing with Stebbings; there were other casualties from the Teal coming or being carried along, but most of them seemed ambulatory. I gave cursory directions to the able-bodied with them, regarding the application of pressure to wounds or the placement of broken limbs so as to avoid further injury.

It seemed an age before the oil and cloth arrived, and I had sufficient time to wonder where Jamie and Ian were, but the first-aid supplies came at last. I ripped off a patch of sailcloth with my knife, tore a longish strip of calico to use as field dressing, then pushed Stebbings’s hand away, wiped off the blood with a fold of my petticoat, sloshed lamp oil over his chest and the sailcloth patch, then pressed the cloth down to form a rudimentary seal, putting his hand back over it in such a way that one end of the patch remained free, while I wound the improvised field dressing round his torso.

“All right,” I said. “I’ll need to stick the patch down with tar for a better seal, but it will take a little time to warm that. You can go and be doing that now,” I advised the sailor who had brought the oil, who was once again trying to execute a quiet sneak. I scooted round to view the casualties squatting or sprawling on the deck. “Right. Who’s dying?”

For a wonder, only two of the men brought in from the Teal were dead, one with hideous head wounds from flying splinters and grapeshot, the other exsanguinated as a result of losing half his left leg, probably to a cannonball.

Might have saved that one, I thought, but the moment’s regret was subsumed in the needs of the next moment.

Not all that bad, I thought, working my way quickly down the line on my knees, doing a hasty triage and issuing instructions to my unwilling assistants. Splinter wounds, two grazed by musket balls, one with half an ear torn off, one with an embedded ball in the thigh, but nowhere near the femoral artery, thank God…

Bangings and shufflings were coming from the lower hold, where repairs were being effected. As I worked, I pieced together the actions of the battle from the remarks passed by the wounded men awaiting my attention.

Following a ragged exchange of broadsides, which had brought down the Teal’s cracked mainmast and holed the Asp above the waterline, the Teal—opinions differed on whether Captain Roberts had done it a-purpose or not—had veered sharply toward the Asp, scraping the side of the ship and bringing the two vessels railing to railing.

It seemed inconceivable that Stebbings had intended to board the Asp, with so few dependable men as he had; if it had been deliberate, he might have meant to ram us. I glanced down, but the captain’s eyes were closed, and he was a nasty color. I lifted his hand and heard a small hiss of air, then placed it back on his chest and went on with my work. Plainly he was in no shape to set the record straight regarding his intentions.

Whatever they had been, Captain Hickman had forestalled them, leaping over the Teal’s rail with a shriek, followed by a swarm of Asps. They had cut their way across the deck without much resistance, though the men from the Pitt had gathered together around Stebbings near the helm and fought ferociously. It was clear that the Asps must win the day, though—and then the Teal had struck heavily aground, throwing everyone flat on deck.

Convinced that the ship was about to sink, everyone who could move did, boarders and defenders together going back over the rail onto the Asp—which sheered abruptly away, with some benighted defender who remained on the Teal sending a last shot or two after her, only to scrape her own bottom on a gravel bar.

“Not to worry, ma’am,” one of the men assured me. “She’ll swim directly the tide comes in.”

The noises from below began to diminish, and I looked over my shoulder every few moments, in hopes of seeing Jamie or Ian.

I was examining one poor fellow who’d taken a splinter in one eyeball, when his other eye suddenly widened in horror, and I turned to find Rollo panting and dripping by my side, enormous teeth exposed in a grin that put Stebbings’s feeble attempt to shame.

“Dog!” I cried, delighted. I couldn’t hug him—well, I wouldn’t, really—but looked quickly round for Ian, who was limping in my direction, sopping wet, too, but with a matching grin.

“We fell into the water,” he said hoarsely, squatting on the deck beside me. A small puddle formed under him.

“So I see. Breathe deeply for me,” I said to the man with the splinter in his eye. “One … yes, that’s right… two … yes…” As he exhaled, I took hold of the splinter and pulled, hard. It slid free, followed by a gush of vitreous humor and blood that made me grit my teeth and made Ian retch. Not a lot of blood, though. If it hasn’t gone through the orbit, I might be able to stave off infection by removing the eyeball and packing the socket. That’ll have to wait, though. I slashed a ribbon of cloth from the man’s shirttail, folded it hastily into a wad, soaked it in brandy, pressed it to the ruined eye, and made him hold it firmly in place. He did, though he groaned and swayed alarmingly, and I feared he might fall over.

