An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 81

   

“You got one red beard, Bear Cub, you know that?”

“I know that,” William said, and shut his eyes against the spears of morning’s light.

GLUTTON WANTED THE CATAMOUNT’S skin, but Murray, alarmed by William’s condition, refused to wait for him to skin it. The upshot of the resulting argument was that William found himself occupying a hastily constructed travois, cheek by jowl with the dead cat, being dragged over rough terrain behind Murray’s horse. Their destination, he was given to understand, was a small settlement some ten miles distant, which boasted a doctor.

Glutton and two of the other Mohawk came with them in order to show the way, leaving their other companions to continue hunting.

The catamount had been gutted, which William supposed might be better than not—the day was warm, and getting hot—but the scent of blood drew masses of flies, which feasted at their leisure, as the horse, burdened with the travois, could not go fast enough to outpace them. The flies hummed and buzzed and shrilled about his ears, setting his nerves on edge, and while most were interested in the cat, enough of them cared to try William for taste as sufficed to keep his mind off his arm.

When the Indians paused for urination and water, they hauled William to his feet—a relief, even wobbly as he was. Murray glanced at his fly-bitten, sunburned features, and reaching into a skin bag slung at his waist, pulled out a battered tin, which turned out to contain a highly malodorous ointment, with which he anointed William liberally.

“It’s no but another five or six miles,” he assured William, who hadn’t asked.

“Oh, good,” William said, with what vigor he could muster. “It’s not hell after all, then—only purgatory. What’s another thousand years?”

That made Murray laugh, though Glutton regarded him in puzzlement.

“Ye’ll do,” Murray said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Want to walk for a bit?”

“God, yes.”

His head swam, his feet refused to point forward, and his knees seemed to bend in unwonted directions, but anything was better than another hour of communing with the flies that blanketed the catamount’s glazed eyes and drying tongue. Provided with a stout stick cut from an oak sapling, he plodded doggedly behind the horse, alternately drenched with sweat and shaking with clammy chills, but determined to stay upright until and unless he actually fell down.

The ointment did keep the flies at bay—all the Indians were likewise smeared with it—and when not fighting the shaking, he lapsed into a sort of trance, concerned only with putting one foot before the other.

The Indians and Murray kept an eye on him for a time, but then, satisfied that he could remain upright, returned to their own conversations. He could not understand the two Mohawk-speakers, but Glutton appeared to be catechizing Murray closely concerning the nature of purgatory.

Murray was having some difficulty in explaining the concept, apparently owing to the Mohawk having no notion of sin, or of a God concerned with the wickedness of man.

“You’re lucky you became Kahnyen’kehaka,” Glutton said at last, shaking his head. “A spirit not satisfied with an evil man being dead but that wants to torture him after death? And Christians think we’re cruel!”

“Aye, well,” Murray replied, “but think. Say a man is a coward and hasna died well. Purgatory gives him a chance to prove his courage after all, no? And once he is proved a proper man, then the bridge is open to him, and he can pass through the clouds of terrible things unhindered to paradise.”

“Hmm!” Glutton said, though he seemed still dubious. “I suppose if a man can stand to be tortured for hundreds of years… but how does he do this, if no body?”

“D’ye think a man needs a body to be tortured?” Murray asked this with a certain dryness, and Glutton grunted in what might be either agreement or amusement and dropped the subject.

They all walked in silence for some time, surrounded by birdcalls and the loud buzzing of flies. Preoccupied with the effort of remaining upright, William had fixed his attention on the back of Murray’s head as a means of not veering off the trail and thus noticed when the Scot, who was leading the horse, slowed his pace a little.

He thought at first that this was on his account and was about to protest that he could keep up—for a little while, at least—but then saw Murray glance swiftly at the other Mohawk, who had drawn ahead, then turn to Glutton and ask something, in a voice too low for William to make out the words.

Glutton hunched his shoulders in reluctance, then let them fall, resigned. “Oh, I see,” he said. “She’s your purgatory, eh?”

Murray made a sound of reluctant amusement. “Does it matter? I asked if she’s well.”

