A Trail of Fire (Page 13)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(13)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

Hal was listening with close attention, and asked several questions, which Grey answered automatically, his mind occupied with this latest surprising communiqué.

Charlie Carruthers. They’d been young officers together, though from different regiments. Fought beside one another in Scotland, gone round London together for a bit on their next leave. They’d had – well, you couldn’t call it an affair. Three or four brief encounters – sweating, breathless quarters of an hour in dark corners that could be conveniently forgotten in daylight, or shrugged off as the result of drunkennness, not spoken of by either party.

That had been in the Bad Time, as he thought of it; those years after Hector’s death, when he’d sought oblivion wherever he could find it – and found it often – before slowly recovering himself.

Likely he wouldn’t have recalled Carruthers at all, save for the one thing.

Carruthers had been born with an interesting deformity – he had a double hand. While Carruthers’s right hand was normal in appearance and worked quite as usual, there was another, dwarf hand that sprang from his wrist and nestled neatly against its larger partner. Dr Hunter would probably pay hundreds for that hand, Grey thought, with a mild lurch of the stomach.

The dwarf hand had only two short fingers and a stubby thumb, but Carruthers could open and close it, though not without also opening and closing the larger one. The shock when Carruthers had closed both of them simultaneously on Grey’s prick had been nearly as extraordinary as had the electric eel’s.

‘Nicholls hasn’t been buried yet, has he?’ he asked abruptly, the thought of the eel party and Dr Hunter causing him to interrupt some remark of Hal’s.

Hal looked surprised.

‘Surely not. Why?’ He narrowed his eyes at Grey. ‘You don’t mean to attend the funeral, surely?’

‘No, no,’ Grey said hastily. ‘I was only thinking of Dr Hunter. He, um, has a certain reputation . . . and Nicholls did go off with him. After the duel.’

‘A reputation as what, for God’s sake?’ Hal demanded impatiently.

‘As a body-snatcher,’ Grey blurted.

There was a sudden silence, awareness dawning in Hal’s face. He’d gone pale.

‘You don’t think— no! How could he?’

‘A . . . um . . . hundredweight or so of stones being substituted just prior to the coffin’s being nailed shut is the usual method – or so I’ve heard,’ Grey said, as well as he could with Dottie’s fist being poked up his nose.

Hal swallowed. Grey could see the hairs rise on his wrist.

‘I’ll ask Harry,’ Hal said, after a short silence. ‘The funeral can’t have been arranged yet, and if . . .’

Both brothers shuddered reflexively, imagining all too exactly the scene as an agitated family member insisted upon raising the coffin lid, to find . . .

‘Maybe better not,’ Grey said, swallowing. Dottie had left off trying to remove his nose, and was patting her tiny hand over his lips as he talked. The feel of it on his skin . . .

He peeled her gently off and gave her back to Hal.

‘I don’t know what use Charles Carruthers thinks I might be to him – but all right, I’ll go.’ He glanced at Lord Enderby’s note, Caroline’s crumpled missive. ‘After all, I suppose there are worse things than being scalped by Red Indians.’

Hal nodded, sober.

‘I’ve arranged your sailing. You leave tomorrow.’ He stood and lifted Dottie. ‘Here, sweetheart. Kiss your Uncle John goodbye.’

A month later, Grey found himself, Tom Byrd at his side, climbing off the Harwood and into one of the small boats that would land them and the battalion of Louisbourg grenadiers with whom they had been travelling on a large island near the mouth of the St Lawrence River.

He had never seen anything like it. The river itself was larger than any he had ever seen, nearly half a mile across, running wide and deep, a dark blue-black under the sun. Great cliffs and undulating hills rose on either side of the river, so thickly forested that the underlying stone was nearly invisible. It was hot, and the sky arched brilliant overhead, much brighter and much wider than any sky he had seen before. A loud hum echoed from the lush growth – insects, he supposed, birds, and the rush of the water, though it felt as though the wilderness were singing to itself, in a voice heard only in his blood. Beside him, Tom was fairly vibrating with excitement, his eyes out on stalks, not to miss anything.

‘Cor, is that a Red Indian?’ he whispered, leaning close to Grey in the boat.

‘I don’t suppose he can be anything else,’ Grey replied, as the gentleman loitering by the landing was nak*d save for a breechclout, a striped blanket slung over one shoulder, and a coating of what – from the shimmer of his limbs – appeared to be grease of some kind.

‘I thought they’d be redder,’ Tom said, echoing Grey’s own thought. The Indian’s skin was considerably darker than Grey’s own, to be sure, but a rather pleasant soft brown in colour, something like dried oak leaves. The Indian appeared to find them nearly as interesting as they had found him; he was eyeing Grey in particular with intent consideration.

‘It’s your hair, me lord,’ Tom hissed in Grey’s ear. ‘I told you you ought to have worn a wig.’

‘Nonsense, Tom.’ At the same time, Grey experienced an odd frisson up the back of the neck, constricting his scalp. Vain of his hair, which was blond and thick, he didn’t commonly wear a wig, choosing instead to bind and powder his own for formal occasions. The present occasion wasn’t formal in the least. With the advent of fresh water aboard, Tom had insisted upon washing his hair that morning, and it was still spread loose upon his shoulders, though it had long since dried.

