An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 98

   

I had seen the garrison on parade, of course; I knew how many men there were. But to see three or four thousand people pushing and shoving, trying to accomplish unaccustomed tasks in a tearing hurry, was like watching a kicked-over anthill. I made my own way through the seething mass, clutching a flour sack with spare clothes, my few medical supplies, and a large chunk of ham I had acquired from a grateful patient, wrapped in my extra petticoat.

I would evacuate with the boat brigade, minding a group of invalids—but I didn’t mean to go without seeing Jamie.

My heart had been in my mouth for so long that I could barely speak. Not for the first time, I thought how convenient it was to have married a very tall man. It was always easy to pick Jamie out of a crowd, and I saw him within moments, standing on one of the demilune batteries. Some of his militiamen were with him, all looking downward. I assumed that the boat brigade must be forming below; that was heartening.

The prospect, once I reached the edge of the battery and could see, was considerably less heartening. The lakeshore below the fort looked like the return of a particularly disastrous fishing fleet. There were boats. All kinds of boats, from canoes and rowboats to dories and crude rafts. Some were dragged up onto the shore, others were evidently floating away, unmanned— I caught sight during a brief lightning flash of a few heads bobbing in the water as men and boys swam after them to fetch them back. There were few lights on the shore, for fear of giving away the plan of retreat, but here and there a torch burned, showing arguments and fistfights, and beyond the reach of torchlight, the ground seemed to heave and ripple in the dark, like a swarming carcass.

Jamie was shaking hands with Mr. Anderson, one of the Teal’s original hands, who had become his de facto corporal.

“Go with God,” he said. Mr. Anderson nodded and turned away, leading the small knot of militiamen. They passed me as I came up, and one or two nodded to me, their faces invisible in the shadow of their hats.

“Where are they going?” I asked Jamie.

“Toward Hubbardton,” he replied, his eyes still on the lakeshore below. “I told them it was their own choice, but I thought best they went sooner rather than later.” He lifted his chin toward the humped black shape of Mount Defiance, where the sparks of campfires glowed near the summit. “If they dinna ken what’s happening, it’s gross incompetence. Were I Simon Fraser, I should be on the march before first light.”

“You don’t mean to go with your men?” A spark of hope sprang up in my heart.

There was little light on the battery, only the reflected glow from the torches on the stairs and the bigger fires inside the fort. This was enough for me to see his face clearly, though, when he turned to look at me. It was somber, but there was an eagerness in the set of his mouth, and I recognized the look of a soldier ready to surge into action.

“No,” he said. “I mean to go with you.” He smiled suddenly, and I gripped his hand. “Ye dinna think I mean to leave ye to wander in the wilderness with a parcel o’ diseased half-wits? Even if it does mean getting into a boat,” he added with a touch of distaste.

I laughed despite myself.

“Not very kind,” I said. “But not inaccurate, either, if you mean Mrs. Raven. You haven’t seen her anywhere, have you?”

He shook his head. The wind had pulled half his hair loose from its thong, and he removed this now and placed it between his teeth, gathering up his hair in a heavy tail to rebind it.

Someone down the battery said something, sounding startled, and both Jamie and I jerked round to look. Mount Independence was on fire.

“FIRE! FIRE!”

The screams brought people—already flustered and upset—rushing out of the barracks like coveys of flushed quail. The fire was just beneath the summit of Mount Independence, where General Fermoy had established an outpost with his men. A tongue of flame soared upward, steady as a candle taking breath. Then a gust of wind flattened it, and the flame squatted for a moment, as though someone had turned down the gas on a stove, before bursting out again in a much wider conflagration that lit up the mount, showing the tiny black shapes of what looked like hundreds of people in the act of striking tents and loading baggage, all silhouetted against the fire.

“It’s Fermoy’s quarters on fire,” a soldier said beside me, disbelieving. “Isn’t it?”

“It is,” said Jamie on my other side, sounding grim. “And if we can see the retreat starting from here, Burgoyne’s lookouts must surely see it, too.”

And as simply as that, the rout began.

