An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 84

   

Luck had intervened, however. One of the Friends had taken it upon himself to try to trace any relatives of the orphaned Hunter children, and after a number of letters to and fro, had discovered a distant cousin, originally from Scotland but presently in London.

“John Hunter, bless his name. He is a famous physician, he and his elder brother, who is accoucheur to the Queen herself.” Despite her egalitarian principles, Miss Hunter looked somewhat awed, and William nodded respectfully. “He inquired as to Denny’s abilities, and hearing good report, made provision for Denny to remove to Philadelphia, to board there with a Quaker family and to go to the new medical college. And then he went so far as to have Denny go to London, to study there with himself!”

“Very good luck, indeed,” William observed. “But what about you?”

“Oh. I—was taken in by a woman in the village,” she said, with a quick casualness that did not deceive him. “But Denzell came back, and so of course I came to keep his house until he might wed.”

She was pleating the towel between her fingers, looking down into her lap. There were small lights in her hair where the fire caught it, a hint of bronze in the dark brown locks.

“The woman—she was a goodly woman. She took care I should learn to keep a house, to cook, to sew. That I should … know what is needful for a woman to know.” She glanced at him with that odd directness, her face sober.

“I think thee cannot understand,” she said, “what it means to be put out of meeting.”

“Something like being drummed out of one’s regiment, I expect. Disgraceful and distressing.”

Her eyes narrowed for a moment, but he had spoken seriously, and she saw that.

“A Friends’ meeting is not only a fellowship of worship. It is … a community of mind, of heart. A larger family, in a way.”

And for a young woman bereft of her own family?

“And to be put out, then… yes, I see,” he said quietly.

There was a brief silence in the room then, broken only by the sound of the rain. He thought he heard a rooster crow, somewhere far off.

“Thy mother is dead, too, thee said.” Rachel looked at him, dark eyes soft. “Does thy father live?”

He shook his head.

“You will think I am exceeding dramatic,” he said. “It is the truth, though—my father also died upon the day of my birth.”

She blinked at that.

“Truly. He was a good fifty years my mother’s senior. When he heard that she was dead in ch—in childbirth, he suffered an apoplexy and died upon the spot.” He was annoyed; he seldom stuttered anymore. She had not noticed, though.

“So thee is orphaned, too. I am sorry for thee,” she said quietly.

He shrugged, feeling awkward.

“Well. I knew neither of my parents. And in fact, I did have parents. My mother’s sister became my mother, in all respects—she’s dead now, too—and her husband… I have always thought of him as my father, though he is not related to me by blood.” It occurred to him that he was treading on dangerous ground here, talking too much about himself. He cleared his throat and endeavored to guide the conversation back to less personal matters.

“Your brother. How does he propose to … er… to implement this revelation of his?”

She sighed.

“This house—it belonged to a cousin of our mother’s. He was a widower, and childless. He had willed the house to Denzell, though when he heard about our being put out of meeting, he wrote to say that he meant to alter his will. By happenstance, though, he caught a bad ague and died before he could do so. But all his neighbors knew, of course—about Denny—which is why…”

“I see.” It seemed to William that while God might not be logical, He seemed to be taking a most particular interest in Denzell Hunter. He thought it might not be mannerly to say so, though, and inquired in a different direction.

“You said the house was sold. So your brother—”

“He has gone in to the town, to the courthouse, to sign the papers for the sale of the house and make arrangement for the goats, pigs, and chickens. As soon as that is done, we will… leave.” She swallowed visibly. “Denny means to join the Continental army as a surgeon.”

“And you will go with him? As a camp follower?” William spoke with some disapproval; many soldiers’ wives—or concubines—did “follow the drum,” essentially joining the army with their husbands. He had not seen much of camp followers yet himself, as there had been none on the Long Island campaign—but he’d heard his father speak of such women now and then, mostly with pity. It wasn’t a life for a woman of refinement.

She lifted her chin, hearing his disapproval.

“Certainly.”

