An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 74

   

Mama

Roger sat in silence for a moment, to be sure Bree had had time to finish reading the letter—though in fact she read much faster than he did; he thought she must be reading it twice. After a moment, she sighed through her nose in a troubled fashion and straightened up. He put up a hand and rested it on her waist, and she covered it with her own. Not mechanically; she gripped his fingers tightly—but absently. She was looking across at the bookshelves.

“Those are new, aren’t they?” she asked quietly, lifting her chin toward the right-hand bay.

“Yeah. I sent to Boston for them. They came in a couple of days ago.” The spines were new and shiny. History texts, dealing with the American Revolution. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, by Mark M. Boatner III. A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier, by Joseph Plumb Martin.

“Do you want to know?” he asked. He nodded at the open box on the table before them, where a thick sheaf of letters still remained unopened, on top of the books. He hadn’t yet brought himself to admit to Bree that he’d looked at the books. “I mean—we know they probably made it out of Ticonderoga all right. There are a lot more letters.”

“We know one of them probably did,” Bree said, eyeing the letters. “Unless… Ian knows, I mean. He could have…”

Roger pulled his hand back and reached with determination into the box. Bree drew in her breath, but he ignored it, taking a handful of letters from the box and flipping through them.

“Claire, Claire, Claire, Jamie, Claire, Jamie, Jamie, Claire, Jamie”—he stopped, blinking at a letter addressed in an unfamiliar hand—“maybe you’re right about Ian; do you know what his handwriting looks like?”

She shook her head.

“I don’t think I ever saw him write anything—though I suppose he can write,” she added, dubious.

“Well …” Roger put down the folded sheet, and looked from the scatter of letters to the bookshelf and thence to her. She was slightly flushed. “What do you want to do?”

She considered, her eyes flicking to and from the bookshelves and the wooden box.

“The books,” she said, decided, and strode across to the shelves. “Which one of these will tell us when Ticonderoga fell?”

George III, Rex Britannia

to Lord George Germain

… Burgoyne may command the corps to be sent from Canada to Albany…

As sickness and other contingencies must be expected, I should think not above 7,000 effectives can be spared over Lake Champlain, for it would be highly imprudent to run any risk in Canada… Indians must be employed.

TICONDEROGA

June 12, 1777

Fort Ticonderoga

I FOUND JAMIE ASLEEP, lying naked on the pallet in the tiny chamber that had been allotted to us. It was at the top of one of the stone-built barracks buildings, and thus hot as Hades by mid-afternoon. Still, we were rarely in it during the day, Jamie being out on the lake with the bridge builders, and I being in the hospital building or the family quarters— all of those being equally hot, of course.

By the same token, though, the stones held enough heat to keep us warm in the cool evenings—there was no fireplace—and it did have a small window. There was a good breeze off the water toward sunset, and for a few hours between, say, ten p.m. and two a.m., it was very pleasant. It was about eight now—still light out and still toasty in; sweat shone on Jamie’s shoulders and darkened the hair at his temples to a deep bronze.

On the good side, our tiny attic was the only room at the top of the building and thus had some modicum of privacy. On the other hand, there were forty-eight stone steps up to our aerie, and water must be carried up and slops carried down them. I’d just hauled up a large bucket of water, and the half of it that hadn’t spilled down the front of my dress weighed a ton. I put it down with a clunk that brought Jamie upright in an instant, blinking in the gloom.

“Oh, sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“No matter, Sassenach,” he said, and yawned immensely. He sat up, stretched, then scrubbed his hands through his damp, loose hair. “Have ye had supper?”

“Yes, I ate with the women. Have you?” He normally ate with his crew of laborers when they stopped work, but sometimes was summoned to dine with General St. Clair or the other militia officers, and these quasi-formal occasions took place much later.

“Mmm-hmm.” He lay back on the pallet and watched as I poured water into a tin washing bowl and dug out a tiny lump of lye soap. I stripped to my shift and began meticulously scrubbing, though the strong soap stung my already raw skin and the fumes of it were enough to make my eyes water.

