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Excerpt 6 – An Echo in the Bone – “The Deserter Game” (Jamie and Claire)

Copyright 2009 Diana Gabaldon

I was more than pleased to find the Hunters when we reached the next village; they had been in one of the barges that had been captured early, but had succeeded in escaping, by the simple expedient of walking into the woods after dark.  As the soldiers who had captured them had not bothered to count their captives, no one noticed they had gone.

Overall, things were looking up somewhat.  Food was becoming more abundant, and we were among regular Continentals.   We were still only a few miles in front of Burgoyne’s army, though, and the strain of the long retreat was telling.   Desertion was frequent—though no one knew quite how frequent.   Organization, discipline, and military structure were being restored as we came under the sway of the Continental army, but there were still men who could melt away unobtrusively.

It was Jamie who thought of the deserter game.  Deserters would be welcomed into the British camps, fed, given clothes, and interrogated for information.

“So we’ll give it to them, aye?” he said.  “And it’s only fair we take the same in return, is it not?”

Smiles began to grow on the faces of the officers to whom he was propounding this idea.   And within a few days, carefully chosen “deserters” were making their way surreptitiously to the enemy camps, and being taken before British officers, where they poured out the stories with which they’d been carefully prepared.   And after a good supper, they would take the first opportunity to re-desert back to the American side—bringing with them useful information about the British forces pursuing us.

Ian dropped into Indian camps now and then if it seemed safe, but didn’t play this particular game; he was memorable.  I thought Jamie would have liked to masquerade as a deserter—it would appeal to his sense of drama, as well as his sense of adventure, which was acute.  His size and striking appearance put this notion out of consideration, though; the deserters must all be ordinary-looking men who were unlikely to be recognized later.

“Because sooner or later, the British are going to realize what’s afoot.   They’re not fools.  And they willna take it kindly when they do realize.”

We had found shelter for the night in another barn—this one unburnt, and still equipped with a few piles of musty hay, though the stock had long since vanished.  We were alone, but probably wouldn’t be for long.  The interlude in the commandant’s garden seemed as though it had taken place in someone else’s life, but I laid my head on Jamie’s shoulder, relaxing against his solid warmth.

“Do ye think maybe—”

Jamie stopped abruptly, his hand tightening on my leg.  An instant later, I heard the stealthy rustling that had alerted him, and my mouth went dry.  It might be anything from a prowling wolf to an Indian ambush–but whatever it was, was sizable, and I fumbled–as silently as possible–for the pocket in which I had stowed the knife he’d given me.

Not a wolf; something passed the open door, a shadow the height of a man, and vanished.  Jamie squeezed my thigh, and then was gone, moving crouched through the empty barn without a sound.  For an instant, I couldn’t see him in the dark, but my eyes were well adapted, and I found him seconds later, a long dark shadow pressed against the wall, just inside the door.

The shadow outside had come back; I saw the brief silhouette of a head against the paler black of the night outside.  I got my feet under me, skin prickling with fear.  The door was the only egress; perhaps I should throw myself on the floor and roll up against the base of a wall.  I might escape detection–or, with luck, be able to grab the ankles of an intruder, or stab him through the foot.

I was just about to implement this strategy when a tremulous whisper came out of the dark.

“Friend–Friend James?” it said, and I let out the breath I had been holding in a gasp.

“Is that you, Denzell?” I said, trying to sound normal.

“Claire!” He burst through the door in relief, promptly tripped over something and fell headlong with a crash.

“Welcome back, Friend Hunter,” Jamie said, the nervous urge to laugh evident in his voice.  “Are ye hurt?”  The long shadow detached itself from the wall and bent to help our visitor up.

“No.  No, I don’t think so.  Though in fact I scarcely know…James, I did it!”

There was a momentary silence.

“How close, a charaid?” Jamie asked quietly.  “And do they move?”

“No, thank the Lord.”  Denzell sat down abruptly beside me, and I could feel his trembling.   “They’re waiting for their wagons to come up.  They daren’t outrun their supply line too far, and they’re having terrible trouble–we’ve made such a mess of the roads–” The pride in his voice was palpable, “–and the rain’s helped a great deal, too.”

“D’ye ken how long it might be?”

I saw Denzell nod, eager.

“One of the sergeants said it might be two, even three days.  He was telling some of the soldiers to be mindful of their flour and beer, as they wouldn’t get any more until the wagons came.”

Jamie exhaled, and I felt some of the tension leave him.  Mine did, too, and I felt a passionate wave of thankfulness.  There would be time to sleep.  I had just begun to relax a little; now the tension flowed out of me like water, to such an extent that I barely noticed what else Denzell had to confide.  I heard Jamie’s voice, murmuring congratulations; he clapped Denzell on the shoulder, and slid out of the barn, no doubt to go pass on the information.

