An Echo in the Bone

Author: P Hana

Page 99

   

“Halt!” he shouted, aware as he did so that the sound of his voice presented almost as good a target to an American rifleman as would the sight of his red coat. Some of the men did halt but were at once dislodged by more behind them, and within seconds the whole of the hillside was a mass of red. They could not stop longer; they would be trampled. And if the defenders had meant to fire, they could not ask for a better opportunity—and yet the fort stayed silent.

“On!” William roared, throwing up his arm, and the men burst from the trees in a splendid charge, bayonets held ready.

The gates hung ajar, and the men charged straight in, heedless of danger—but danger there was none. William came in with his men, to find the place deserted. Not only abandoned, but evidently abandoned in an amazing hurry.

The defenders’ personal belongings were strewn everywhere, as though dropped in flight: not only heavy things like cooking utensils, but clothes, shoes, books, blankets… even money, seemingly cast aside or dropped in panic. Much more to the point, so far as William was concerned, was the fact that the defenders had made no effort to blow up ammunition or powder that could not be carried away; there must be two hundredweight, stacked in kegs! Provisions, too, had been left behind, a welcome sight.

“Why did they not set fire to the place?” Lieutenant Hammond asked him, looking goggle-eyed round at the barracks, still fully furnished with beds, bedding, chamber pots—ready for the conquerors to move straight in to.

“God knows,” William replied briefly, then lunged forward as he saw a private soldier come out of one of the rooms, festooned in a lacy shawl and with his arms full of shoes. “You, there! We’ll have no looting, none! Do you hear me, sir?”

The private did and, dropping his armful of shoes, made off precipitately, lacy fringes flapping. A good many others were at it, too, though, and it was clear to William that he and Hammond would be unable to stop it. He shouted above the increasing din for an ensign and, seizing the man’s dispatch box, scribbled a hasty note.

“Take that to General Fraser,” he said thrusting it back at the ensign. “Fast as ever you can go!”

Dawn

July 7, 1777

“I WILL NOT HAVE these horrid irregularities!” General Fraser’s face was deeply creased, as much with rage as with fatigue. The small traveling clock in the general’s tent showed just before five o’clock in the morning, and William had the oddly dreamy feeling that his head was floating somewhere over his left shoulder. “Looting, theft, rampant undiscipline—I will not have it, I say. Am I understood? All of you?”

The small, tired group of officers gave assent in a chorus of grunts. They had been up all night, chivvying their troops into some form of rough order, keeping back the rank and file from the worst excesses of looting, hurriedly surveying the abandoned outposts at the Old French Lines, and tallying the unexpected bounty of provisions and ammunition left for them by the fort’s defenders—four of whom had been found when the fort was stormed, dead drunk by the side of a primed cannon, trained on the bridge below.

“Those men, the ones who were taken. Has anyone been able to talk with them as yet?”

“No, sir,” Captain Hayes said, stifling a yawn. “Still dead to the world—very nearly dead for good, the surgeon said, though he thinks they’ll survive.”

“Shit themselves with fear,” Hammond said softly to William. “Waiting all that time for us to come.”

“More likely boredom,” William murmured back without moving his mouth. Even so, he caught the brigadier’s bloodshot eye and straightened up unconsciously.

“Well, it’s not as though we need them to tell us much.” General Fraser waved a hand to dispel a cloud of smoke that had drifted in, and coughed. William inhaled gently. There was a succulent scent embodied in that smoke, and his stomach coiled in anticipation. Ham? Sausage?

“I’ve sent word back to General Burgoyne that Ticonderoga is ours—again,” the brigadier added, breaking into a grin at the hoarse cheer from the officers. “And to Colonel St. Leger. We shall leave a small garrison to take stock and tidy things up here, but the rest of us … Well, there are rebels to be caught, gentlemen. I cannot offer you much respite, but certainly there is time for a hearty breakfast. Bon appetit!”

RETURN OF THE NATIVE

Night, July 7

IAN MURRAY PASSED INTO the fort without difficulty. There were rangers and Indians aplenty, mostly lounging against the buildings, many of them drunk, others poking through the deserted barracks, occasionally chased away by harassed-looking soldiers set to guard the fort’s unexpected bounty.

