An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 79

   

“I’m fine,” he said—without opening his eyes. “I just… need to rest a bit.”

“Mmphm.”

William couldn’t tell whether this particular noise was meant as acceptance or dismay, but Murray went away, coming back a moment later with a blanket, with which he covered William without comment. William made a feeble gesture of thanks, unable to speak, as his teeth had begun to chatter with a sudden chill.

His limbs had been aching for some time, but he had ignored it in the need to push on. Now the burden of it fell full on him, a bone-deep ache that made him want to moan aloud. To keep from it, he waited until the chill relaxed enough to let him speak, then called to Murray.

“You are familiar with Dismal Town yourself, sir? You’ve been there?”

“Now and again, aye.” He could see Murray, a dark silhouette crouched by the fire, and hear the chink of metal on stone. “It’s verra aptly named.”

“Ha,” William said weakly. “I daresay. And h-h-have you met a Mr. Washington, by chance?”

“Five or six of them. The general’s got a good many cousins, aye?”

“The g-g—”

“General Washington. Ye’ve heard of him, maybe?” There was a distinct hint of amusement in the Scottish Mohawk’s voice.

“I have, yes. But—surely that…” This made no sense. His voice trailed off, and he rallied, forcing his drifting thoughts back into coherence. “It is a Mr. Henry Washington. He is kin to the general, too?”

“So far as I ken, anyone named Washington within three hundred miles is kin to the general.” Murray stooped to his bag, coming out with a large furry mass, a long, naked tail dangling from it. “Why?”

“I—nothing.” The chill had eased, and he drew a grateful breath, the knotted muscles of his belly relaxing. But the faint threads of wariness were making themselves felt through puzzlement and the gathering fog of fever. “Someone told me that Mr. Henry Washington was a prominent Loyalist.”

Murray turned toward him in astonishment.

“Who in Bride’s name would tell ye that?”

“Plainly someone grossly mistaken.” William pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. His wounded arm hurt. “What is that thing? Possum?”

“Muskrat. Dinna fash; it’s fresh. I killed it just before I met ye.”

“Oh. Good.” He felt obscurely comforted and couldn’t think why. Not the muskrat; he’d eaten muskrat often enough and found it tasty, though the fever had stolen his appetite. He felt weak with hunger, but had no desire to eat. Oh. No, it was the “dinna fash.” Spoken with just that kindly, matter-of-fact intonation—Mac the groom had used to say that to him, often, whether the trouble was being thrown from his pony or not being allowed to ride into the town with his grandfather. “Dinna fash; it will be all right.”

The ripping sound of skin parting from the underlying muscle made him momentarily dizzy and he closed his eyes.

“Ye’ve got a red beard.”

Murray’s voice came to him, filled with surprise.

“You’ve only just now noticed that?” William said crossly, and opened his eyes. The color of his beard was an embarrassment to him; while the hair on his head, chest, and limbs was a decent sort of dark chestnut, that on his chin and privates was an unexpectedly vivid shade that mortified him. He shaved fastidiously, even on shipboard or on the road—but his razor, of course, had departed with the horse.

“Well, aye,” Murray said mildly. “I expect I was distracted earlier.” He fell silent, concentrating on his work, and William tried to relax his mind, hoping to sleep for a time. He was tired enough. Repeated images of the swamp played themselves out before his closed eyes, though, wearying him with visions that he could neither ignore nor dismiss.

Roots like the loops of snares, mud, rank brown dollops of cold pig shit, the turds uneasily humanlike… churned dead leaves…

Dead leaves floating on water like brown glass, reflections shattering around his shins… words in the water, the pages of his book, faint, mocking as they sank away…

Looking up, the sky as vertiginous as the lake, feeling that he might fall up as easily as down and drown in the water-clogged air… drowning in his sweat… a young woman licked the sweat from his cheek, tickling, her body heavy, hot, and cloying, so that he turned and twisted, but could not escape her oppressive attentions…

… sweat collecting behind his ears, thick and greasy in his hair… growing like fat slow pearls in the stubble of his vulgar beard… chilling on his skin, his clothes a dripping shroud… the woman was still there, dead now, dead weight on his chest, pinning him to the icy ground…

Fog and the creeping cold… white fingers prying into his eyes, his ears. He must keep his mouth shut or it would reach inside him … All white.