The boat crunched on the shingle, and the Indian flung aside his blanket and came to help the men run it up the shore. Grey found himself next to the man, close enough to smell him. He smelt quite unlike anyone Grey had ever encountered; gamy, certainly – he wondered, with a small thrill, whether the grease the man wore might be bear-fat – but with the tang of herbs and a sweat like fresh-sheared copper.

Straightening up from the gunwale, the Indian caught Grey’s eye and smiled.

‘You be careful, Englishman,’ he said, in a voice with a noticeable French accent, and reaching out, ran his fingers quite casually through Grey’s loose hair. ‘Your scalp would look good on a Huron‘s belt.’

This made the soldiers from the boat all laugh, and the Indian, still smiling, turned to them.

‘They are not so particular, the Abenaki who work for the French. A scalp is a scalp – and the French pay well for one, no matter what colour.’ He nodded genially to the grenadiers, who had stopped laughing. ‘You come with me.’

There was a small camp on the island already, a detachment of infantry under a Captain Woodford – whose name gave Grey a slight wariness, but who turned out to be no relation, thank God, to Lord Enderby’s family.

‘We’re fairly safe on this side of the island,’ he told Grey, offering him a flask of brandy outside his own tent after supper. ‘But the Indians raid the other side regularly – I lost four men last week, three killed and one carried off.’

‘You have your own scouts, though?’ Grey asked, slapping at the mosquitoes that had begun to swarm in the dusk. He had not seen the Indian who had brought them to the camp again, but there were several more in camp, mostly clustered together around their own fire, but one or two squatting among the Louisbourg grenadiers who had crossed with Grey on the Harwood, bright-eyed and watchful.

‘Yes, and trustworthy for the most part,’ Woodford said, answering Grey’s unasked question. He laughed, though not with any humour. ‘At least we hope so.’

Woodford gave him supper, and they had a hand of cards, Grey exchanging news of home for gossip of the current campaign.

General Wolfe had spent no little time at Montmorency, below the town of Quebec, but had nothing but disappointment from his attempts there, and so had abandoned that post, re-gathering the main body of his troops some miles upstream from the Citadel of Quebec. A so-far impregnable fortress, it perched on sheer cliffs above the river, commanding both the river and the plains to the west with her cannon, obliging English warships to steal past under cover of night – and not always successfully.

‘Wolfe’ll be champing at the bit, now his grenadiers are come,’ Woodford predicted. ‘He puts great store by those fellows, fought with ’em at Louisbourg. Here, colonel, you’re being eaten alive – try a bit of this on your hands and face.’ He dug about in his campaign chest and came up with a tin of strong-smelling grease, which he pushed across the table.

‘Bear-grease and mint,’ he explained. ‘The Indians use it – that, or cover themselves with mud.’

Grey helped himself liberally; the scent wasn’t quite the same as what he had smelled earlier on the scout, but it was very similar, and he felt an odd sense of disturbance in its application. Though it did discourage the biting insects.

He had made no secret of the reason for his presence, and now asked openly about Carruthers.

‘Where is he held, do you know?’

Woodford frowned and poured more brandy.

‘He’s not. He’s paroled; has a billet in the town at Gareon, where Wolfe’s headquarters are.’

‘Ah?’ Grey was mildly surprised – but then, Carruthers was not charged with mutiny, but rather with failure to suppress one – a rare charge. ‘Do you know the particulars of the case?’

Woodford opened his mouth, as though to speak, but then drew a deep breath, shook his head, and drank brandy. From which Grey deduced that probably everyone knew the particulars, but that there was something fishy about the affair. Well, time enough. He’d hear about the matter directly from Carruthers.

Conversation became general, and after a time, Grey said goodnight. The grenadiers had been busy; a new little city of canvas tents had sprung up at the edge of the existing camp, and the appetising smells of fresh meat roasting and brewing tea were rising on the air.

Tom had doubtless managed to raise his own tent, somewhere in the mass. He was in no hurry to find it, though; he was enjoying the novel sensations of firm footing and solitude, after weeks of crowded shipboard life. He cut outside the orderly rows of new tents, walking just beyond the glow of the firelight, feeling pleasantly invisible, though still close enough for safety – or at least he hoped so. The forest stood only a few yards beyond, the outlines of trees and bushes still just visible, the dark not quite complete.

A drifting spark of green drew his eye, and he felt delight well up in him. There was another . . . another . . . ten, a dozen, and the air was suddenly full of fireflies, soft green sparks that winked on and off, glowing like tiny, distant candles among the dark foliage. He’d seen fireflies once or twice before, in Germany, but never in such abundance. They were simple magic, pure as moonlight.

He could not have said how long he watched them, wandering slowly along the edge of the encampment, but at last he sighed and turned toward the centre, full-fed, pleasantly tired, and with no immediate responsibility to do anything. He had no troops under his command, no reports to write . . . nothing, really, to do until he reached Gareon and Charlie Carruthers.