An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 95

   

“Is it truly necessary to remove the ball—or balls?” he asked, looking up at Mrs. Woodcock. “If he has survived so far, perhaps the ball is lodged in a place where—”

But Mrs. Woodcock shook her head decidedly.

“He can’t eat,” she said bluntly. “He can’t swallow a thing but soup, and none so much of that. He wasn’t but skin and bones when they brought him to me,” she said, gesturing at Henry. “And you can see, he’s not that much more now.”

He wasn’t. Henry took after his mother rather than Hal, being normally ruddy-cheeked and of a rather stocky build. There was no evidence of either trait at the moment; every rib showed plain, his belly was so sunken that the points of his hip bones poked up sharp through the linen sheet, and his face was approximately the same hue as said sheet, bar deep violet circles under the eyes.

“I see,” Grey said slowly. He glanced at Mr. Hunnicutt. “Have you managed to locate anything?”

“Well, I have,” the dowser said, and, leaning over Henry’s body, laid a long, thin finger gently on the young man’s belly. “One, at least. T’other, I’m not so sure of, just yet.”

“I told you, Mercy, it’s no good.” Henry’s eyes were still closed, but his hand rose a little and Mrs. Woodcock took it, with a naturalness that made Grey blink. “Even if he was sure—I can’t do it again. I’d rather die.” Weak as he was, he spoke with an absolute conviction, and Grey recognized the family stubbornness.

Mrs. Woodcock’s pretty face was creased in a worried frown. She seemed to feel Grey’s eyes upon her, for she looked briefly up at him. He didn’t change expression, and she lifted her chin a little, meeting his eyes with something not far from fierceness, still holding Henry’s hand.

Oh, like that, is it? Grey thought. Well, well.

He coughed, and Henry opened his eyes.

“Be that as it may, Henry,” he said, “you will oblige me by not dying before I can bring your sister to bid you farewell.”

RESERVATIONS

July 1, 1777

THE INDIANS WORRIED him. General Burgoyne found them enchanting. But General Burgoyne wrote plays.

It is not, William wrote slowly in the letter to his father that he was composing, struggling to find form in words for his reservations, that I think him a fantasist or suspect that he does not appreciate the essential nature of the Indians he deals with. He appreciates it very much. But I remember talking with Mr. Garrick once in London, and his reference to the playwright as a little god who directs the actions of his creations, exerting absolute control upon them. Mrs. Cowley argued with this, saying that it is delusion to assume that the creator controls his creations and that an attempt to exert such control while ignoring the true nature of those creations is doomed to failure.

He stopped, biting his quill, feeling that he had come close to the heart of the matter but perhaps not quite reached it.

I think General Burgoyne does not quite apprehend the independence of mind and purpose that… No, that wasn’t quite it. He drew a line through the sentence and dipped his quill for a fresh try. He turned a phrase over in his mind, rejected it, did the same with another, and at last abandoned the search for eloquence in favor of a simple unburdening of his mind. It was late, he’d walked nearly twenty miles in the course of the day, and he was sleepy.

He believes he can use the Indians as a tool, and I think he is wrong. He stared at the sentence for a bit, shook his head at its bluntness, but could think of nothing better and could waste no more time on the effort; the stub of his candle had almost burned out. Comforting himself with the idea that, after all, his father knew Indians—and probably General Burgoyne—much better than he did, he briskly signed, sanded, blotted, and sealed the letter, then fell into his bed and a dreamless sleep.

The sense of uneasiness regarding the Indians remained with him, though. He had no dislike of Indians; in fact, he enjoyed their company, and hunted now and again with some of them, or shared a companionable evening drinking beer and telling stories round their fires.

“The thing is,” he said to Balcarres one evening, as they walked back from a particularly bibulous dinner that the general had held for his staff officers, “they don’t read the Bible.”

“Who don’t? Hold up.” Major Alexander Lindsay, Sixth Earl of Balcarres, put out a hand to ward off a passing tree and, clutching it one-handed to keep his balance, groped for his flies.