“Where’s your uncle?” I asked Ian, with a gnawing sense that I didn’t want to hear the answer.

“Right there,” Ian said, nodding to one side. I swung round, one hand still bracing the shoulder of the one-eyed man, to see Jamie coming down the ladder, in heated argument with Captain Hickman, who was following him. Jamie’s shirt was soaked with blood, and he was holding a wad of something likewise blood-soaked against his shoulder with one hand. Possibly Stebbings hadn’t been merely trying to aggravate me. Jamie wasn’t falling down, though, and while he was white, he was also furious. I was reasonably sure he wouldn’t die while angry and seized another strip of sailcloth to stabilize a compound fracture of the arm.

“Dog!” said Hickman, coming to a stop beside the supine Stebbings. He didn’t say it with the same intonation I had used, though, and Stebbings opened one eye.

“Dog, yourself,” he said thickly.

“Dog, dog, dog! Fucking dog!” Hickman added for good measure, and aimed a kick at Stebbings’s side. I grabbed for his foot and managed to shove him off balance, so that he lurched sideways. Jamie caught him, grunting with pain, but Hickman struggled upright, pushing Jamie away.

“Ye canna murder the man in cold blood!”

“Can, too,” Hickman replied promptly. “Watch me!” He drew an enormous horse pistol out of a ratty leather holster and cocked it. Jamie took it by the barrel and plucked it neatly out of his hand, leaving him flexing his fingers and looking surprised.

“Surely, sir,” Jamie said, striving for reasonableness, “ye canna mean to kill a wounded enemy—one in uniform, taken under his own flag, and a man who has surrendered himself to ye. That couldna be condoned by any honorable man.”

Hickman drew himself up, going puce.

“Are you impugning my honor, sir?”

I saw the muscles in Jamie’s neck and shoulders tense, but before he could speak, Ian stepped up beside him, shoulder to shoulder.

“Aye, he is. So am I.”

Rollo, his fur still sticking up in wet spikes, growled and rolled back his black lips, showing most of his teeth in token of his support of this opinion.

Hickman glanced from Ian’s scowling, tattooed visage, to Rollo’s impressive carnassials, and back to Jamie, who had uncocked the pistol and put it in his own belt. He breathed heavily.

“On your head be it, then,” he said abruptly, and turned away.

Captain Stebbings was breathing heavily, too, a wet, nasty sound. He was white to the lips, and the lips themselves were blue. Still, he was conscious. His eyes had been fixed on Hickman throughout the conversation and followed him now as he left the cabin. When the door had closed behind Hickman, Stebbings relaxed a little, shifting his gaze to Jamie.

“Might’ve… saved yourself… the trouble,” he wheezed. “But you have… my thanks. For what…” He gave a strangled cough, pressed a hand hard against his chest, and shook his head, grimacing. “… what they’re worth,” he managed.

He closed his eyes, breathing slowly and painfully—but still, breathing. I rose stiffly to my feet and at last had a moment to look at my husband.

“No but a wee cut,” he assured me, in answer to my look of suspicious inquiry. “I’ll do for now.”

“Is all of that blood yours?” He glanced down at the shirt pasted to his ribs and lifted the non-wounded shoulder dismissively.

“I’ve enough left to be going on with.” He smiled at me, then glanced around the deck. “I see ye’ve got matters well in hand here. I’ll have Smith bring ye a bit of food, aye? It’s going to rain soon.”

It was; the smell of the oncoming storm swept through the hold, fresh and tingling with ozone, lifting the hair off my damp neck.

“Possibly not Smith,” I said. “And where are you going?” I asked, seeing him turn away.

“I need to speak wi’ Captain Hickman and Captain Roberts,” he said, with a certain grimness. He glanced upward, and the matted hair behind his ears stirred in the breeze. “I dinna think we’re going to Scotland in the Teal, but damned if I ken where we are going.”

