“Are the beasts all right?” Raindrops sparkled in her damp hair, and he smiled at her.
“I expect their supper was better than ours.”
She shuddered in recollection.
“I should much prefer to have eaten hay. Did thee see what was in—”
“No,” he interrupted, “and I shall be much happier if you don’t tell me.”
She snorted, but desisted. He had no desire to go back into the fetid house at once, and Rachel seemed similarly disinclined, moving to scratch her mule’s drooping ears.
“I do not like the way that woman looks at us,” Rachel said after a moment, not looking at him. “She keeps staring at my shoes. As though she wonders whether they would fit her.”
William glanced at Rachel’s feet himself; her shoes were not in any way fashionable but were sturdy and well made, though also well worn and smeared with dried mud.
Rachel glanced uneasily at the house. “I will be pleased to leave here, even if it should still be raining in the morning.”
“We’ll leave,” he assured her. “Without waiting for breakfast, if you prefer.” He leaned against one of the upright poles that supported the shelter, feeling the mist of rain cool on his neck. The drowsiness had left him, though the tiredness had not, and he realized that he shared her sense of unease.
Mr. Johnson seemed amiable, if uncouth, but there was something almost too eager in his manner. He leaned forward avidly in conversation, eyes agleam, and his dirty hands were restless on his knees.
It might be only the natural loneliness of a man who lacked company—for surely the presence of the sullen Mrs. Johnson would be little consolation—but William’s father had taught him to pay attention to his instincts, and he therefore did not try to argue himself out of them. Without comment or apology, he rummaged in the saddlebag hanging from the post and found the small dagger that he carried in his boot while riding.
Rachel’s eyes followed it as he tucked it into the waist of his breeches and pulled his shirt loose to cover it. Her chin was puckered, but she didn’t protest.
The torch was beginning to gutter, almost burned out. He held out his arm, and Rachel took it without protest, drawing close to him. He wanted to put his arm around her but contented himself with drawing in his elbow, finding the distant warmth of her body a comfort.
The bulk of the farmhouse was darker than the night, lacking either door or window at the back. They circled it in silence, rain thumping on their skulls, feet squelching on the sodden ground. Only a flicker of light showed through the shutters, the faintest indication of human tenancy. He heard Rachel swallow, and touched her hand lightly as he opened the door for her.
“Sleep well,” he whispered to her. “The dawn will come before you know it.”
IT WAS THE STEW that saved his life. He slept almost at once, overcome by weariness, but found his sleep troubled by obnoxious dreams. He was walking down a hallway with a figured Turkey carpet, but realized after a time that what he had taken for twining patterns in the rug were in fact snakes, which raised their heads, swaying, at his approach. The snakes were slow-moving, and he was able to skip over them but lurched from side to side as a result, hitting the walls of the corridor, which seemed to be closing in upon him, narrowing the way.
Then he was enclosed so tightly that he must proceed sideways, the wall behind him scraping his back, the plaster surface before him so close that he could not bend his head to look down. He was worried about the snakes in the carpet, but couldn’t see them, and kicked out to the side with his feet, now and then hitting something heavy. Panicked, he felt one twine about his leg, then glide upward, wrapping round his body and burrowing its head through the front of his shirt, prodding him hard and painfully in the abdomen, looking for somewhere to bite.
He woke suddenly, panting and sweating, aware that the pain in his guts was real. It bit with a sharp cramp, and he pulled up his legs and rolled onto his side an instant before the ax struck the floorboards where his head had just been.
He let out a tremendous fart and rolled in blind panic toward the dark figure struggling to free the ax from the wood. He struck Johnson’s legs, grabbed them, and yanked. The man fell on him with a curse and grabbed him by the throat. William punched and thrashed at his opponent, but the hands on his throat clung like grim death, and his vision darkened and flashed with colored lights.
There was screaming going on somewhere nearby. More by instinct than plan, William suddenly lunged forward, striking Johnson in the face with his forehead. It hurt, but the death grip on his throat relaxed, and he wrenched loose and rolled over, scrambling to his feet.
The fire had died to embers, and there was no more than a faint glow of light in the room. A heaving mass of bodies in the corner was the source of the screaming, but nothing he could do about that.