Glutton sighed, shrugging one shoulder.

“Yes, well. She has a son. A daughter, too, I think. Her husband…”

“Aye?” Murray’s voice had hardened in some fashion.

“You know Thayendanegea?”

“I do.” Now Murray sounded curious. William was curious himself, in a vague, unfocused sort of way, and waited to hear who Thayendanegea might be and what he had to do with the woman who was—who had been—Murray’s paramour? Oh, no.

“I am no longer wed.” His wife, then. William felt a faint pang of sympathy, thinking of Margery. He had thought of her only casually, if at all, in the past four years, but suddenly her betrayal seemed tragedy. Images of her swam about him, fractured by a sense of grief. He felt moisture running down his face, didn’t know if it was sweat or tears. The thought came to him, slowly, as from a great distance, that he must be off his head, but he had no notion what to do about it.

The flies weren’t biting but were still buzzing in his ears. He listened to the hum with great concentration, convinced that the flies were trying to tell him something important. He listened with great attention, but could make out only nonsense syllables. “Shosha.” “Nik.” “Osonni.” No, that was a word, he knew that one! White man, it meant white man—were they talking about him?

He pawed clumsily at his ear, brushing at the flies, and caught that word again: “purgatory.”

For a time, he could not place the meaning of the word; it hung in front of him, covered with flies. Dimly, he perceived the horse’s hindquarters, gleaming in the sun, the twin lines made in the dust by the—what was it? A thing made of—bed—no, canvas; he shook his head. It was his bedsack, wrapped about two trailing saplings, trailing … “travois,” that was the word—yes. And the cat, there was a cat there, looking at him with eyes like rough amber, its head turned over its shoulder, openmouthed, its fangs showing.

Now the cat was talking to him, too.

“You mad, you know that?”

“I know that,” he murmured. He didn’t catch the cat’s reply, growled in a Scottish accent.

He leaned closer, to hear. Felt as though he floated down, through air thick as water, toward that open mouth. Suddenly all sense of effort ceased; he was no longer moving but was supported somehow. Couldn’t see the cat… oh. He was lying facedown on the ground, grass and dirt beneath his cheek.

The cat’s voice floated back to him, angry but resigned.

“This purgatory of yours? You think you can get out walking backward?”

Well, no, William thought, feeling peaceful. That made no sense at all.

PLAIN SPEECH

THE YOUNG WOMAN SNICKED the blades of her scissors in thoughtful fashion.

“Thee is sure?” she asked. “It seems shame, Friend William. Such a striking color!”

“I should think you’d consider it unseemly, Miss Hunter,” William said, smiling. “I had always heard that Quakers think bright colors to be worldly.” The only color in her own dress was a small bronzy-colored brooch that held her kerchief together. Everything else was shades of cream and butternut—though he thought these suited her.

She looked reprovingly at him.

“Immodest ornament in dress is hardly the same as grateful acceptance of the gifts God hath given. Do bluebirds pluck out their feathers, or roses fling away their petals?”

“I doubt that roses itch,” he said, scratching at his chin. The notion of his beard as a gift of God was novel, but not sufficiently persuasive as to convince him to go about as a whiskeranto. Beyond its unfortunate color, it grew with vigor, but sparsely. He looked disapprovingly at the modest square of looking glass in his hand. He could do nothing about the peeling sunburn that patched his nose and cheeks, or the scabbed scrapes and scratches left by his adventures in the swamp—but the hideous copper curls that sprouted jauntily from his chin and plastered themselves like a disfiguring moss along his jaw—that, at least, could be amended at once.

“If you please?”

Her lips twitched, and she knelt down beside his stool, turning his head with a hand beneath his chin so as to take best advantage of the light from the window.

“Well, then,” she said, and laid the scissors cool against his face. “I’ll ask Denny to come and shave thee. I daresay I can cut thy beard without wounding thee, but”—her eyes narrowed and she leaned closer, snipping delicately round the curve of his chin—“I’ve not shaved anything more lively than a dead pig, myself.”