A long wooden pin lay on the table; she must have taken it from her hair when she removed her cap. Now she twisted her damp hair up into a knot and stabbed the pin decisively through it.

“So,” she said. “Will thee travel with us? Only so far as thee may be comfortable in doing so,” she added quickly.

He had been turning the notion over in the back of his mind all the while they had talked. Plainly, such an arrangement would have advantages for the Hunters—a larger group was always safer, and it was apparent to William that, his revelation notwithstanding, the doctor was not a natural warrior. It would, he thought, have some advantage to himself, as well. The Hunters knew something of the immediate countryside, which he did not, and a man traveling in a group—particularly a group including a woman—was much less noticeable, and much less suspicious, than one alone.

It dawned on him suddenly that if Hunter meant to join the Continental army, there might be excellent opportunity of getting close enough to Washington’s forces to gain valuable intelligence of them—something that would go a long way toward compensating for the loss of his book of contacts.

“Yes, certainly,” he said, and smiled at Miss Hunter. “An admirable suggestion!”

A flash of lightning stabbed suddenly through the slits of the shutters, and a clap of thunder crashed overhead, almost simultaneously. Both of them started violently at the noise.

William swallowed, feeling his ears still ring. The sharp scent of lightning burned the air.

“I do hope,” he said, “that that was a signal of approval.”

She didn’t laugh.

THE BLESSING OF BRIDE AND OF MICHAEL

THE MOHAWK KNEW HIM as Thayendanegea—Two Wagers. To the English, he was Joseph Brant. Ian had heard much of the man when he dwelt among the Mohawk, by both his names, and had wondered more than once just how well Thayendanegea managed the treacherous ground between two worlds. Was it like the bridge? he thought suddenly. The slender bridge that lay between this world and the next, the air around it assailed by flying heads with rending teeth? Sometime he would like to sit by a fire with Joseph Brant and ask him.

He was going to Brant’s house now—but not to speak with Brant. Glutton had told him that Sun Elk had left Snaketown to join Brant and that his wife had gone with him.

“They are in Unadilla,” Glutton had said. “Probably still there. Thayendanegea fights with the English, you know. He’s talking to the Loyalists up there, trying to get them to join him and his men. He calls them ‘Brant’s Volunteers.’” He spoke casually; Glutton was not interested in politics, though he would fight now and then, when the spirit moved him.

“Does he?” Ian said, just as casually. “Well, then.”

He had no particular idea where Unadilla was, save that it was in the colony of New York, but that was no great difficulty. He set out next day at dawn, heading north.

He had no company save the dog and his thoughts, most of the time. At one point, though, he came to a summer camp of Mohawk and was welcomed there.

He sat with the men, talking. After a time, a young woman brought him a bowl of stew, and he ate it, barely noticing what was in it, though his belly seemed grateful for the warmth and stopped clenching itself.

He couldn’t say what drew his eye, but he looked up from the men’s talk to see the young woman who had brought him the stew sitting in the shadow just outside the fire, looking at him. She smiled, very slightly.

He chewed more slowly, the taste of the stew suddenly a savor in his mouth. Bear meat, rich with fat. Corn and beans, spiced with onions and garlic. Delicious. She tilted her head to one side; one dark brow rose, elegant, then she rose, too, as though lifted by her question.

Ian set down his bowl and belched politely, then got up and went outside, paying no attention to the knowing looks of the men with whom he’d been eating.

She was waiting, a pale blur in the shadow of a birch. They talked—he felt his mouth form words, felt the tickle of her speech in his ears, but was not really aware of what they said. He held the glow of his anger like a live coal in the palm of his hand, an ember smoking in his heart. He had no thought of her as water to his scorching, nor did he think to kindle her. There were flames behind his eyes, and he was mindless as fire is, devouring where there was fuel, dying where there was not.

He kissed her. She smelled of food, worked skins, and sun-warmed earth. No hint of wood, no tinge of blood. She was tall; he felt her br**sts soft and pushing, dropped his hands to the curve of her hips.