Denzell sat still, breathing audibly.  I gathered what was left of my concentration and made an effort to be amiable.

“Did they feed you, Denzell?”

“Oh.”  Denzell’s voice changed, and he began to fumble in his pocket.  “Here.  I brought this away for thee.”  He pushed something into my hands; a small squashed loaf, rather burnt about the edges–I could tell from the hard crust and the smell of ashes.  My mouth began to water uncontrollably.

“Oh, no,” I managed to say, trying to give it back.  “You should–”

“They fed me,” he assured me.  “Stew, of a sort.  I ate all I could.  And I’ve another loaf in my pocket for my sister.  They gave me the food,” he assured me earnestly.  “I didn’t steal it.”

“Thank you,” I managed to say, and with the greatest self-control, tore the loaf in half and tucked one half in my pocket for Jamie.  Then I crammed the remainder in my mouth and ripped at it like a wolf wrenching bloody mouthfuls from a carcass.

Denny’s stomach echoed mine, rumbling with a series of great borborygmi.

“I thought you said you ate!” I said, accusing.

“I did.  But the stew seems not inclined to lie quiet,” he said, with a small, pained laugh.  He bent forward, arms folded over his stomach.  “I–um, don’t s’pose that thee might have a bit of barley-water or peppermint to hand, Friend Claire?”

“I do,” I said, unspeakably relieved that I still had the remnants in my sack.  I hadn’t much left, but I did have peppermint.  There was no hot water; I gave him a handful to chew, washed down with water from a canteen.  He drank, thirstily, burped, and then stopped, breathing in a way that told me just what was happening.  I guided him hastily to the side and held his head while he vomited, losing peppermint and stew together.

“Food poisoning?”  I asked, trying to feel his forehead, but he slid away from me, collapsing onto a heap of straw, his head on his knees.

“He said he’d hang me,” he whispered suddenly.

“Who?”

“The English officer.  A captain Bradbury, I think his name was.  Said he thought I was a-playing at spies and soldiers, and if I didn’t confess at once, he’d hang me.”

“But he didn’t,” I said softly, and put a hand on his arm.

He was trembling all over, and I saw a drop of sweat hanging from the tip of his chin, translucent in the dimness.

“I told him–told him he could, I s’posed.  If he pleased.  And I truly thought he would.  But he didn’t.”  His breath came thick, and I realized that he was crying, silently.

I put my arms around him, held him, making hushing noises, and after a little, he stopped.   He was quiet for a few minutes.

“I thought—I would be prepared to die,” he said softly.  “That I would go happy to the Lord, whenever he chose to call me.  I am ashamed to find it untrue.  I was so much afraid.”

I took a long, deep breath, and sat back beside him.

“I always wondered about martyrs,” I said.  “No one ever said they weren’t afraid.   It’s only that they were willing to go and do whatever they did in spite of it.   You went”

“I did not set up to be a martyr,” he said after a moment.  He sounded so meek, I nearly laughed.

“I doubt very much that many people do,” I said.  “And I think a person who did would be very obnoxious indeed.  It’s late, Denzell, and your sister will be worried.  And hungry.”

[end section]

It was an hour or more before Jamie came back.  I was lying in the hay, my shawl pulled over me, but wasn’t asleep.  He crawled in beside me and lay down, sighing, putting an arm over me.

“Why him?” I asked after a moment, trying to keep my voice calm.  It didn’t work; Jamie was acutely sensitive to tones of voice–anyone’s, but particularly mine.  I saw his head turn sharply toward me, but he paused a moment in turn before answering.

“He wished to go,” he said, doing much better with the approximation of calmness than I had.  “And I thought he’d do well with it.”

“Do well?  He’s no actor!  You know he can’t lie; he must have been stammering and tripping over his tongue!  I’m astonished that they believed him–if they did,” I added.

“Oh, they did, aye.  D’ye think a real deserter wouldna be terrified, Sassenach?” he said, sounding faintly amused.  “I meant him to go in sweating and stammering.  Had I tried to give him lines to speak, they’d ha’ shot him on the spot.”

The thought of it made the bolus of bread rise in my throat.  I forced it back down.

“Yes,” I said, and took a few breaths, feeling cold sweat prickle over my own face, seeing little Denny Hunter, sweating and stammering before the cold eyes of a British officer.

“Yes,” I said again.  “But…couldn’t someone else have done it?  It’s not just that Denny Hunter is a friend–he’s a doctor.  He’s needed.”

Jamie’s head turned toward me again.  The sky outside was beginning to lighten; I could see the outline of his face.

“Did ye not hear me say he wished to do it, Sassenach?” he asked.  “I didna ask him.  In fact, I tried to dissuade him–for the very reason ye said.  But he wouldna hear it, and only asked me to look after his sister, should he not come back.”

Rachel.  My stomach clenched afresh at mention of her.

“What can he have been thinking?”

