The Custom of the Army (Page 4)

The Custom of the Army (Lord John Grey #2.75)(4)
Author: Diana Gabaldon

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 traveling 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 if 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 color, 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 freshwater aboard, Tom had insisted upon washing Grey’s 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 smelled 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 color.” 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. Most clustered together around their own fire, but one or two squatted, bright-eyed and watchful, among the Louisbourg grenadiers who had crossed with Grey on the Harwood.

“Yes, and trustworthy for the most part,” Woodford said, answering Grey’s unasked question. He laughed, though not with any humor. “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, regathering the main body of his troops some miles upstream from the Citadel of Quebec. The so-far impregnable fortress, perched on sheer cliffs above the river, commanded 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 good night. The grenadiers had been busy; a new little city of canvas tents had sprung up at the edge of the existing camp, and the appetizing smells of fresh meat roasting and tea brewing were rising on the air.

Tom had doubtless managed to raise his own tent, somewhere in the mass. Grey 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 away, the outlines of trees and bushes still 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 center, 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.

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 bed sack 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.

“Fireships!” someone shouted. Grey shoved his feet into his shoes and joined the throng of men now rushing toward the water.

Out in the center 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 fireships, 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 fireships, they began to stir, realizing 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 neighbor, 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 fireships. The boats were in the water now, mere dots in the darkness. If they could fend off the fireships, 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. The French could then send down a barge loaded with explosives, or a boarding craft, hoping to elude detection while everyone was dazzled or occupied by the blazing fireships and the raid.