Had I ever doubted the existence of something like telepathy, this would have been enough to quell any reservations. The soldiers were already at breaking point from St. Clair’s delay and the constant drum of rumors beating on stretched nerves. As the fire on Mount Independence spread, the conviction that the redcoats and the Indians would be upon us at once spread from mind to mind without the necessity for speech. Panic was loose, spreading its broad black wings over the fort, and the confusion at the water’s edge was disintegrating into chaos before our eyes.

“Come, then,” Jamie said. And before I knew it, I was being hustled down the narrow steps of the battery. A few wooden huts had been set on fire—these on purpose, to deprive the invaders of useful matériel—and the light from the flames lit up a scene from hell. Women dragging half-dressed children, screaming and trailing bedclothes, men throwing furniture from windows. A thunder mug crashed on the stones, sending shards of sharp pottery slicing across the legs of the people nearby.

A voice came breathless behind me. “A golden guinea says the silly French bugger set the house on fire himself.”

“I’ll gie ye nay odds on that one,” Jamie replied briefly. “I only hope he went up with it.”

A tremendous flash of lightning lit up the fort like day and screams rose from every part of it, only to be drowned almost instantly by the explosion of thunder. Predictably, half the people thought the wrath of God was about to be visited upon us—this, in spite of the fact that we had been having thunderstorms of similar ferocity for days, I thought crossly—while those of secular mind were still more panicked because the militia units on the outer lines were being lit up as they withdrew, in full sight of the British on Mount Defiance. Either way, it didn’t help matters.

“I have to fetch my invalids!” I shouted into Jamie’s ear. “You go and get the things from the barracks.”

He shook his head. His flying loose hair was lit up by another lightning flash, and he looked like one of the principal demons himself.

“I’m no leaving you,” he said, taking a firm clasp of my arm. “I might never find ye again.”

“But—” My objection died as I looked. He was right. There were thousands of people running, pushing, or simply standing in place, too stunned to think what to do. If we were separated, he might not find me, and the thought of being alone in the woods below the fort—these infested with bloodthirsty Indians as well as redcoats—was not something I wanted to contemplate for more than ten seconds.

“Right,” I said. “Come on, then.”

The scene inside the hospital barracks was less frantic only because most of the patients were less capable of movement. They were, if anything, more agitated than the people outside, as they’d gleaned only the most fragmentary intelligence from people rushing in and out. Those with families were being dragged bodily from the building with barely enough time to seize their clothes; those without were in the spaces between cots, hopping on one foot to get into their breeches or staggering toward the door.

Captain Stebbings, of course, was not doing any of these things. He lay placidly on his cot, hands folded on his chest, observing the chaos with interest, a rush dip burning placidly on the wall above him.

“Mrs. Fraser!” He greeted me cheerfully. “I suppose I shall be a free man again shortly. Hope the army brings me some food; I think there’s not much chance of supper here tonight.”

“I suppose you will,” I said, unable not to smile back at him. “You’ll take care of the other British prisoners, will you? General St. Clair is leaving them behind.”

He looked mildly offended at this.

“They’re my men,” he said.

“So they are.” In fact, Guinea Dick, almost invisible against the stone wall in the dim light, was crouching beside the captain’s bed, a stout walking stick in his hand—in order to fend off would-be looters, I supposed. Mr. Ormiston was sitting up on his own cot, pale-faced but excited, picking at the binding on his stump.

“They’re really coming, are they, ma’am? The army?”

“Yes, they are. Now, you must take good care of your wound and keep it clean. It’s healing well, but you mustn’t put any strain at all on it for another month at least—and wait at least two months before you have a peg fitted. Don’t let the army surgeons bleed you—you need all your strength.”

He nodded, though I knew he’d be lining up for a fleam and a bleeding-bowl the moment a British surgeon showed up; he believed deeply in the virtues of being let blood and had been slightly mollified only by my having leeched his stump now and then.

I clasped his hand in farewell, and was turning to go when his own grip tightened.

