An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 97

   

“I said I was a virgin, not a monk. If I find I need help… I’ll ask.”

IAN MURRAY WOKE from a deep and dreamless sleep to the sound of a bugle. Rollo, lying close beside him, lurched upright with a startled, deep WOOF!, and glared round for the threat, hackles raised.

Ian scrambled up, as well, one hand on his knife, the other on the dog.

“Hush,” he said under his breath, and the dog relaxed fractionally, though he kept up a low, rolling growl, just below the range of human hearing—Ian felt it, a constant vibration in the huge body under his hand.

Now he was awake, he heard them easily. A subterranean stirring through the wood, as submerged—but quite as vibrant—as Rollo’s growl. A very large body of men, a camp, beginning to wake at no very great distance. How had he managed not to perceive them the night before? He sniffed, but the wind was wrong; he picked up no scent of smoke—though now he saw smoke, thin threads of it rising against the pale dawn sky. A lot of campfires. A very big camp.

He had been rolling up his blanket as he listened. There was nothing more to his own camp, and within seconds he had faded into the brush, blanket tied to his back and his rifle in hand, the dog huge and silent at his heel.

THE BRITISH ARE COMING

Three Mile Point, New York Colony

July 3, 1777

THE DARK PATCH of sweat between Brigadier Fraser’s broad shoulders had the shape of the Isle of Man on the map in the old schoolroom at home. Lieutenant Greenleaf’s coat was entirely soaked with sweat, the body almost black, and only the faded sleeves showing red.

William’s own coat was less faded—shamefully new and bright, in fact—but likewise clung to his back and shoulders, heavy with the humid exhalations of his body. His shirt was wringing; it had been stiff with salt when he put it on a few hours before, the constant sweating of the previous days’ exertion crystallized in the linen, but the stiffness had washed away as the sun rose, borne on a flood of fresh sweat.

Looking up at the hill the brigadier proposed to climb, he had had some hope of coolness at the summit, but the exertion of the climb had canceled out any benefit of altitude. They had left camp just after dawn, the air then so delicious in its freshness that he’d longed to run naked through the woods like an Indian, catch fish from the lake, and eat a dozen of them for his breakfast, fried in cornmeal, fresh and hot.

This was Three Mile Point, so called because it was three miles south of the fort at Ticonderoga. The brigadier, leading the advance force, had staged his troops here and proposed to climb to a height with Lieutenant Greenleaf, an engineer, to survey the terrain before moving further.

William had been assigned to the brigadier a week earlier, to his pleasure. The brigadier was a friendly, sociable commander, but not in the same way as General Burgoyne. Though William would not have cared had the man been a tartar—he would be in the forward lines; that was all that mattered.

He was carrying some of the engineer’s equipment, as well as a couple of canteens of water and the brigadier’s dispatch box. He helped to set up the surveying tripod and obligingly held measuring rods at intervals, but at length it was done, everything recorded, and the brigadier, having conferred with Greenleaf at some length, sent the engineer back to camp.

The immediate business concluded, the brigadier seemed disinclined to descend at once, instead walking slowly about, appearing to enjoy the slight breeze, and then settling on a rock, uncorking his canteen with a sigh of pleasure.

“Sit, William,” he said, motioning William to his own rock. They sat in silence for a bit, listening to the sounds of the forest.

“I know your father,” the brigadier said suddenly, then smiled, a charming smile. “Everyone tells you that, I suppose.”

“Well, yes, they do,” William admitted. “Or if not him, my uncle.”

General Fraser laughed. “A considerable burden of family history to be borne,” he commiserated. “But I’m sure you bear it nobly.”

William didn’t know what to say and made a politely indeterminate noise in response. The brigadier laughed again and passed him the canteen. The water was so warm that he barely felt it pass down his throat, but it smelled fresh and he could feel it slake his thirst.

“We were together at the Plains of Abraham. Your father and I, I mean. Did he ever tell you about that night?”

“Not a great deal,” William said, wondering if he was doomed to meet every soldier who had fought on that field with James Wolfe.

