A Trail of Fire (Page 14)

A Trail of Fire (Lord John Grey #3.5)(14)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

With a sigh of peace, he closed the flap of his tent and shucked his outer clothing.

He was roused abruptly from the edge of sleep by screams and shouts, and sat bolt upright. Tom, who had been asleep on his bedsack at Grey’s feet, sprang up like a frog onto hands and knees, scrabbling madly for pistol and shot in the chest.

Not waiting, Grey seized the dagger he had hung on the tent-peg before retiring, and flinging back the flap, peered out. Men were rushing to and fro, colliding with tents, shouting orders, yelling for help. There was a glow in the sky, a reddening of the low-hanging clouds.

‘Fire-ships!’ someone shouted. Grey shoved his feet into his shoes and joined the throng of men now rushing toward the water.

Out in the centre of the broad dark river stood the bulk of the Harwood, at anchor. And coming slowly down upon her were one, two, and then three blazing vessels – a raft, stacked with flammable waste, doused with oil and set afire. A small boat, its mast and sail flaming bright against the night. Something else – an Indian canoe, with a heap of burning grass and leaves? Too far to see, but it was coming closer.

He glanced at the ship and saw movement on deck – too far to make out individual men, but things were happening. The ship couldn’t raise anchor and sail away, not in time – but she was lowering her boats, sailors setting out to try to deflect the fire-ships, keep them away from the Harwood.

Absorbed in the sight, he had not noticed the shrieks and shouts still coming from the other side of the camp. But now, as the men on the shore fell silent, watching the fire-ships, they began to stir, realising belatedly that something else was afoot.

‘Indians,’ the man beside Grey said suddenly, as a particularly high, ululating screech split the air. ‘Indians!’

This cry became general, and everyone began to rush in the other direction.

‘Stop! Halt!’ Grey flung out an arm, catching a man across the throat and knocking him flat. He raised his voice in the vain hope of stopping the rush. ‘You! You and you – seize your neighbour, come with me!’ The man he had knocked down bounced up again, white-eyed in the starlight.

‘It may be a trap!’ Grey shouted. ‘Stay here! Stand to your arms!’

‘Stand! Stand!’ A short gentleman in his nightshirt took up the cry in a cast-iron bellow, adding to its effect by seizing a dead branch from the ground and laying about himself, turning back those trying to get past him to the encampment.

Another spark grew upstream, and another beyond it; more fire-ships. The boats were in the water now, mere dots in the darkness. If they could fend off the fire-ships, the Harwood might be saved from immediate destruction; Grey’s fear was that whatever was going on in the rear of the encampment was a ruse designed to pull men away from the shore, leaving the ship protected only by her marines, should the French then send down a barge loaded with explosives, or a boarding craft, hoping to elude detection whilst everyone was dazzled or occupied by the blazing fire-ships and the raid.

The first of the fire-ships had drifted harmlessly on to the far shore, and was burning itself out on the sand, brilliant and beautiful against the night. The short gentleman with the remarkable voice – clearly he was a sergeant, Grey thought – had succeeded in rallying a small group of soldiers, whom he now presented to Grey with a brisk salute.

‘Will they go and fetch their muskets, all orderly, sir?’

‘They will,’ Grey said. ‘And hurry. Go with them, sergeant – it is sergeant?’

‘Sergeant Aloysius Cutter, sir,’ the short gentleman replied with a nod, ‘and pleased to know an officer what has a brain in his head.’

‘Thank you, sergeant. And fetch back as many more men as fall conveniently to hand, if you please. With arms. A rifleman or two, if you can find them.’

Matters thus momentarily attended to, he turned his attention once more to the river, where two of the Harwood’s small boats were herding one of the fire-ships away from the transport, circling it and pushing water with their oars; he caught the splash of their efforts, and the shouts of the sailors.

‘Me lord?’

The voice at his elbow nearly made him swallow his tongue. He turned with an attempt at calmness, ready to reproach Tom for venturing out into the chaos, but before he could summon words, his young valet stooped at his feet, holding something.

‘I’ve brought your breeches, me lord,’ Tom said, voice trembling. ‘Thought you might need ’em, if there was fighting.’

‘Very thoughtful of you, Tom,’ he assured his valet, fighting an urge to laugh. He stepped into the breeches and pulled them up, tucking in his shirt. ‘What’s been happening in the camp, do you know?’

He could hear Tom swallow hard.

‘Indians, me lord,’ Tom said. ‘They came screaming through the tents, set one or two afire. They killed one man I saw, and . . . and scalped him.’ His voice was thick, as though he might be about to vomit. ‘It was nasty.’

‘I daresay.’ The night was warm, but Grey felt the hairs rise on arms and neck. The chilling screams had stopped, and while he could still hear considerable hubbub in the camp, it was of a different tone now; no random shouting, just the calls of officers, sergeants and corporals ordering the men, beginning the process of assembly, of counting noses and reckoning damage.

Tom, bless him, had brought Grey’s pistol, shot-bag, and powder, as well as his coat and stockings. Aware of the dark forest and the long, narrow trail between the shore and the camp, Grey didn’t send Tom back, but merely told him to keep out of the way as Sergeant Cutter – who with good military instinct, had also taken time to put his breeches on – came up with his armed recruits.