“A moment, ma’am?” He let go my hand, fumbling at his neck, and withdrew something on a string. I could barely see it in the gloom, but he put it into my hand and I felt a metal disc, warm from his body.

“If happen you might see that boy Abram again, ma’am, I should take it kind if you’d give him that. That’s my lucky piece, what I’ve carried for thirty-two years; you tell him it will keep him safe in time o’ danger.”

Jamie was looming up in the dark beside me, radiating impatience and agitation. He had a small group of invalids in tow, all clutching random possessions. I could hear Mrs. Raven’s distinctive high-pitched voice in the distance, wailing. I thought she was calling my name. I ducked my head and put Mr. Ormiston’s lucky piece around my neck.

“I’ll tell him, Mr. Ormiston. Thank you.”

SOMEONE HAD SET fire to Jeduthan Baldwin’s elegant bridge. A pile of rubbish smoldered near one end, and I saw black devil shapes running to and fro along the span with chisels and pry bars, ripping up the planks and throwing them into the water.

Jamie shouldered a way through the mob, me behind him and our little band of women, children, and invalids scurrying at my heels like goslings, honking in agitation.

“Fraser! Colonel Fraser!” I turned at the shout, to see Jonah—Bill, I mean—Marsden running down the shore.

“I’ll come with you,” he said, breathless. “You’ll need someone can steer a boat.”

Jamie didn’t hesitate for more than a fraction of a second. He nodded, jerking his head toward the shore.

“Aye, run. I’ll bring them along as fast as I can.”

Mr. Marsden vanished into the dark.

“The rest of your men?” I said, coughing from the smoke.

He shrugged, a broad-shouldered silhouette against the black shimmer of the water.

“Gone.”

Hysterical screams came from the direction of the Old French Lines. These spread like wildfire through the woods and down the lakeshore, people shouting that the British were coming. Panic beating its wings. It was so strong a thing, that panic, that I felt a scream rise in my own throat. I throttled it and felt irrational anger in its place, displaced from myself to the fools behind me who were shrieking and would have scattered, had they been able to. But we were close upon the shore now, and people were pressing toward the boats in such numbers that they were capsizing some of the craft as they piled in, higgledy-piggledy.

I didn’t think the British were at hand—but I didn’t know. I knew that there had been more than one battle at Fort Ticonderoga… but when had they occurred? Was one of them going to be tonight? I didn’t know, and the sense of urgency propelled me to the shore, helping to support Mr. Wellman, who had contracted the mumps from his son, poor man, and was doing very badly in consequence.

Mr. Marsden, bless him, had commandeered a large canoe, which he had paddled a little way out from shore to prevent its being overrun. When he saw Jamie approaching, he came in, and we succeeded in getting a total of eighteen people—these including the Wellmans and Mrs. Raven, pale and staring as Ophelia—into it.

Jamie glanced quickly back at the fort. The main gates hung wide, and firelight shone out of them. Then he glanced up at the battery where he and I had stood a little while before.

“There are four men by the cannon trained on the bridge,” he said, his eyes still fixed on the red-bellied billows of smoke rising from the interior of the fort. “Volunteers. They’ll stay behind. The British—or some of them— will certainly come across the bridge. They can destroy almost everyone on the boom, and then flee—if they can.”

He turned away then, and his shoulders bunched and flexed as he dug the paddle hard.

MOUNT INDEPENDENCE

Mid-afternoon, July 6

BRIGADIER FRASER’S MEN advanced upon the picket fort at the top of the mount, the one the Americans ironically called “Independence.” William led one of the forward parties and had his men fix their bayonets as they drew close. There was a deep silence, broken only by the snap of branches and shuffle of boots in the thick leaf mold, the stray clack of a cartridge box against musket butt. Was it a waiting silence, though?

The Americans could not fail to know they were coming. Did the rebels lie in ambush, ready to fire upon them from the crude but very solid fortification he could see through the trees?

He motioned to his men to stop some two hundred yards short of the summit, hoping to pick up some indication of the defenders, if defenders there were. His own company halted obediently, but there were men behind, and they began to push into and through his own company without regard, eager to storm the fort.

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