“Indians.”

It was dark, but Sandy turned his head and William could just about see one eye shut slowly in the effort to fix the other on him. There had been a great deal of wine with dinner, and a number of ladies present, which added to the conviviality.

Balcarres concentrated on his pissing, then exhaled with relief and closed both eyes.

“No,” he said. “They mostly don’t.” He seemed content to leave the matter there, but it had occurred to William—himself a little less organized in thought than usual—that perhaps he had failed to express himself completely.

“I mean,” he said, swaying just a little as a gust of wind boomed down through the trees, “the centurion. You know, he says go and the fellow goeth. You tell an Indian go and maybe he goeth and maybe he damned well goeth not, depending how the prospect strikes him.”

Balcarres was now concentrating on the effort of doing up his flies and didn’t answer.

“I mean,” William amplified, “they don’t take orders.”

“Oh. No. They don’t.”

“You give your Indians orders, though?” He’d meant to make it a statement, but it didn’t quite come out that way. Balcarres led a regiment of light infantry but also kept a large group of rangers, many of them Indians; he not infrequently dressed like one himself.

“But then, you’re a Scot.”

Balcarres had succeeded in doing up his flies and now stood in the center of the path, squinting at William.

“You’re drunk, Willie.” This was said with no tone of accusation; more with the pleased sense of one who has made a useful deduction.

“Yes. But I’ll be sober in the morning and you’ll still be a Scot.” This struck them both as hilarious and they staggered some distance together, repeating the jest at intervals and bumping into each other. By simple chance, they stumbled upon William’s tent first, and he invited Balcarres to join him in a glass of negus before bed.

“Sett … les the stomach,” he said, narrowly avoiding falling headfirst into his campaign chest as he groped for cups and bottles. “Makes you sleep better.”

Balcarres had succeeded in lighting the candle and sat holding it, blinking owl-eyed in its glow. He sipped the negus William handed to him carefully, eyes closed as though to savor it, then suddenly opened them.

“What’s being a Scot have to do with reading the Bible?” he demanded, this remark having evidently returned suddenly to his cognizance. “You calling me a heathen? My grandmother’s Scots and she reads the Bible all the time. I’ve read it myself. Bits of it,” he added, and gulped the rest of his glass.

William frowned, trying to remember what on earth …

“Oh,” he said. “Not the Bible. Indians. Stubborn buggers. Don’t goeth. Scots don’t goeth either when you tell them, or not all the time. I thought maybe that was why. Why they listen to you,” he added as an afterthought. “Your Indians.”

Balcarres thought that funny, too, but when he had at length stopped laughing, he shook his head slowly to and fro.

“It’s … you know a horse?”

“I know a lot of horses. Which one?”

Balcarres spit a small quantity of negus down his chin, but wiped it away.

“A horse,” he repeated, drying his hand on his breeches. “You can’t make a horse do anything. You see what he’s going to do and then you tell him to do that, and he thinks it’s your idea, so next time you tell him something, he’s more likely to do what you tell him.”

“Oh.” William considered this carefully. “Yes.” They drank for a bit in silence, mulling over this profundity. At last Balcarres looked up from a long contemplation of his glass.

“Who do you think has better tits?” he asked seriously. “Mrs. Lind or the baroness?”

EXODUS

Fort Ticonderoga

June 27, 1777

MRS. RAVEN WAS beginning to worry me. I found her waiting outside the barracks at dawn, looking as though she had slept in her clothes, eyes hollow but gleaming with intensity. She clung to me, close on my heels through the day, talking constantly, and her conversation, usually focused at least nominally on the patients we were seeing and the inescapable logistics of daily life in a fort, began to deviate from the narrow confines of the present.

At first, it was no more than an occasional reminiscence of her early married life in Boston; her first husband had been a fisherman, and she had kept two goats whose milk she sold in the streets. I didn’t mind hearing about the goats, named Patsy and Petunia; I had known a few memorable goats myself, noticeably a billy goat named Hiram, whose broken leg I had set.

