An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 88

   

Saying that he was a friend of the Hunters had been sufficient, earlier in the journey. Folk were curious about the little group, but not suspicious. As they drew farther into New Jersey, though, the agitation of the countryside increased markedly. Farms had been raided by foraging parties, both by Hessians from Howe’s army, trying to lure Washington into open battle from his lurking place in the Watchung Mountains, and from the Continental army, desperate for supplies.

Farmhouses that would normally have welcomed strangers for the news they bore now repelled them with muskets and harsh words. Food was growing harder to find. Rachel’s presence sometimes helped them get close enough to offer money—and William’s small store of gold and silver was certainly helpful; Denzell had put most of the money from the sale of their house with a bank in Philadelphia to secure Rachel’s future safety, and the paper money issued by the Congress was almost universally rejected.

There was no means by which William could masquerade as a Quaker, though. Beyond his inability to master plain speech, his size and bearing made people nervous—the more so as he, with the memories of Captain Nathan Hale vivid in his mind, would not say that he meant to enlist in the Continental army nor ask any questions that might later be presented as evidence of spying. His silence—perceived as menacing—also made people nervous.

He hadn’t spoken to the Hunters regarding their parting, and both Denzell and Rachel had been careful not to ask about his own plans. Everyone knew the time had come, though; he could feel it in the air when he woke that morning. When Rachel handed him a chunk of bread for breakfast, her hand brushed his, and he nearly seized her fingers. She felt the strength of his stifled impulse and looked up, startled, directly into his eyes. More green than brown today, and he would have sent discretion to the devil and kissed her—he thought she would not have objected—had her brother not just then emerged from the bushes, buttoning his flies.

He chose the place, all of a sudden. Naught to be gained by delay, and maybe better to do it without thinking too much. He pulled his horse to a stop in the middle of the crossroad, startling Denzell, whose mare bridled and danced at the jerk on her reins.

“I will leave you here,” William said abruptly, and more harshly than he had intended. “My way lies north”—he nodded in that direction, and thank God the sun was up so he could tell which way north was—“while I think that if you continue to the east, you will encounter some representatives of Mr. Washington’s army. If…” He hesitated, but they should be warned. From what the farmers had said, it was plain that Howe had sent troops into the area.

“If you meet with British troops or Hessian mercenaries—do you speak German, by chance?”

Denzell shook his head, eyes wide behind his spectacles. “Only a little French.”

“That’s good. Most Hessian officers have good French. If you meet with Hessians who don’t and they offer to molest you, say to them, ‘Ich verlange, Euren Vorgcsctztcn zu sehen; ich bin mit seinem Freund bekannt? That means, ‘I demand to see your officer; I know his friend.’ Say the same thing if you meet with British troops. In English, of course,” he added awkwardly.

A faint smile crossed Denzell’s face.

“I thank thee,” he said. “But if they do take us to an officer, and he demands to know the name of this theoretical friend?”

William smiled back.

“It won’t really matter. Once you’re in front of an officer, you will be safe. But as for a name—Harold Grey, Duke of Pardloe, Colonel of the Forty-sixth Foot.” Uncle Hal didn’t know everyone, as his own father did, but anyone in the military world would know him—or of him, at least.

He could see Denzell’s lips move silently, committing this to memory.

“And who is Friend Harold to thee, William?” Rachel had been regarding him narrowly beneath the sagging brim of her hat, and now pushed this back on her head to view him more directly.

He hesitated again, but after all, what did it matter now? He would never see the Hunters again. And while he knew that Quakers would not be impressed by worldly shows of rank and family, he still sat straighter in his saddle.

“Some kin to me,” he said casually, and, digging in his pocket, brought out the small purse the Scotsman Murray had given him. “Here. You will need this.”

“We will do well enough,” Denzell said, waving it away.

“So will I,” William said, and tossed the purse toward Rachel, who put up her hands in reflex and caught it, looking as much surprised by the fact that she had done so as by his own action. He smiled at her, too, his heart full.

“Fare thee well,” he said gruffly, then wheeled his horse and set off at a brisk trot, not looking back.

“THEE KNOWS HE is a British soldier?” Denny Hunter said quietly to his sister, watching William ride away. “Likely a deserter.”