THE SHIP EVENTUALLY grew quiet—or as quiet as a large object composed of creaking boards, flapping canvas, and that eerie hum made by taut rigging can get. The tide had come in, and the ship did swim; we were moving north again, under light sail.

I had seen off the last of the casualties; only Captain Stebbings remained, laid on a crude pallet behind a chest of smuggled tea. He was still breathing, and not in terrible discomfort, I thought, but his condition was much too precarious for me to let him out of my sight.

By some miracle, the bullet seemed to have seared its way into his lung, rather than simply severing blood vessels in its wake. That didn’t mean he wasn’t bleeding into his lung, but if so, it was a slow seep; I would long since have known about it, otherwise. He must have been shot at close range, I thought sleepily. The ball had still been red-hot when it struck him.

I had sent Abram to bed. I should lie down myself, for tiredness dragged at my shoulders and had settled in aching lumps at the base of my spine. Not yet, though.

Jamie had not yet come back. I knew he would come to find me when he’d finished his summit meeting with Hickman and Roberts. And there were a few preparations still to be made, just in case.

In the course of Jamie’s earlier rummaging through Hickman’s desk in search of food, I’d noticed a bundle of fresh goose quills. I’d sent Abram to beg a couple of these and to bring me the largest sailmaker’s needle to be found—and a couple of wing bones discarded from the chicken stew aboard the Pitt.

I chopped off the ends of a slender bone, looked to be sure the marrow had all been leached out by cooking, then shaped one end into a careful point, using the ship’s carpenter’s small sharpening stone for the purpose. The quill was easier; the tip had already been cut to a point for writing; all I had to do was to cut off the barbs, then submerge quill, bone, and needle in a shallow dish of brandy. That would do, then.

The smell of the brandy rose sweet and heavy in the air, competing with the tar, turpentine, tobacco, and the salt-soaked old timbers of the ship. It did at least partially obliterate the scents of blood and fecal matter left by my patients.

I’d discovered a case of bottled Meursault wine in the cargo, and now thoughtfully extracted a bottle, adding it to the half bottle of brandy and a stack of clean calico bandages and dressings. Sitting down on a keg of tar, I leaned back against a big hogshead of tobacco, yawning and wondering idly why it was called that. It did not appear to be shaped like a hog’s head, certainly not like the head of any hog I knew.

I dismissed that thought and closed my eyes. I could feel my pulse throbbing in fingertips and eyelids. I didn’t sleep, but I slowly descended into a sort of half consciousness, dimly aware of the sough of water past the ship’s sides, the louder sigh of Stebbings’s breath, the unhurried bellows of my own lungs, and the slow, placid thumping of my heart.

It seemed years since the terrors and uproar of the afternoon, and from the distance imposed by fatigue and intensity, my worry that I might have been having a heart attack seemed ridiculous. Was it, though? It wasn’t impossible. Surely it had been nothing more than panic and hyperventilation—ridiculous in themselves, but not threatening. Still…

I put two fingers on my chest and waited for the pulsing in my fingertips to equalize with the pulsing of my heart. Slowly, almost dreaming, I began to pass through my body, from crown to toes, feeling my way through the long quiet passages of veins, the deep violet color of the sky just before night. Nearby I saw the brightness of arteries, wide and fierce with crimson life. Entered into the chambers of my heart and felt enclosed, the thick walls moving in a solid, comforting, unending, uninterrupted rhythm. No, no damage, not to the heart nor to its valves.

I felt my digestive tract, tightly knotted up under my diaphragm for hours, relax and settle with a grateful gurgle, and a sense of well-being flowed down like warm honey through limbs and spine.

“I dinna ken what ye’re doing, Sassenach,” a soft voice said nearby. “But ye look well content.”

I opened my eyes and sat up. Jamie came down the ladder, moving carefully, and sat down.

He was very pale, and his shoulders were slumped with exhaustion. He smiled faintly at me, though, and his eyes were clear. My heart, solid and reliable as I just proved it to be, warmed and softened as though it had been made of butter.

“How do you—” I began, but he raised a hand, stopping me.

“I’ll do,” he said, with a glance at the pallet where the recumbent Stebbings lay, breathing shallowly and audibly. “Is he asleep?”

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