An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 68

   

“I hope so. And you should be,” I observed. “Let me tend you so you can lie down.”

“It’s no verra bad,” he said, gingerly picking at the wad of crusty fabric tucked inside his shirt. “But it could use a stitch or two, I suppose.”

“I suppose so, too,” I said, eyeing the brown stains down the right side of his shirt. Given his customary inclination to understatement, he likely had a gaping slash down his breast. At least it would be easy to get at, unlike the awkward wound suffered by one of the Pitt’s sailors, who had somehow been struck just behind the scrotum by a pellet of grapeshot. I thought it must have struck something else first and bounced upward, for it luckily hadn’t penetrated deeply, but was flattened as a sixpence when I got it out. I’d given it to him as a souvenir.

Abram had brought a can of fresh hot water just before he left. I put a finger into it and was pleased to find it still warm.

“Right,” I said, with a nod at the bottles on the chest. “Do you want brandy, or wine, before we start?”

The corner of his mouth twitched, and he reached for the wine bottle.

“Let me keep the illusion of civilization for a wee bit longer.”

“Oh, I think that’s reasonably civilized stuff,” I said. “I haven’t a cork screw, though.”

He read the label, and his eyebrows rose.

“No matter. Is there something to pour it into?”

“Just here.” I pulled a small, elegant wooden box out of a nest of straw inside a packing case and opened it triumphantly to display a Chinese porcelain tea set, gilt-edged and decorated with tiny red and blue turtles, all looking inscrutably Asiatic, swimming through a forest of gold chrysanthemums.

Jamie laughed—no more than a breath, but definitely laughter—and, scoring the neck of the bottle with the point of his dirk, knocked it neatly off against the rim of a tobacco hogshead. He poured the wine carefully into the two cups I’d set out, nodding at the vivid turtles.

“The wee blue one there reminds me of Mr. Willoughby, aye?”

I laughed myself, then glanced guiltily at Stebbings’s feet—all that was showing of him at the moment. I’d taken his boots off, and the loose toes of his grimy stockings drooped comically over his feet. The feet didn’t twitch, though, and the slow, labored breathing went on as before.

“I haven’t thought of Mr. Willoughby in years,” I observed, lifting my cup in toast. “Here’s to absent friends.”

Jamie replied briefly in Chinese and touched the rim of his own cup to mine with a faint tink!

“You remember how to speak Chinese?” I asked, intrigued, but he shook his head.

“No much. I havena had occasion to speak it since I last saw him.” He breathed in the bouquet of the wine, closing his eyes. “That seems a verra long time ago.”

“Long ago and far away.” The wine smelled warmly of almonds and apples, and was dry but full-bodied, clinging richly to the palate. Jamaica, to be exact, and more than ten years ago. “Time flies when you’re having fun. Do you think he’s still alive—Mr. Willoughby?”

He considered that, sipping.

“Aye, I do. A man who escaped from a Chinese emperor and sailed halfway round the world to keep his balls is one wi’ a good deal of determination.”

He seemed disinclined to reminisce further about auld acquaintance, though, and I let him drink in silence, feeling the night settle comfortably around us with the gentle rise and fall of the ship. After his second cup of wine, I peeled his crusty shirt off and gingerly lifted the blood-caked wad of handkerchief that he’d used to stanch the wound.

Rather to my surprise, he was right: the wound was small, and wouldn’t need more than two or three stitches to put right. A blade had gone in deep, just under his collarbone, and ripped a triangular flap of flesh coming out.

“Is this all your blood?” I asked, puzzled, lifting the discarded shirt.

“Nay, I’ve got a bit left,” he said, eyes creasing at me over the teacup. “Not much, mind.”

“You know quite well what I mean,” I said severely.

“Aye, it’s mine.” He drained his cup and reached for the bottle.

“But from such a small… oh, dear God.” I felt slightly faint. I could see the tender blue line of his subclavian vein, passing just under the collarbone and running directly above the clotted gape of the wound.

“Aye, I was surprised,” he said casually, cradling the delicate china in both big hands. “When he jerked the blade out, the blood sprayed out like a fountain and soaked us both. I’ve never seen it do like that before.”