“We came down the river at night, you know. All of us petrified. Especially me.” The brigadier looked out over the lake, shaking his head a little at the memory. “Such a river, the St. Lawrence. General Burgoyne mentioned that you had been in Canada. Did you see it?”

“Not a great deal, sir. I traveled overland for the most part on the way to Quebec, and then came down the Richelieu. My father told me about the St. Lawrence, though,” he felt obliged to add. “He said it was a noble river.”

“Did he tell you that I nearly broke his hand? He was next to me in the boat, and as I leaned out to call to the French sentry, hoping that my voice would not break, he gripped my hand to steady me. I felt his bones grinding, but under the circumstances didn’t really notice until I let go and heard him gasp.”

William saw the brigadier’s eyes drift to his own hands and the small ripple across his wide brow, not quite puzzlement but the look of someone trying unconsciously to fit memory to present circumstance. His father had long, slender, elegant hands with fine bones. William’s fingers were long, but his hands were vulgarly large, broad of palm and brute-knuckled.

“He—Lord John—he is my stepfather,” he blurted, then blushed painfully, embarrassed both by the admission and by whatever freak of mind had made him say it.

“Oh? Oh, yes,” the brigadier said vaguely. “Yes, of course.”

Had the brigadier thought he spoke from pride, pointing out the ancientness of his own bloodline?

The only comfort was that his face—the brigadier’s face, too—was so red from exertion that the blush could not show. The brigadier, as though responding to the thought of heat, struggled out of his coat, then unbuttoned his waistcoat and flapped it, nodding to William that he might do likewise—which he did, sighing with relief.

The conversation turned casually to other campaigns: those the brigadier had fought in, those William had (mostly) heard of. He became gradually aware that the brigadier was gauging him, weighing his experience and his manner. He was uncomfortably aware that the former was inglorious; was General Fraser aware of what had happened during the Battle of Long Island? Word did travel fast in the service.

Eventually, there was a pause in the conversation and they sat companionably in their shirtsleeves for a bit, listening to the soughing of the trees overhead. William wished to say something in his own defense but could think of no way to approach the matter gracefully. But if he did not speak, explain what had happened… well, there was no good explanation. He’d been a booby, that was all.

“General Howe speaks well of your intelligence and boldness, William,” the brigadier said, as though continuing their earlier conversation, “though he said he thought you had not had opportunity as yet to show your talent for command.”

“Ah… no, sir,” William replied, sweating.

The brigadier smiled.

“Well, we must be sure to remedy that lack, must we not?” He stood up, groaning slightly as he stretched and shrugged his way back into his coat. “You’ll dine with me later. We shall discuss it with Sir Francis.”

CONFLAGRATION

Fort Ticonderoga

July 1, 1777

WHITCOMB HAD COME back. With several British scalps, according to popular rumor. Having met Benjamin Whitcomb and one or two of the other Long Hunters, I was prepared to believe this. They spoke civilly enough, and they were far from the only men at the fort who dressed in rough leather and ragged homespun or whose skin shrank tight to raw bones. But they were the only men with the eyes of animals.

The next day, Jamie was called to the commandant’s house and didn’t come back until after dark.

A man was singing by one of the courtyard fires near St. Clair’s quarters, and I was sitting on an empty salt-pork barrel listening, when I saw Jamie pass by on the far side of the fire, heading for our barracks. I rose quickly and caught him up.

“Come away,” he said softly, and led me toward the commandant’s garden. There was no echo of our last encounter in this garden, though I was terribly aware of his body, of the tension in it and the beating of his heart. Bad news, then.

“What’s happened?” I asked, my voice low.

“Whitcomb caught a British regular and brought him in. He wouldna say anything, of course—but St. Clair was canny enough to put Andy Tracy in a cell with the man, saying he was accused of being a spy—that Tracy was a spy, I mean.”

“That was bright,” I said with approval. Lieutenant Andrew Hodges Tracy was an Irishman, bluff and charming, a born liar—and if anyone could winkle information out of someone without the use of force, Tracy would have been my own first choice. “I take it he found out something?”

“He did. We also had in three British deserters—Germans. St. Clair wanted me to talk to them.”