Jamie sighed deeply and turned onto his back.

“He’s a Quaker, Sassenach.  But he’s a man.  If he was the sort of man who’d not fight for what he believes, he’d ha’ stayed in his wee village and poulticed horses and looked after his sister.  But he’s not.”  He shook his head, and looked at me.

“Would ye have had me stay at home, Sassenach?  Turn back from the fight?”

“I would,” I said, agitation fading into crossness.  “In a heartbeat.  I just know you aren’t bloody going to, so what’s the point?”

That made him laugh.

“So ye do understand,” he said, and took my hand.  “It’s the same for Denzell Hunter, aye?  If he’s bound to risk his life, then it’s my job to see he gets the most return from his gambling.”

“Bearing in mind that the return of most gambling is a big, fat zero,” I remarked, trying to repossess the hand.  “Hasn’t anyone ever told you that the house always wins?” He wasn’t letting go, but had begun to run the ball of his thumb gently back and forth over the tips of my fingers.

“Aye, well.  Ye reckon the odds, and cut the cards, Sassenach.  And it’s not all luck, ken?”  The light had grown, in that imperceptible predawn way.  Nothing so blatant as a sunbeam; just a gradual emergence of objects as the shadows round them went from black to gray to blue.

His thumb slipped inside my hand, and I curled my fingers involuntarily over it.

“Why isn’t there a word that means the opposite of ‘fade,’?” I asked, watching the lines of his face emerge from night’s shadow.  I traced the shape of one rough brow with my thumb, and felt the springy mat of his short beard against the palm of my hand, changing as I watched it from amorphous smudge to a distinction of tiny curls and wiry springs, a glowing mass of auburn, gold and silver, vigorous against his weathered skin.

“I dinna suppose ye need one,” he said.  “If ye mean the light.”  He looked at me, and smiled as I saw his eyes trace the outlines of my face. “If the light is fading, the night’s coming on–and when the light grows again, it’s the night that’s fading, aye?

It was, too.  We should sleep, but the army would be astir around us shortly.

“Why is it that women don’t make war, I wonder?”

“Ye’re no made for it, Sassenach.”  His hand cupped my cheek, hard and rough.  “And it wouldna be right.   Women take so much more with ye, when ye go.”

“What do you mean by that?”

He made the small shrugging movement that meant he was looking for a word or a notion, an unconscious movement, as though his coat was too tight, though he wasn’t wearing one at the moment.

“When a man dies, it’s only him,” he said.  “And one is much like another.  Aye, a family needs a man, to feed them, protect them.  But any decent man can do it.   A woman…”  His lips moved against my fingertips, a faint smile.  “A woman takes life with her when she goes.   A woman is…infinite possibility.”

“Idiot,” I said, very softly.  “If you think one man is just like any other.”

We lay for a bit, watching the light grow.

“How many times have ye done it, Sassenach?” he asked suddenly.  “Sat betwixt the dark and the dawn, and held a man’s fear in the palms of your hands?”

“Too many,” I said, but it wasn’t the truth, and he knew it.  I heard his breath come, the faintest sound of humor, and he turned my hand palm-up, his big thumb tracing the hills and valleys, joints and calluses, lifeline and heartline, and the smooth fleshy swell of the mount of Venus, where the faint scar of the letter “J” was still barely visible.  I’d held him in my hand for the best part of my life.

“Part of the job,” I said, meaning no flippancy, and he did not take it that way.

“D’ye think I’m not afraid?” he asked quietly.  “When I do my job?”

“Oh, you’re afraid,” I said.  “But you do it anyway.  You’re a frigging gambler–and the biggest gamble of all is a life, isn’t it?  Maybe yours–maybe someone else’s.”

“Aye, well,” he said softly.  “Ye’d know about that, I suppose.”

“I’m the less bothered for myself,” he said thoughtfully.  “Looking at it all in all, I mean, I’ve done the odd useful thing here and there.  My children are grown; my grandchildren are thriving–that’s the most important thing, no?”

“It is,” I said.  The sun was up; I heard a rooster crow, somewhere in the distance.

“Well, so.  I canna say I’m so verra much afraid as I used to be.  I shouldna like dying, of course–but there’d maybe be less regret in it.  On the other hand–”  One side of his mouth turned up as he looked at me.  “While I’m maybe less afraid for myself, I’m that wee bit more reluctant to kill young men who’ve not yet lived their lives.”

“Going to assess the age of the people shooting at you, are you?” I asked, sitting up and beginning to brush hay out of my hair.

“Difficult,” he admitted.

“And I sincerely hope that you don’t propose to let some whippersnapper kill you, merely because they haven’t had such a full life as yours yet.”

He sat up, too, and faced me, serious, ends of hay bristling from hair and clothes.

“No,” he said.  “I’ll kill them.  I’ll just mind it more.”

[end section]