“Barber, barber,” he murmured, trying not to move his lips, “shave a pig. How ma—”

Her fingers pressed up under his chin, firmly shutting his mouth, but she made the small snorting sound that passed with her for laughter. Snip, snip, snip. The blades tickled pleasantly against his face, and the wiry hairs brushed his hands as they fell into the worn linen towel she’d placed across his lap.

He’d had no opportunity to study her face at such close range and took full advantage of the brief opportunity. Her eyes were almost brown and not quite green. He wished suddenly to kiss the end of her nose. He shut his eyes, instead, and breathed. She’d been milking a goat, he could tell.

“I can shave myself,” he said, when she lowered the scissors.

She raised her brows and glanced downward at his arm. “I should be surprised if thee can feed thyself yet, let alone shave.”

In all truth, he could barely lift his right arm, and she had been feeding him for the last two days. That being so, he thought better of telling her that he was in fact left-handed.

“It’s healing well,” he said, instead, and turned his arm so the light shone upon it. Dr. Hunter had removed the dressing only that morning, expressing gratification at the results. The wound was still red and puckered, the skin around it unpleasantly white and moist. It was, however, undoubtedly healing; the arm was no longer swollen, and the ominous red streaks had disappeared.

“Well,” she said consideringly, “it’s a fine scar, I think. Well knit, and rather pretty.”

“Pretty?” William echoed, looking skeptically at his arm. He’d heard men now and then describe a scar as “pretty,” but most commonly they meant one that had healed straight and clean and did not disfigure the bearer by passing through some significant feature. This one was jagged and sprawling, with a long tail leading toward his wrist. He had—he was told sometime after the fact—narrowly escaped loss of the arm: Dr. Hunter had grasped it and placed his amputation saw just above the wound, only to have the abscess that had formed below it burst in his hand. Seeing this, the doctor had hastily drained the wound, packed it with garlic and comfrey, and prayed—to good effect.

“It looks like an enormous star,” Rachel Hunter said approvingly. “One of significance. A great comet, perhaps. Or the Star of Bethlehem, which led the Wise Men to the manger of Christ.”

William turned his arm, considering. He thought it looked rather more like a bursting mortar shell, himself, but said merely, “Hmm!” in an encouraging manner. He wished to continue the conversation—she seldom lingered when she fed him, having much other work to do—and so lifted his newly shorn chin and gestured at the brooch she wore.

“That’s pretty,” he said. “Not too worldly?”

“No,” she said tartly, putting a hand to the brooch. “It’s made of my mother’s hair. She died when I was born.”

“Ah. I’m sorry,” he said, and with a moment’s hesitation added, “So did mine.”

She stopped then and looked at him, and for a moment, he saw a flicker of something in her eyes that was more than the matter-of-fact attention she would give to a cow in calf or a dog that had eaten something that disagreed with it.

“I’m sorry, too,” she said softly, then turned with decision. “I’ll fetch my brother.”

Her footsteps went down the narrow stair, quick and light. He picked up the ends of the towel and shook it out the window, scattering the ruddy hair clippings to the four winds, and good riddance. He might have grown a beard as a rudimentary disguise, had it been a decently sober brown. As it was, a full beard of that garish color would rivet the eye of everyone who saw him.

What to do now? he wondered. Surely he would be fit to leave by tomorrow.

His clothes were still wearable, if worse for wear; Miss Hunter had patched the tears in his breeches and coat. But he had no horse, no money save two sixpences that had been in his pocket, and had lost the book with the list of his contacts and their messages. He might recall a few of their names, but without the proper code words and signs…

He thought quite suddenly of Henry Washington, and that hazy half-remembered conversation with Ian Murray by the fire, before they had begun to speak of death songs. Washington, Cartwright, Harrington, and Carver. The chanted list returned to him, together with Murray’s puzzled reply to his mention of Washington and Dismal Town.

He could not think of any reason why Murray should seek to mislead him on the matter. But if he was correct—was Captain Richardson grossly mistaken in his intelligence? That was possible, certainly. Even in as short a time as he had been in the Colonies, he had learned just how quickly loyalties could shift, with changing news of threat or opportunity.

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