“You have probably not had anyone nick your subclavian artery before,” I said, with what attempt at calm I could muster. I cast a sideways glance at the wound. It had clotted; the edges of the flap had turned blue and the sliced flesh beneath was nearly black with dried blood. No oozing, let alone an arterial spray. The blade had thrust up from below, missing the vein and just piercing the artery behind it.

I took a long, deep breath, trying with no success whatever not to imagine what would have happened had the blade gone the barest fraction of an inch deeper, or what might have happened, had Jamie not had a handkerchief and the knowledge and opportunity to use pressure on the wound.

Belatedly, I realized what he’d said: “The blood sprayed out like a fountain and soaked us both.” And when I’d asked Stebbings whether it was his own blood soaking his shirt, he’d leered and said, “Your husband’s.” I’d thought he was only being unpleasant, but—

“Was it Captain Stebbings who stabbed you?”

“Mmphm.” He made a brief affirmative noise as he shifted his weight, leaning back to let me get at the wound. He drained the cup again and set it down, looking resigned. “I was surprised he managed it. I thought I’d dropped him, but he hit the floor and came up wi’ a knife in his hand, the wee bugger.”

“You shot him?”

He blinked at my tone of voice.

“Aye, of course.”

I couldn’t think of any bad words sufficient as to encompass the situation and, muttering “Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” under my breath, set about swabbing and suturing.

“Now, listen to me,” I said, in my best military surgeon’s voice. “So far as I can tell, it was a very small nick, and you managed to stop the bleeding long enough for a clot to form. But that clot is all that is keeping you from bleeding to death. Do you understand me?” This was not completely true—or it wouldn’t be, once I’d stitched the supporting flesh back into place—but this was no time to give him a loophole.

He looked at me for a long moment, quite expressionless.

“I do.”

“That means,” I emphasized, stabbing the needle into his flesh with sufficient force that he yelped, “you must not use your right arm for at least the next forty-eight hours. You must not haul on ropes, you must not climb rigging, you must not punch people, you must not so much as scratch your arse with your right hand, do you hear me?”

“I expect the whole ship hears ye,” he muttered, but glanced down his cheek, trying to see his collarbone. “I generally scratch my arse wi’ my left hand, anyway.”

Captain Stebbings had definitely heard us; a low chuckle came from behind the tea chest, followed by a rumbling cough and a faint wheeze of amusement.

“And,” I continued, drawing the thread through the skin, “you may not get angry.”

His breath drew in with a hiss.

“Why not?”

“Because it will make your heart beat harder, thus raising your blood pressure, which will—”

“Blow me up like a bottle of beer that’s been corked too long?”

“Much the same. Now—”

Whatever I had been going to say vanished from my mind in the next instant as Stebbings’s breathing suddenly changed. I dropped the needle and, turning, seized the dish. I shoved the tea chest aside, putting the dish on it, and fell to my knees next to Stebbings’s body.

His lips and eyelids were blue, and the rest of his face was the color of putty. He was making a horrid gasping noise, his mouth gaping wide, gulping air that wasn’t helping.

There were luckily well-known bad words for this situation, and I used a few of them, swiftly turning back the blanket and digging my fingers into his pudgy side in search of ribs. He squirmed and emitted a high, ludicrous heeheehee, which made Jamie—the needle still swinging by its thread from his collarbone—give a nervous laugh in response.

“This is no time to be ticklish,” I said crossly. “Jamie—take one of those quills and slide the needle inside.” While he did this, I rapidly swabbed Stebbings’s skin with a brandy-soaked wad of cloth, then took the quill-and-needle in one hand, the brandy bottle in the other, and drove the quill point-first into the second intercostal space, like hammering in a nail. I felt the subterranean pop as it went through the cartilage into the pleural space.

He made a high eeeeeee sound at that, but it wasn’t laughter. I’d cut the quill a little shorter than the needle, but the needle had sunk in when I’d hit it. I had a moment of panic, trying to get hold of the needle with my fingernails to pull it out, but finally managed. Stale-smelling blood and fluid sprayed out through the hollow quill, but only for a moment, then diminished to a faint hiss of air.