I rinsed my hands and arms, tossed the water out the window—pausing briefly to shout, “Gardy-loo!” before doing so—and started over.

“Why are ye doing that?” Jamie asked curiously.

“Mrs. Wellman’s little boy has what I’m almost sure is the mumps. Or ought that to be are the mumps? I’ve never been sure whether it’s plural or not. In any case, I’m taking no chance on transmitting it to you.”

“Is it a terrible thing, mumps? I thought only weans got it.”

“Well, normally it is a child’s disease,” I said, wincing at the touch of the soap. “But when an adult gets it—particularly an adult male—it’s a more serious matter. It tends to settle in the testicles. And unless you want to have balls the size of muskmelons—”

“Are ye sure ye have enough soap there, Sassenach? I could go and find more.” He grinned at me, then sat up again and reached for the limp strip of linen that served us as a towel. “Here, a nighean, let me dry your hands.”

“In a minute.” I wriggled out of my stays, dropped my shift, and hung it on the hook by the door, then pulled my “home” shift over my head. It wasn’t quite as sanitary as having surgical scrubs to wear to work, but the fort absolutely crawled with diseases, and I’d do whatever I could to avoid bringing them back to Jamie. He’d run into enough of them in the open.

I splashed the last of the water over my face and arms, then sat down on the pallet beside Jamie, giving a small cry as my knee cracked painfully.

“God, your poor hands,” he murmured, gently patting them with the towel, then swabbing my face. “And your nose is sunburnt, too, the wee thing.”

“What about yours?” Callused as they normally were, his hands were still a mass of nicks, scraped knuckles, splinters, and blisters, but he dismissed that with a brief flick of one hand and lay back down again with a luxurious groan.

“Does your knee still hurt, Sassenach?” he asked, seeing me rub it. It hadn’t ever quite recovered from being strained during our adventures on the Pitt, and climbing stairs provoked it.

“Oh, just part of the general decline,” I said, trying to make a joke of it. I flexed my right arm, gingerly, feeling a twinge in the elbow. “Things don’t bend quite so easily as they used to. And other things hurt. Sometimes I think I’m falling apart.”

Jamie closed one eye and regarded me.

“I’ve felt like that since I was about twenty,” he observed. “Ye get used to it.” He stretched, making his spine give off a series of muffled pops, and held out a hand. “Come to bed, a nighean. Nothing hurts when ye love me.”

He was right; nothing did.

I FELL BRIEFLY ASLEEP, but woke by instinct a couple of hours later to go and check the few patients who needed an eye kept on them. These included Captain Stebbings, who had—to my surprise—stoutly refused either to die or to be doctored by anyone but me. That hadn’t gone over well with Lieutenant Stactoe or the other surgeons, but as Captain Stebbings’s demand was backed up by the intimidating presence of Guinea Dick—pointed teeth, tattoos, and all—I remained his personal surgeon.

I found the captain mildly feverish and wheezing audibly, but asleep. Guinea Dick rose from his own pallet at the sound of my step, looking like a particularly fearsome manifestation of someone’s nightmare.

“Has he eaten?” I asked softly, laying my hand lightly on Stebbings’s wrist. The captain’s tubby form had shrunk considerably; even in the gloom, I could easily see the ribs I’d once had to grope for.

“Him has little soup, ma’am,” the African whispered, and moved a hand toward a bowl on the floor, covered with a handkerchief to keep out the roaches. “Like you say. I give him more when he wake to piss.”

“Good.” Stebbings’s pulse was a little fast, but not alarming, and when I leaned over him and inhaled deeply, I detected no scent of gangrene. I’d been able to withdraw the tube from his chest two days before, and while there was a slight exudation of pus from the site, I thought it a local infection that would likely clear without assistance. It would have to; I had nothing to assist it.

There was almost no light in the hospital barracks, only a rush-dip near the door and what little illumination came from the fires in the courtyard. I couldn’t judge of Stebbings’s color, but I saw the flash of white as he half-opened his eyes. He grunted when he saw me, and closed them again.