Which he had. The information brought by the deserters might be suspect—save that it correlated with the information tricked from the captured British soldier. The solid information for which St. Clair had been waiting for the last three weeks.

General Carleton had remained in Canada with a small force; it was indeed General John Burgoyne, in charge of a large invasion army, who was heading toward the fort. He was reinforced by General von Riedesel, himself in command of seven Brunswick regiments, plus a light infantry battalion and four companies of dragoons. And his vanguard was less than four days’ march away.

“Not too good,” I observed, taking a deep breath.

“It is not,” he agreed. “Worse, Burgoyne has Simon Fraser as brigadier under him. He has the forward command.”

“A relative of yours?” That was a rhetorical question; no one with that name could possibly be anything else, and I saw the shadow of a smile cross Jamie’s face.

“He is,” he said dryly. “A second cousin, I think. And a verra bonny fighter.”

“Well, he would be, wouldn’t he? Is that the last of the bad news?”

He shook his head.

“Nay. The deserters said Burgoyne’s army is short of supplies. The dragoons are on foot, because they canna get fresh horses. Though I dinna ken whether they’ve eaten them or not.”

It was a hot, muggy night, but a shiver raised the hairs on my arms. I touched Jamie’s wrist and found the hairs there bristling, as well. He’ll dream of Culloden tonight, I thought abruptly. I dismissed that for the moment, though.

“I should think that would be good news. Why isn’t it?”

His wrist turned and his hand took mine, lacing our fingers tight together.

“Because they havena supplies enough to mount a siege. They’ll need to overrun us and take us by force. And they verra likely can.”

THREE DAYS LATER, the first British lookouts appeared on Mount Defiance.

THE NEXT DAY, anyone could see—and everyone did see—the beginnings of an artillery emplacement being built on Mount Defiance. Arthur St. Clair, bowing at last to the inevitable, gave word to begin the evacuation of Fort Ticonderoga.

Most of the garrison was to move to Mount Independence, taking with them all the most valuable supplies and ordnance. Some of the sheep and cattle must be slaughtered, the rest driven off into the woods. Some militia units were to leave through the woods and find the road to Hubbardton, where they would wait as reinforcements. Women, children, and invalids were to be dispatched down the lake by boat, with a light guard. It began in an orderly manner, with word sent out to bring everything that would float up to the lakeshore after dark, men collecting and checking their equipment, and orders sent out for the systematic destruction of everything that could not be carried away.

This was the usual procedure, to deny the enemy any use of supplies. In this instance, the matter was somewhat more pressing: the deserters had said that Burgoyne’s army was running short of supplies already; denying him the facilities of Ticonderoga might bring him to a halt—or at least slow him down perceptibly, as his men would be obliged to forage and live off the country while they waited for supplies from Canada to follow him.

All of this—the packing, the loading, the slaughtering and livestock-driving, the destruction—must be accomplished clandestinely, under the very noses of the British. For if they saw that a retreat was imminent, they would fall on us like wolves, destroying the garrison as they left the safety of the fort.

Tremendous thunderheads boiled up over the lake in the afternoons, towering black things that rose miles high and full of lightning. Sometimes they broke after nightfall, pounding the lake, the mounts, the picket lines, and the fort with water that fell as though dumped from a bottomless bucket. Sometimes they only drifted past, grumbling and ominous.

Tonight the clouds were low and fierce, veined with lightning and blanketing the sky. Heat lightning throbbed through their bodies and crackled between them in bursts of sudden, silent conversation. And now and then a sudden fork shot blue-white and vivid to the ground with a crack of thunder that made everyone jump.

There was very little to pack. Just as well, as there was very little time in which to pack it. I could hear the flurry all through the barracks as I worked: people calling out in search of lost objects, mothers bellowing for lost children, and the shuffle and thunder of feet, steady as echoing rain in the wooden stairwells.

Outside, I could hear the agitated baaing of a number of sheep, disturbed at being turned out of their pens, and a sudden racket of shouting and mooing, as a panicked cow made a break for it. Not surprising; there was a strong smell of fresh blood in the air, from the slaughtering.

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