Johnson had kicked the ax loose; William saw the dull gleam of its blade in the split second before Johnson seized it and swung it at his head. He ducked, rushed in, and managed to grab Johnson’s wrist, pulling hard. The cheek of the falling ax blade struck his knee a paralyzing blow, and he crumpled, pulling Johnson down with him, but got the other knee up in time to keep from being flattened beneath the other man’s body.
He jerked to the side, felt sudden heat at his back and the ping of sparks; they had rolled into the edge of the hearth. He reached back and seized a handful of hot embers, which he ground into Johnson’s face, ignoring the searing pain in his palm.
Johnson fell back, clutching his face and making short ah! ah! noises, as though he had not breath to scream. The ax was dangling from one hand; he sensed William rise and swung it blindly, one-handed.
William grabbed the ax handle, jerked it from Johnson’s grasp, took a good two-handed hold upon the throat of the handle, and brought the bit down on Johnson’s head with a choonk like a kicked pumpkin. The impact vibrated through his hands and arms; he let go and stumbled backward.
His mouth was full of bile; saliva overflowed and he wiped a sleeve across his mouth. He was breathing like a bellows but could not seem to get any air in his lungs.
Johnson reeled toward him, arms outstretched, the ax sticking in his head. The handle quivered, turning to and fro like an insect’s feeler. Slowly, horribly, Johnson’s hands reached up to take hold of it.
William wanted to scream but didn’t have the breath for it. Backing away in panic, he brushed a hand against his breeches and felt wetness there. He glanced down, fearing the worst, but saw instead the cloth dark with blood, and at the same time realized that there was a slight stinging sensation at the top of his thigh.
“Bloody… hell,” he muttered, fumbling at his waist. He’d managed to stab himself with his own dagger, but it was still there, thank God. The feel of the hilt steadied him, and he pulled it out, still backing away as Johnson came toward him, making a sort of yowling noise, yanking at the ax handle.
The ax came loose, releasing a gush of blood that rolled down Johnson’s face and splattered William’s face and arms and chest. Johnson swung the ax with a huff of effort, but his movements were slow and clumsy. William ducked aside, farting with the movement but regaining his nerve.
He tightened his grip on the dagger and looked for a place to stick it. Round the back, his mind suggested. Johnson was dashing one forearm uselessly across his face, trying to clear his eyes, the ax held in the other hand, sweeping to and fro in wide, trembling swaths.
“William!” Surprised by the voice, he glanced aside and was nearly struck by the wavering blade.
“Shut up,” he said crossly. “I’m busy.”
“Yes, I see that,” said Denny Hunter. “Let me help thee.” He was white-faced and shaking nearly as much as Johnson, but stepped forward and, with a sudden lunge, seized the ax handle and pulled the implement out of Johnson’s grasp. He stepped back and dropped it on the floor with a thunk, looking as though he might be sick at any moment.
“Thank you,” said William. He stepped forward and drove the dagger upward under Johnson’s ribs, into his heart. Johnson’s eyes opened wide with the shock and stared directly into William’s. They were gray-blue, with a scattering of gold and yellow flecks near the dark iris. William had never seen anything more beautiful and stood transfixed for an instant, until the feel of the pumping blood over his hand returned him to himself.
He jerked the knife free and stood back, letting the body fall. He was trembling all over and about to shit himself. He turned blindly and headed for the door, brushing past Denny, who said something that he didn’t quite hear.
Shuddering and gasping in the privy, though, he thought the doctor had said, “Thee did not have to do that.”
Yes, he thought, I did, and bowed his head upon his knees, waiting for everything to abate.
WILLIAM EMERGED AT LAST from the privy, feeling clammy and rubber-limbed but less internally volatile. Denny Hunter rushed past him and into the structure, from which explosive noises and loud groans were immediately heard. Moving hastily away, he made his way through a spatter of rain toward the house.
Dawn was some way off, but the air had begun to stir, and the farmhouse stood out against the paling sky, black and skeletal. He entered, feeling very uncertain, to find Rachel, white as bone, standing guard with a broom over Mrs. Johnson, who was wrapped tightly in a filthy sheet, thrashing a bit and making peculiar hissing and spitting noises.