There was no sign of slaughter, and he breathed easier. That had been his first fear, but while there was mess—and to spare—there was no blood and no smell of powder smoke. No shot had been fired here in the last day or so.

He had a thought and went toward the hospital barracks, largely ignored, as it held nothing anyone would want. The smells of urine, shit, and old blood had decreased; most of the patients must have gone with the retreating troops. There were a few people there, one in a green coat who he thought must be a surgeon, some plainly orderlies. As he watched, a pair of stretcher-bearers came out through the door, boots scraping as they negotiated the shallow stone steps. He leaned back into the concealment of the doorway, for following the stretcher was the tall form of Guinea Dick, his face split in a cannibal’s grin.

Ian smiled himself, seeing it; Captain Stebbings still lived, then—and Guinea Dick was a free man. And here, Jesus, Mary, and Bride be thanked, came Mr. Ormiston behind him, stumping slowly on a pair of crutches, tenderly supported on either side by a pair of orderlies, the puny wee creatures dwarfed by the seaman’s bulk. He could tell Auntie Claire, then—she’d be pleased to hear they were all right.

If he found Auntie Claire again—but he wasn’t much worried, really. Uncle Jamie would see her safe, come hell, wildfire, or the entire British army. When or where he’d see them again was another matter, but he and Rollo moved much faster than any army could; he’d catch them up soon enough.

He waited, curious to see whether there was anyone else left in the hospital, but either there was not or they were to be left there for the nonce. Had the Hunters gone with St. Clair’s troops? In a way, he hoped they had—even knowing that they would likely fare better with the British than on the run down the Hudson Valley with the refugees from Ticonderoga. As Quakers, he thought they would do well enough; the British probably woudn’t molest them. But he thought he would like to see Rachel Hunter again sometime, and his chance of that was much better if she and her brother had gone with the rebels.

A little more poking about convinced him of two things: that the Hunters had indeed gone, and that the leaving of Ticonderoga had been accomplished in the midst of panic and disorder. Someone had set fire to the bridge below, but it had only partially burned, perhaps put out by a rainstorm. There was a great deal of debris on the lakeshore, suggesting a massive embarkation—automatically he glanced toward the lake, where he could plainly see two large ships, both flying the Union flag. From his current perch on the battery, he could see redcoats swarming over both Mount Defiance and Mount Independence, and knew a small, surprising flare of resentment against them.

“Well, you’ll not keep it long,” he said under his breath. He spoke in Gaelic, and a good thing, too, for a passing soldier glanced casually at him, as though feeling the stress of his regard. He looked away himself, turning his back on the fort.

There was nothing to do here, no one to wait for. He’d eat and pick up some provisions, then go fetch Rollo and be off. He could—

A shattering whoom! close at hand made him jerk round. To his right, one of the cannon was trained downward toward the bridge, and just behind it, openmouthed with shock, was a Huron man, swaying with drink.

There was a lot of shouting from below; the troops thought they were being fired on from the fort, though the shot had gone high, splashing harmlessly into the lake.

The Huron giggled.

“What did you do?” Ian asked, in an Algonkian tongue he thought the man would most likely know. Whether he understood or not, the man simply laughed harder, tears beginning to run down his face. He gestured to a smoking tub nearby; good Christ, the defenders had gone so fast, they had left a tub of slow match burning.

“Boom,” said the Huron, and gestured at a length of slow match, pulled from the tub and left draped on the stones like a glowing snake. “Boom,” he said again, nodding at the cannon, and laughed until he had to sit down.

Soldiers were running up to the battery, and the shouting from outside was equaled by that inside the fort. It was probably a good time to go.

RETREAT

… we are pursuing the rebels, a great number of whom have taken to the lake in boats. The two sloops on the lake are following, but I am sending four companies down to the portage point, where I think the chance of capture is good.

—Brigadier General Simon Fraser, to Major General J. Burgoyne

July 8, 1777

WILLIAM WISHED HE hadn’t accepted the brigadier’s invitation to breakfast. If he had contented himself with the lean rations that were a lieutenant’s lot, he would have been hungry, but happy. As it was, he was on the spot—blissfully filled to the eyes with fried sausage, buttered toast, and grits with honey, for which the brigadier had developed a fondness—when the message had come from General Burgoyne. He didn’t even know what it had said; the brigadier had read it while sipping coffee, frowning slightly, then sighed and called for ink and quill.