“And if he is?”

“Violence follows such a man. Thee knows it. To remain long with such a man is a danger—not only to the body. But to the soul, as well.”

Rachel sat her mule in silence for a moment, watching the empty road. Insects buzzed loud in the trees.

“I think thee may be a hypocrite, Denzell Hunter,” she said evenly, and pulled her mule’s head around. “He saved my life and thine. Would thee prefer him to have held his hand and see me dead and butchered in that dreadful place?” She shuddered slightly in spite of the heat of the day.

“I would not,” her brother said soberly. “And I thank God that he was there to save thee. I am sinner enough to prefer thy life to the welfare of that young man’s soul—but not hypocrite enough to deny it, no.”

She snorted and, taking off her hat, waved away a gathering cloud of flies.

“I am honored. But as for thy talk of violent men and the danger of being in the vicinity of such men—is thee not taking me to join an army?”

He laughed ruefully.

“I am. Perhaps thee is right and I am a hypocrite. But, Rachel—” He leaned out and caught her mule’s bridle, keeping her from turning away. “Thee knows I would have no harm befall thee, either of body or soul. Say the word and I will find thee a place with Friends, where you may stay in safety. I am sure that the Lord has spoken to me, and I must follow my conscience. But there is no need for thee to follow it, too.”

She gave him a long, level look.

“And how does thee know that the Lord has not spoken to me, as well?”

His eyes twinkled behind his spectacles.

“I am happy for thee. What did He say?”

“He said, ‘Keep thy fat-headed brother from committing suicide, for I will require his blood at thy hand,’ ” she snapped, slapping his hand away from the bridle. “If we are going to join the army, Denny, let us go and find it.”

She kicked the mule viciously in the ribs. Its ears sprang straight up, and with a startled whoop from its rider, it shot down the road as though fired from a cannon.

WILLIAM RODE FOR some way, back particularly straight, showing excellent form in his horsemanship. After the road curved out of sight of the crossroad, he slowed and relaxed a bit. He was sorry to leave the Hunters, but already beginning to turn his thoughts ahead.

Burgoyne. He’d met General Burgoyne once, at a play. A play written by the general, no less. He didn’t recall anything about the play itself, as he’d been engaged in a flirtation of the eyes with a girl in the next box, but afterward he’d gone down with his father to congratulate the successful playwright, who was flushed and handsome with triumph and champagne.

“Gentleman Johnny” they called him in London. A light in London society’s firmament, in spite of the fact that he and his wife had some years before been obliged to flee to France to escape arrest for debt. No one held debt against a man, though; it was too common.

William was more puzzled by the fact that his uncle Hal seemed to like John Burgoyne. Uncle Hal had no time for plays, nor for the people who wrote them—though, come to think, he had the complete works of Aphra Behn on his shelves, and William’s father had once told him, in deepest secrecy, that his brother Hal had conceived a passionate attachment for Mrs. Behn following the death of his first wife and before his marriage to Aunt Minnie.

“Mrs. Behn was dead, you see,” his father had explained. “Safe.”

William had nodded, wishing to seem worldly and understanding, though in fact he had no real notion what his father meant by this. Safe? How, safe?

He shook his head. He didn’t expect ever to understand Uncle Hal, and chances were that was best for both of them. His grandmother Benedicta was probably the only person who did. Thought of his uncle, though, led him to think of his cousin Henry, and his mouth tightened a little.

Word would have reached Adam, of course, but he likely could do nothing for his brother. Neither could William, whose duty called him north. Between his father and Uncle Hal, though, surely…

The horse threw up his head, snorting a little, and William looked ahead to see a man standing by the road, one arm raised to hail him.

He rode slowly, a sharp eye on the wood, lest the man have confederates hidden to waylay unwary travelers. The verge was open here, though, with a thick but spindly growth of saplings behind it; no one could hide in there.

“Good day to you, sir,” he said, reining up a safe distance from the old man. For old he was; his face was seamed like a tin mine’s slag heap, he leaned on a tall staff, and his hair was pure white, tied back in a plait.

“Well met,” the old gentleman said. Gentleman for he stood proud, and his clothes were decent, and now William came to look, there was a good horse, too, hobbled and cropping grass some distance away. William relaxed a little.