He curled into a ball, shaking.

William did at last fall deeper into a fitful sleep, from which he roused some time later, to the rich smell of roasted muskrat, and found the enormous dog lying pressed against him, snoring.

“Jesus,” he said, with disconcerting recollections of the young woman in his dreams. He pushed feebly at the dog. “Where did that come from?”

“That’s Rollo,” Murray said reprovingly. “I made him lie wi’ ye for a bit of heat; ye’ve got a shaking ague, if ye hadn’t noticed.”

“I had noticed that, yes.” William struggled upright and made himself eat but was happy to lie down again, at a safe distance from the dog, who was now lying on his back, paws drooping, looking like nothing so much as a giant hairy dead insect. William passed a hand downward over his clammy face, trying to remove that disturbing image from his mind before it made its way into his fever dreams.

Night had come well on, and the sky opened overhead, clear and empty and vast, moonless but brilliant with distant stars. He thought of his father’s father, dead long before his own birth, but a noted amateur astronomer. His father had often taken him—and sometimes his mother—to lie on the lawns at Helwater, to look up at the stars and name the constellations. It was a cold sight, that blue-black emptiness, and made his fevered blood tremble, but the stars were a comfort, nonetheless.

Murray was looking upward too, a look of distance on his tattooed face.

William lay back, half-propped against the log, trying to think. What was he to do next? He was still trying to absorb the news that Henry Washington and thus, presumably, the rest of his Dismal Town contacts were rebels. Was this odd Scottish Mohawk right in what he’d said? Or did he seek to mislead him, for some purpose of his own?

What would that be, though? Murray could have no notion who William was, beyond his name and his father’s name. And Lord John had been a private citizen when they had met years before, on Fraser’s Ridge. Murray could not tell, surely, that William was a soldier, let alone an intelligencer, and could not possibly know his mission.

And if he did not wish to mislead him and was correct in what he said… William swallowed, his mouth sticky and dry. Then he had had a narrow escape. What might have happened, had he walked into a nest of rebels, in such a remote place as Dismal Town, and blithely revealed himself and his purpose? They’d hang you from the nearest tree, his brain said coldly, and toss your body into the swamp. What else?

Which led to an even more uncomfortable thought: how could Captain Richardson have been so mistaken in his information?

He shook his head violently, trying to shake his thoughts into order, but the only result was to make him dizzy again. Murray’s attention had been attracted by the motion, though; he looked in William’s direction, and William spoke, on impulse.

“You are a Mohawk, you said.”

“I am.”

Seeing that tattooed face, the eyes dark in their sockets, William didn’t doubt it.

“How did that come to be?” he asked hurriedly, lest Murray think he was casting aspersions on the other’s truthfulness. Murray hesitated visibly, but did answer.

“I married a woman of the Kahnyen’kehaka. I was adopted into the Wolf clan of the people of Snaketown.”

“Ah. Your… wife is…?”

“I am no longer wed.” It wasn’t said with any tone of hostility, but with a sort of bleak finality that put paid to any further conversation.

“I’m sorry,” William said formally, and fell silent. The chills were coming back, and despite his reluctance, he slid down, drawing the blanket up around his ears, and huddled against the dog, who sighed deeply and released a burst of flatulence but didn’t stir.

When the ague finally eased again, he lapsed back into dreams, these now violent and dreadful. His mind had taken hold somehow of Indians, and he was pursued by savages who turned into snakes, snakes who became tree roots that writhed through the crevices of his brain, bursting his skull, liberating further nests of snakes who coiled themselves into nooses…

He woke again, drenched in sweat and aching to the bones. He tried to rise but found his arms would not support him. Someone knelt by him—it was the Scot, the Mohawk… Murray. He located the name with something like relief, and with even more relief, realized that Murray was holding a canteen to his lips.

It was water from the lake; he recognized its odd, fresh-tasting bitterness, and drank thirstily.