“Good,” I said again, and left him in the tender charge of Mr. Dick.

The Guinea man had been offered the chance to enlist in the Continental army but had refused, choosing to become a prisoner of war with Captain Stebbings, the wounded Mr. Ormiston, and a few other seamen from the Pitt.

“I am English, free man,” he had said simply. “Prisoner maybe for a little, but free man. Seaman, but free man. American, maybe not free man.”

Maybe not.

I left the hospital barracks, called in at the Wellmans’ quarters to check on my case of mumps—uncomfortable, but not dangerous—and then strolled slowly across the courtyard under a rising moon. The evening breeze had died down, but the night air had some coolness in it, and moved by impulse, I climbed to the demilune battery that looked across the narrow end of Lake Champlain to Mount Defiance.

There were two guards, but both were fast asleep, reeking of liquor. It wasn’t unusual. Morale at the fort was not high, and alcohol was easily available.

I stood by the wall, a hand on one of the guns, its metal still faintly warm from the day’s heat. Would we get away, I wondered, before it was hot from being fired? Thirty-two days to go, and they couldn’t go fast enough to suit me. Aside from the menace of the British, the fort festered and stank; it was like living in a cesspool, and I could only hope that Jamie, Ian, and I would leave it without having contracted some vile disease or having been assaulted by some drunken idiot.

I heard a faint step behind me and turned to see Ian himself, tall and slender in the glow of the fires below.

“Can I speak to ye, Auntie?”

“Of course,” I said, wondering at this unaccustomed formality. I stood aside a little, and he came to stand beside me, looking down.

“Cousin Brianna would have a thing or two to say about that,” he said, with a nod through the half-built bridge below. “So has Uncle Jamie.”

“I know.” Jamie had been saying it for the last two weeks—to the fort’s new commander, Arthur St. Clair, to the other militia colonels, to the engineers, to anyone who would listen, and not a few who wouldn’t. The folly of expending vast amounts of labor and material in building a bridge that could be easily destroyed by artillery on Mount Defiance was clear to everyone except those in command.

I sighed. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen military blindness, and I was very much afraid it wouldn’t be the last.

“Well, leaving that aside… what did you want to speak to me about, Ian?”

He took a deep breath and turned toward the moonlit vista over the lake.

“D’ye ken the Huron who came to the fort a wee while past?”

I did. Two weeks before, a party of Huron had visited the fort, and Ian had spent an evening smoking with them, listening to their stories. Some of these concerned the English General Burgoyne, whose hospitality they had previously enjoyed.

Burgoyne was actively soliciting the Indians of the Iroquois League, they said, spending a great deal of time and money in wooing them.

“He says his Indians are his secret weapon,” one of the Huron had said, laughing. “He will unleash them upon the Americans, to burn like lightning, and strike them all dead.”

Knowing what I did of Indians in general, I thought Burgoyne might be a trifle overoptimistic. Still, I preferred not to think what might happen if he did succeed in persuading any number of Indians to fight for him.

Ian was still staring at the distant hump of Mount Defiance, lost in thought.

“Be that as it may,” I said, calling the meeting to order. “Why are you telling me this, Ian? You should tell Jamie and St. Clair.”

“I did.” The cry of a loon came across the lake, surprisingly loud and eerie. They sounded like yodeling ghosts, particularly when more than one of them was at it.

“Yes? Well, then,” I said, slightly impatient. “What did you want to talk to me about?”

“Babies,” he said abruptly, straightening up and turning to face me.

“What?” I said, startled. He’d been quiet and moody ever since the Hurons’ visit, and I assumed that something they’d told him had caused it—but I couldn’t imagine what they might have said to him regarding babies.

“How they’re made,” he said doggedly, though his eyes slid away from mine. Had there been more light, I was sure I could have seen him blushing.

“Ian,” I said, after a brief pause. “I decline to believe that you don’t know how babies are made. What do you really want to know?”

He sighed, but at last he looked at me. His lips compressed for a moment, then he blurted, “I want to know why I canna make one.”

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