“Breathe slowly,” I said more quietly. “Both of you.”

I was watching the quill anxiously, looking for any further drainage of blood—plainly, if he was bleeding heavily into the lung, there was almost nothing I could do—but I was seeing only the light seepage from the puncture wound, a red smear on the outside of the quill.

“Sit down,” I said to Jamie, who did, ending cross-legged on the floor beside me.

Stebbings was looking better; the lung had at least partially inflated, and he was white now, his lips pale, but pale pink. The hissing from the hollow quill died to a sigh, and I put my finger over the open end of it.

“Ideally,” I said in a conversational tone, “I’d be able to run a length of tubing from your chest into a jar of water. That way the air around your lung could escape, but air couldn’t get back in. As I haven’t got anything tubelike that’s longer than a few inches, that’s not going to work.” I rose up on my knees, motioning to Jamie.

“Come here and put your finger over the end of this quill. If he starts suffocating again, take it off for a moment, until the air stops hissing out.”

He couldn’t conveniently reach Stebbings with his left hand; with a sidelong glance at me, he reached slowly out with his right and stoppered the quill with his thumb.

I got to my feet, groaning, and went to rummage the cargo again. It might have to be tar. I’d tacked the oiled patch to his chest on three sides with warm tar, and there was plenty left. Not ideal; I likely couldn’t get it out again in a hurry. Would a small plug of wet fabric be better?

In one of Hannah Arnold’s chests, though, I found treasure: a small collection of dried herbs in jars—including one of powdered gum arabic. The herbs were interesting and useful in themselves, being plainly imported: cinchona bark—I must try to send that back to North Carolina for Lizzie, if we ever got off this horrible tub—mandrake, and ginger, things that never grew in the Colonies. Having them to hand made me feel suddenly rich. Stebbings groaned behind me, and I heard the scuff of fabric and a soft hiss as Jamie took his thumb away for a moment.

Not even the riches of the fabled East would do Stebbings much good. I opened the jar of gum arabic and, scooping out a bit into the palm of my hand, dribbled water into it and set about fashioning the resultant gooey ball into a roughly cylindrical plug, which I wrapped in a scrap of yellow calico printed with honeybees, finishing it off with a neat twist at the top. This accomplished to my satisfaction, I came back and, without comment, pulled the hollow quill—already showing signs of cracking from the working of Stebbings’s rib muscles—out of its hole and wriggled the sturdier—and larger—hollow chicken bone into its place.

He didn’t laugh this time, either. I plugged the end of the bone neatly and, kneeling in front of Jamie, resumed my stitching on his collarbone.

I felt perfectly clearheaded—but in that oddly surreal way that is an indication of total exhaustion. I’d done what had to be done, but I knew I couldn’t stay upright much longer.

“What does Captain Hickman have to say?” I asked, much more by way of distracting both of us than because I really wanted to know.

“A great number of things, as ye might imagine.” He took a deep breath and fixed his eyes on a huge turtle shell that had been wedged in among the boxes. “Discarding the purely personal opinions and a certain amount of excessive language, though… we’re bound up the Hudson. For Fort Ticonderoga.”

“We… what?” I frowned at the needle pushed halfway through the skin. “Why?”

His hands were braced on the deck, fingers pressing into the boards so hard the nails were white.

“That’s where he was bound when the complications occurred, and that’s where he means to go. He’s a gentleman of verra fixed views, I find.”

A loud snort came from behind the tea chest.

“I did notice something of the sort.” I tied the last suture and clipped the thread neatly with my knife. “Did you say something, Captain Stebbings?”

The snort was repeated, more loudly, but without emendation.

“Can’t he be convinced to put us ashore?”

Jamie’s fingers hovered over the fresh stitching, obviously wanting to rub the stinging site, but I pushed them away.

“Aye, well… there are further complications, Sassenach.”

“Do tell,” I murmured, standing up and stretching. “Oh, God, my back. What sort of complications? Do you want some tea?”

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