‘All present, sir,’ Cutter said, saluting. ‘ ’Oom ’ave I the honour of h’addressing, sir?’

‘I am Lieutenant-Colonel Grey. Set your men to watch the ship, please, sergeant, with particular attention to dark craft coming downstream, and then come back to report what you know of matters in camp.’

Cutter saluted and promptly vanished with a shout of ‘Come on, you shower o’ shit! Look lively, look lively!’

Tom gave a brief, strangled scream, and Grey whirled, drawing his dagger by reflex, to find a dark shape directly behind him.

‘Don’t kill me, Englishman,’ said the Indian who had led them to the camp earlier. He sounded mildly amused. ‘Le capitaine sent me to find you.’

‘Why?’ Grey asked shortly. His heart was still pounding from the shock. He disliked being taken at a disadvantage, and disliked even more the thought that the man could easily have killed him before Grey knew he was there.

‘The Abenaki set your tent on fire; he supposed they might have dragged you and your servant into the forest.’

Tom uttered an extremely coarse expletive, and made as though to dive directly into the trees, but Grey stopped him with a hand on his arm.

‘Stay, Tom. It doesn’t matter.’

‘The bloody hell you say,’ Tom replied heatedly, agitation depriving him of his normal manners. ‘I daresay I can find you more smallclothes, not as that will be easy, but what about your cousin’s painting of her and the little ’un she sent for Captain Stubbs? What about your good hat with the gold lace?!?’

Grey had a brief moment of alarm – his young cousin Olivia had sent a miniature of herself and her newborn son, charging him to deliver this to her husband, Captain Malcolm Stubbs, presently with Wolfe’s troops. He clapped a hand to his side, though, and felt with relief the oval shape of the miniature in its wrappings, safe in his pocket.

‘That’s all right, Tom; I’ve got it. As to the hat . . . we’ll worry about that later, I think. Here – what is your name, sir?’ he inquired of the Indian, unwilling to address him simply as ‘you’.

‘Manoke,’ said the Indian, still sounding amused.

‘Quite. Will you take my servant back to the camp?’ He saw the small, determined figure of Sergeant Cutter appear at the mouth of the trail, and firmly overriding Tom’s protests, shooed him off in care of the Indian.

In the event, all five fire-ships either drifted or were steered away from the Harwood. Something that might – or might not – have been a boarding craft did appear upstream, but was frightened off by Grey’s impromptu troops on the shore, firing volleys – though the range was woefully short; there was no possibility of hitting anything.

Still, the Harwood was secure, and the camp had settled into a state of uneasy watchfulness. Grey had seen Woodford briefly upon his return, near dawn, and learned that the raid had resulted in the deaths of two men and the capture of three more, dragged off into the forest. Three of the Indian raiders had been killed, another wounded – Woodford intended to interview this man before he died, but doubted that any useful information would result.

‘They never talk,’ he’d said, rubbing at his smoke-reddened eyes. His face was pouchy and grey with fatigue. ‘They just close their eyes and start singing their damned deathsongs. Not a blind bit of difference what you do to ’em – they just keep singing.’

Grey had heard it, or thought he had, as he crawled wearily into his borrowed shelter toward daybreak. A faint, high-pitched chant, that rose and fell like the rush of the wind in the trees overhead. It kept up for a bit, then stopped abruptly, only to resume again, faint and interrupted, as he teetered on the edge of sleep.

What was the man saying? he wondered. Did it matter that none of the men hearing him knew what he said? Perhaps the scout – Manoke, that was his name – was there; perhaps he would know.

Tom had found Grey a small tent at the end of a row. Probably he had ejected some subaltern, but Grey wasn’t inclined to object. It was barely big enough for the canvas bedsack that lay on the ground and a box that served as table, on which stood an empty candlestick, but it was shelter. It had begun to rain lightly as he walked up the trail to camp, and the rain was now pattering busily on the canvas overhead, raising a sweet, musty scent. If the deathsong continued, it was no longer audible over the sound of the rain.

Grey turned over, the grass stuffing of the bedsack rustling softly beneath him, and fell at once into sleep.

He woke abruptly, face to face with an Indian. His reflexive flurry of movement was met with a low chuckle and a slight withdrawal, rather than a knife across the throat, though, and he broke through the fog of sleep in time to avoid doing serious damage to the scout Manoke.

‘What?’ he muttered, and rubbed the heel of his hand across his eyes. ‘What is it?’ And why the devil are you lying on my bed?

In answer to this, the Indian put a hand behind his head, drew him close, and kissed him. The man’s tongue ran lightly across his lower lip, darted like a lizard’s into his mouth, and then was gone.

So was the Indian.

He rolled over onto his back, blinking. A dream. It was still raining, harder now. He breathed in deeply; he could smell bear-grease, of course, on his own skin, and mint – was there any hint of metal? The light was stronger – it must be day; he heard the drummer passing through the aisles of tents to rouse the men, the rattle of his sticks blending with the rattle of the rain, the shouts of corporals and sergeants – but still faint and grey. He could not have been asleep for more than half an hour, he thought.