“Where do you fare, sir?” he asked politely. The old man shrugged a little, easy.

“That may depend upon what you can tell me, young man.” The old man was a Scot, though his English was good. “I am in search of a man called Ian Murray, whom I think you know?”

William was disconcerted by this; how did the old man know that? But he knew Murray; perhaps Murray had mentioned William to him. He replied cautiously, “I know him. But I am afraid I have no idea where he is.”

“No?” The old man looked keenly at him. As though he thinks I might lie to him, William thought. Suspicious old sod!

“No,” he repeated firmly. “I met him in the Great Dismal, some weeks ago, in company with some Mohawk. But I do not know where he might have gone since then.”

“Mohawk,” the old man repeated thoughtfully, and William saw the sunken eyes fasten on his chest, where the great bear claw rested outside his shirt. “Did you get that wee bawbee from the Mohawk, then?”

“No,” William replied stiffly, not knowing what a bawbee was, but thinking that it sounded in some way disparaging. “Mr. Murray brought it to me, from a—friend.”

“A friend.” The old man was frankly studying his face, in a way that made William uncomfortable and therefore angry. “What is your name, young man?”

“None of your business, sir,” William said, as courteously as possible, and gathered his reins. “Good day to you!”

The old man’s face tightened, as did his hand on the staff, and William turned sharply, lest the old bugger mean to try to strike him with it. He didn’t, but William noticed, with a small sense of shock, that two fingers of the hand that grasped the staff were missing.

He thought for a moment that the old man might mount and come after him, but when he glanced back, the man was still standing by the road, looking after him.

It made no real difference, but, moved by some obscure notion of avoiding notice, William put the bear’s claw inside his shirt, where it hung safely concealed next to his rosary.

COUNTDOWN

Fort Ticonderoga

June 18, 1777

Dear Bree and Roger,

Twenty-three days and counting. I hope we’ll be able to leave on schedule. Your cousin Ian left the fort a month ago, saying that he had a wee bit of business to take care of but would be back by the time Jamie’s militia enlistment was up. Ian himself declined to enlist, being instead a volunteer forager, so he’s not technically AWOL. Not that the fort’s commander is really in a position to do anything about deserters, save hang them if they’re silly enough to come back, and none of them do. I’m not sure what Ian’s doing, but I have some hope that it may be good for him.

Speaking of the fort’s commander, we have a new one. Great excitement! Colonel Wayne left a few weeks ago—doubtless sweating with relief as much as with the humidity—but we have come up in the world. The new commander is a major general, no less: one Arthur St. Clair, a genial and very handsome Scot, whose attractiveness is considerably enhanced by the pink sash he affects on formal occasions. (The nice thing about belonging to an ad hoc army is that one apparently gets to design one’s own uniform. None of this stuffy old British convention about regimentals.)

General St. Clair comes with outriders: no fewer than three lesser generals, one of them French (your father says General Fermoy is rather fishy, militarily speaking), and about three thousand new recruits. This has substantially heartened everyone (though placing an ungodly strain on the latrine facilities. The lines are fifteen deep in the mornings at the pits, and there is a severe shortage of thunder mugs), and St. Clair made a nice speech, assuring us that the fort cannot possibly be taken now. Your father, who was standing next to the general at the time, said something under his breath in Gaelic at this point, but not very far under, and while I understand the general was born in Thurso, he conveniently affected not to understand.

The bridge-building between the fort and Mount Independence continues apace… and Mount Defiance continues to sit there across the water. An inoffensive little hill, to look at—but a good bit higher than the fort. Jamie had Mr. Marsden row across with a target—a four-foot square of wood, painted white—and set it up near the top of the hill, where it was plainly visible from the fort’s batteries. He invited General Fermoy (he does not get a pink sash, despite being French) to come and try his hand at shooting with one of the new rifles (Jamie having thoughtfully abstracted several of these from the cargo of the Teal before patriotically donating the rest to the American cause). They blasted the target to bits, an act whose significance was not lost on General St. Clair, who came along to watch. I think General St. Clair will be almost as pleased as I will be when your father’s enlistment is up.

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