Her husband’s remains lay facedown by the hearth in a pool of congealing blood. He didn’t want to look at the body, but felt it would be somehow wrong not to, and went and stood by it for a moment, looking down. One of the Hunters had poked up the fire and added wood; there was warmth in the room, but he couldn’t feel it.
“He’s dead,” Rachel said, her voice colorless.
“Yes.” He didn’t know how he was meant to feel in such a situation and had no real idea how he did feel. He turned away, though, with a slight sense of relief, and came to look at the prisoner.
“Did she… ?”
“She tried to cut Denny’s throat, but she stepped on my hand and woke me. I saw the knife and screamed, and he seized her, and…” She pulled a hand through her hair, and he saw that she had lost her cap, and the hair was loose and tangled.
“I sat on her,” she said, “and Denny rolled her up in the sheet. I don’t think she can speak,” Rachel added, as he stooped to look at the woman. “Her tongue is split.”
Mrs. Johnson, hearing this, thrust out her tongue in vindictive fashion and waggled the two halves of it independently at him. With the memory of the dream snakes vivid in his mind, he flinched in instinctive revulsion, but saw the look of satisfaction that crossed her face.
“If she can do that with her nasty tongue, she can talk,” he said, and, reaching down, took hold of the woman’s scrawny throat. “Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you, too.”
“Iss not my fault!” she said promptly, in such a rasping hiss that he nearly let go of her in shock. “He makess me help him.”
William glanced over his shoulder at the body on the hearth.
“Not anymore.” He tightened his grip, feeling the beat of her pulse against his thumb. “How many travelers have you killed, the two of you?”
She didn’t answer but stroked her upper lip lasciviously with her tongue, first one half and then the other. He let go her throat and slapped her hard across the face. Rachel gasped.
“Thee must not—”
“Oh, yes, I must.” He rubbed his hand against the side of his breeches, trying to get rid of the feel of the woman’s sweat, her slack skin, her bony throat. His other hand was beginning to throb painfully. He wanted suddenly to pick up the ax and smash her with it, over and over—crush her head, hack her to bits. His body trembled with the urge; she saw it in his eyes and stared back at him, eyes black and glittering.
“You don’t want me to kill her?” he asked Rachel.
“Thee must not,” she whispered. Very slowly, she reached for his burned hand, and, when he did not pull away, took it into hers. There was a roaring in his ears, and he felt dizzy.
“Thee is hurt,” she said softly. “Come outside. I will wash it.”
She led him out, half blind and stumbling, and made him sit on the chopping block while she brought a bucket of water from the trough. It had stopped raining, though the world dripped and the dawn air was moist and fresh in his chest.
Rachel bathed his hand in the cold water, and the burning eased a little. She touched his thigh, where the blood had dried in a long patch down his breeches, but let it go when he shook his head.
“I’ll bring thee whisky; there is some in Denny’s bag.” She stood up, but he grabbed her wrist with his good hand, holding hard.
“Rachel.” His own voice sounded odd to him, remote, as though someone else was speaking. “I’ve never killed anyone before. I don’t—I don’t quite know what to do about it.” He looked up at her, searching her face for understanding. “If it had been—I expected it to be in battle. That—I think I’d know how. How to feel, I mean. If it had been like that.”
She met his eyes, her face drawn in troubled thought. The light touched her, a pink softer than the sheen of pearls, and after a long time she touched his face, very gently.
“No,” she said. “Thee wouldn’t.”
To the Precipice
WILLIAM PARTED FROM the Hunters at a nameless crossroad somewhere in New Jersey. It was not politic for him to go further; their inquiries regarding the position of the Continental army were being greeted with increasing hostility, indicating that they were getting close. Neither rebel sympathizers nor Loyalists who feared reprisal from an army on their doorstep wished to say anything to mysterious travelers who might be spies or worse.
The Quakers would have an easier time of it without him. They were so plainly what they were and Denzell’s intent to enlist as a surgeon both so simple and so admirable that, if they were alone, people would help them, he thought. Or at least receive their inquiries more kindly. With William, though…