“Want a ride this morning, William?” he’d asked, smiling across the table.

Which is how he’d come to be at General Burgoyne’s field headquarters when the Indians had come in. Wyandot, one of the soldiers said; he wasn’t familiar with them, though he had heard that they had a chief called Leatherlips, and he did wonder how that had come about. Perhaps the man was an indefatigable talker?

There were five of them, lean, wolfish-looking rascals. He couldn’t have said what they wore or how they were armed; all his attention was focused on the pole that one of them carried, this decorated with scalps. Fresh scalps. White scalps. A musky smell of blood hung in the air, unpleasantly ripe, and flies moved with the Indians, buzzing loudly. The remains of William’s lavish breakfast coagulated in a hard ball just under his ribs.

The Indians were looking for the paymaster; one of them was asking, in a surprisingly melodious English, where the paymaster was. So it was true, then. General Burgoyne had unleashed his Indians, sent them coursing through the woods like hunting dogs to fall upon the rebels and spread terror among them.

He did not want to look at the scalps but couldn’t help it; his eyes followed them as the pole bobbed through a growing crowd of curious soldiers—some mildly horrified, some cheering. Jesus. Was that a woman’s scalp? It had to be; a flowing mass of honey-colored hair, longer than any man would wear his hair, and shining as though its owner brushed it a hundred strokes every night, like his cousin Dottie said she did. It was not unlike Dottie’s hair, though a little darker—

He turned away abruptly, hoping that he wouldn’t be sick, but turned just as abruptly back when he heard the cry. He’d never heard a sound like that before—a shriek of such horror, such grief, that his heart froze in his chest.

“Jane! Jane!” A Welsh lieutenant he knew slightly, called David Jones, was forcing his way through the crowd, beating at the men with fists and elbows, lunging toward the surprised Indians, his face contorted with emotion.

“Oh, God,” breathed a soldier near him. “His fiancée’s called Jane. He can’t mean—”

Jones threw himself at the pole, snatching at the fall of honey-colored hair, shrieking “JANE!” at the top of his lungs. The Indians, looking disconcerted, jerked the pole away. Jones flung himself on one of them, knocking the surprised Indian to the ground and hammering him with the strength of in sanity.

Men were pushing forward, grabbing at Jones—but not doing so with any great heart. Appalled looks were being shot at the Indians, who clustered together, eyes narrowed and hands at their tomahawks. The whole sense of the gathering had changed in an instant from approval to outrage, and the Indians plainly sensed it.

An officer William didn’t know strode forward, daring the Indians with a hard eye, and tore the blond scalp from the pole. Then stood holding it, disconcerted, the mass of hair seeming alive in his hands, the long strands stirring, waving up around his fingers.

They had finally pulled Jones off the Indian; his friends were patting his shoulders, trying to urge him away, but he stood stock-still, tears rolling down his face and dripping from his chin. “Jane,” he mouthed silently. He held out his hands, cupped and begging, and the officer who held the scalp placed it gently into them.

WHILE STILL ALIVE

LIEUTENANT STACTOE WAS standing by one corpse, arrested. Very slowly, he squatted down, his eyes fixed on something, and as though by reflex covered his mouth with one hand.

I really didn’t want to look.

He’d heard my footsteps, though, and took his hand away from his mouth. I could see the sweat trickling down his neck, the band of his shirt pasted to his skin, dark with it.

“Do you suppose that was done while he was still alive?” he asked, in an ordinary tone of voice.

Reluctantly, I looked over his shoulder.

“Yes,” I said, my voice as unemotional as his. “It was.”

“Oh,” he said. He stood, contemplated the corpse for a moment, then walked away a few steps and threw up.

“Never mind,” I said gently, and took him by the sleeve. “He’s dead now. Come and help.”

Many of the boats had gone astray, been captured before they reached the end of the lake; many more had been taken by British troops waiting at the portage point. Our canoe and several more had escaped, and we had made our way through the woods for a day and a night and most of another day before meeting with the main body of troops fleeing overland from the fort. I was beginning to think that those who were captured were the lucky ones.

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