“Thank you,” he said hoarsely, and gave back the empty canteen. The water had given him strength enough to sit up. His head still swam with fever, but the dreams had retreated, at least for the moment. He imagined that they lurked just beyond the small ring of light cast by the fire, waiting, and determined that he would not sleep again—not at once.

The pain in his arm was worse: a hot, stretched feeling, and a throbbing that ran from fingertips to the middle of his upper arm. Anxious to keep both the pain and the night at bay, he had another try at conversation.

“I have heard that the Mohawk think it unmanly to show fear—that if captured and tortured by an enemy, they will not show any sign of distress. Is that true?”

“Ye try not to be in that position,” Murray said, very dry. “Should it happen, though… ye must show your courage, that’s all. Ye sing your death song and hope to die well. Is it different for a British soldier, then? Ye dinna want to die as a coward, do ye?”

William watched the flickering patterns behind his closed eyelids, hot and ever-changing, shifting with the fire.

“No,” he admitted. “And it’s not so different—the hoping to die well if you have to, I mean. But it’s more likely to be a matter of just being shot or knocked on the head, isn’t it, if you’re a soldier—rather than being tortured to death by inches. Save you run afoul of a savage, I suppose. What—have you ever seen someone die like that?” he asked curiously, opening his eyes.

Murray reached out one long arm to turn the spit, not answering at once. The firelight showed his face, unreadable.

“Aye, I have,” he said quietly, at last.

“What did they do to him?” He wasn’t sure why he’d asked; perhaps only for distraction from the throbbing in his arm.

“Ye dinna want to know.” This was said very definitely; Murray was not by any means teasing him into further inquiry. Nonetheless, it had the same effect; William’s vague interest sharpened at once.

“Yes, I do.”

Murray’s lips tightened, but William knew a few things about extracting information by this time and was wise enough to preserve silence, merely keeping his eyes fixed on the other man.

“Skinned him,” Murray said at last, and poked at the fire with a stick. “One of them. In bitty pieces. Thrust burning slivers of pitch pine into the raw places. Cut away his privates. Then built up the fire about his feet, to burn him before he could die of the shock. It… took some time.”

“I daresay.” William tried to conjure a picture of the proceedings—and succeeded much too well, turning away his eyes from the blackened muskrat carcass, stripped to bones.

He shut his eyes. His arm continued to throb with each beat of his heart, and he tried not to imagine the sensation of burning slivers being forced into his flesh.

Murray was silent; William couldn’t even hear his breathing. But he knew, as surely as if he were inside the other’s head, that he, too, was imagining the scene—though in his case, imagination was not necessary. He would be reliving it.

William shifted a little, sending a hot blaze of pain through his arm, and clenched his teeth, not to make any noise.

“Do the men—did you, I should say—think how you would do, yourself?” he asked quietly. “If you could stand it?”

“Every man thinks that.” Murray got up abruptly and went to the far edge of the clearing. William heard him make water, but it was some minutes longer before he came back.

The dog wakened suddenly, head lifting, and wagged its huge tail slowly to and fro at sight of its master. Murray laughed softly and said something in an odd tongue—Mohawk? Erse?—to the dog, then bent and ripped a haunch from the muskrat’s remains, tossing it to the beast. The animal rose like lightning, its teeth snapping shut on the carcass, then trotted happily to the far side of the fire and lay down, licking its prize.

Bereft of his bed companion, William lay down gingerly, head pillowed on his good arm, and watched as Murray cleaned his knife, scrubbing blood and grease from it with handfuls of grass.

“You said you sing your death song. What sort of song is that?”

Murray looked nonplused at that.

“I mean,” William fumbled for clearer meaning, “what sort of thing would you—would one—say in a death song?”

“Oh.” The Scotsman looked down at his hands, the long knobbed fingers rubbing slowly down the length of the blade. “I’ve only heard the one, mind. The other two I saw die that way—they were white men and didna have death songs, as such. The Indian—he was an Onondaga—he… well, there was a good deal in the beginning about who he was: a warrior of what people, I mean, and his clan, his family. Then quite a bit about how much he despised u—the folk who were about to kill him.” Murray cleared his throat.

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