It wasn’t that I was uninterested in her randomly dropped remarks about her first husband; they were, if anything, too interesting. The late Mr. Evans appeared to have been a violent drunkard on shore—which was far from unusual—with a penchant for cutting off the ears or noses of people who displeased him, which was a trifle more individualistic.

“He nailed the ears to the lintel of my goat shed,” she said, in the tone one might use to describe one’s breakfast. “Up high, so the goats couldn’t get at them. They shrivel up in the sun, you know, like dried mushrooms.”

“Ah,” I said. I thought of remarking that smoking a severed ear prevented that little problem, but thought better of it. I didn’t know whether Ian was still carrying a lawyer’s ear in his sporran, but I was reasonably sure he wouldn’t welcome Mrs. Raven’s eager interest in it, if so. Both he and Jamie made off when they saw her coming, as though she had the plague.

“They say the Indians cut pieces off their captives,” she said, her voice going low, as one imparting a secret. “The fingers first, one joint at a time.”

“How very revolting,” I said. “Do please go to the dispensary and get me a bag of fresh lint, would you?”

She went off obediently—she always did—but I thought I heard her talking to herself under her breath as she did so. As the days crept on and tension mounted in the fort, I became convinced of it.

Her conversational swings were getting wider—and wilder. Now she ranged from the distant past of her idealized childhood in Maryland to an equally distant future—a rather grisly one, in which we had all been either killed by the British army or captured by Indians, with consequences ranging from rape to dismemberment—these procedures often accomplished simultaneously, though I told her that most men had neither the necessary concentration nor yet the coordination for it. She was still capable of focusing on something directly in front of her, but not for long.

“Could you speak to her husband, do you think?” I asked Jamie, who had just come in at sunset to tell me that he’d seen her trudging in circles round and round the big cistern near the parade ground, counting under her breath.

“D’ye think he hasn’t noticed that his wife’s going mad?” he replied. “If he hasn’t, I think he’ll no appreciate being told. And if he has,” he added logically, “what d’ye expect him to do about it?”

There was in fact not much anyone could do about it, bar keep an eye on her and try to soothe her more vivid fancies—or at least keep her from talking about them to the more impressionable patients.

As the days went on, though, Mrs. Raven’s eccentricities seemed not much more pronounced than the anxieties of most of the fort’s inhabitants, particularly the women, who could do nothing but tend their children, wash the laundry—under heavy guard on the lakeshore, or in small mobs round the steaming cauldrons—and wait.

The woods were not safe; a few days before, two picket guards had been found no more than a mile from the fort, murdered and scalped. This grisly discovery had had the worst effect on Mrs. Raven, but I couldn’t say that it did much for my own fortitude. I couldn’t look out from the batteries with my earlier sense of pleasure in the endless miles of thick green; the very vigor of the forest itself seemed a threat now. I still wanted clean linen, but my skin tingled and crept whenever I left the fort.

“Thirteen days,” I said, running a thumb down the doorpost of our sanctum. Jamie had, with no comment, cut a notch for each day of the enlistment period, slashing through each notch when he came to bed at night. “Did you notch the posts when you were in prison?”

“Not in Fort William or the Bastille,” he said, considering. “Ardsmuir… aye, we did then. There wasna any sentence to keep track of, but… ye lose so much, so fast. It seemed important to keep a hold on something, even if it was only the day of the week.”

He came to stand beside me, looking at the doorpost and its long line of neat notches.

“I think I might have been tempted to run,” he said, very quietly. “If it weren’t for Ian being gone.”

It wasn’t anything I hadn’t thought—or been aware of him thinking. It was becoming more obvious by the second that the fort couldn’t stand attack by the size of the force that was—indubitably—on its way. Scouts were coming in more frequently with reports on Burgoyne’s army, and while they were whisked instantly into the commandant’s office and just as hastily trundled out of the fort again, everyone knew within an hour what news they had brought—precious little so far, but that little, alarming. And yet Arthur St. Clair could not bring himself to order the evacuation of the fort.

Loading...