She moved against him, solid, willing. Drew back, letting cool air touch his skin where she had been, and took him by the hand to lead him to her long-house. No one glanced at them as she took him into her bed and, in the half-dark warmth, turned to him, naked.

He’d thought it would be better if he couldn’t see her face. Anonymous, quick, some pleasure for her, perhaps. Surcease, for him. For the few moments when he lost himself, at least.

But in the dark, she was Emily, and he fled from her bed in shame and anger, leaving astonishment behind.

FOR THE NEXT TWELVE days he walked, the dog by his side, and spoke to no one.

THAYENDANEGEA’S HOUSE STOOD by itself in large grounds, but near enough the village to be still part of it. The village was much as any other, save that many of the houses had two or three grindstones by the step; each woman ground meal for her family, rather than take it to a mill.

There were dogs in the street, dozing in the shadows of wagons and walls. Every one sat up, startled, when Rollo came within scenting distance. A few growled or barked, but none offered to fight.

The men were another matter. There were several men leaning on a fence, watching another with a horse in a field. All of them cast glances at him, half curious, half wary. He didn’t know most of them. One of them, though, was a man named Eats Turtles, whom he had known in Snaketown. Another was Sun Elk.

Sun Elk blinked at him, startled as any of the dogs, and then stepped out into the road to face him.

“What are you doing here?”

He considered for a split second telling the truth—but it wasn’t a truth that could be told quickly, if at all, and certainly not before strangers.

“None of your business,” he answered calmly.

Sun Elk had spoken to him in Mohawk, and he’d answered in the same language. He saw eyebrows rise, and Turtle made to greet him, clearly hoping to avert whatever storm was in the offing by making it clear that Ian was Kahnyen’kehaka himself. He returned Turtle’s greeting, and the others drew back a little, puzzled—and interested—but not hostile.

Sun Elk, on the other hand… Well, Ian hadn’t expected the man to fall on his neck, after all. He’d hoped—insofar as he’d thought about Sun Elk, which was very little—that he’d be elsewhere, but here he was, and Ian smiled wryly to himself, thinking of old Grannie Wilson, who had once described her son-in-law, Hiram, as looking “like he wouldn’t give the road to a bear.”

It was an apt description, and Sun Elk’s disposition was not improved either by Ian’s reply nor by the subsequent smile.

“What do you want?” Sun Elk demanded.

“Nothing that’s yours,” Ian replied, as mildly as possible.

Sun Elk’s eyes narrowed, but before he could say anything else, Turtle intervened, inviting Ian to come into his house, to eat, to drink.

He should. It wasn’t polite to refuse. And he could ask, later, privately, where Emily was. But the need that had brought him over three hundred miles of wilderness acknowledged no requirements of civility. Neither would it brook delay.

Besides, he reflected, readying himself, he’d known it would come to this. No point in putting it off.

“I wish to speak with her who was once my wife,” he said. “Where is she?”

Several of the men blinked at that, interested or taken back—but he saw Turtle’s eyes flick toward the gates of the large house at the end of the road.

Sun Elk, to his credit, merely drew himself up and planted himself more solidly in the road, ready to defy two bears, if necessary. Rollo didn’t care for this and lifted his lip in a growl that made one or two of the men step back sharply. Sun Elk, who had better reason than most of them to know just what Rollo was capable of, didn’t move an inch.

“Do you mean to set your demon on me?” he asked.

“Of course not. Sheas, a cù,” he said quietly to Rollo. The dog stood his ground for a moment longer—just long enough to indicate that it was his idea—and then turned aside and lay down, though he kept up a low grumble, like distant thunder.

“I have not come to take her from you,” Ian said to Sun Elk. He’d meant to be conciliatory, but he hadn’t really expected it to work, and it didn’t.

“You think you could?”

“If I dinna want to, does it matter?” Ian said testily, lapsing into English.

“She wouldn’t go with you, even if you killed me!”

“How many times must I say that I dinna want to take her away from ye?”

Sun Elk stared at him for a minute, his eyes quite black.

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