Sometimes They’re Really Dead
Wilmington, colony of North Carolina
The pirate’s head had disappeared. William heard the
speculations from a group of idlers on the quay nearby, wondering
whether it would be seen again.
“Na, him be gone for good,” said a ragged man of mixed
blood, shaking his head. “De ally-gator don’ take him,
de water will.”
A backwoodsman shifted his tobacco and spat into the water in
“No, he’s good for another day—two, maybe. Them
gristly bits what holds the head on, they dry out in the sun.
Tighten up like iron. Seen it many a time with deer
William saw Mrs. MacKenzie glance quickly at the harbor, then away.
She looked pale, he thought, and maneuvered himself slightly so as
to block her view of the men and the brown flood of high tide,
though since it was high, the corpse tied to its stake was
naturally not visible. The stake was, though—a stark reminder
of the price of crime. The pirate had been staked to drown on the
mudflats several days before, the persistence of his decaying
corpse an ongoing topic of public conversation.
“Jem!” Mr. MacKenzie called sharply, and lunged past
William in pursuit of his son. The little boy, red-haired like his
mother, had wandered away to listen to the men’s talk, and
was now leaning perilously out over the water, clinging to a
bollard in an attempt to see the dead pirate.
Mr. MacKenzie snatched the boy by the collar, pulled him in, and
swept him up in his arms, though the boy struggled, craning back
toward the swampish harbor.
“I want to see the wallygator eat the pirate,
The idlers laughed, and even MacKenzie smiled a little, though the
smile disappeared when he glanced at his wife. He was at her side
in an instant, one hand beneath her elbow.
“I think we must be going,” MacKenzie said, shifting
his son’s weight in order better to support his wife, whose
distress was apparent. “Lieutenant Ransom—Lord
Ellesmere, I mean”—he corrected with an apologetic
smile at William—“will have other engagements,
This was true; William was engaged to meet his father for supper.
Still, his father had arranged to meet him at the tavern just
across the quay; there was no risk of missing him. William said as
much, and urged them to stay, for he was enjoying their
company—Mrs. MacKenzie’s, particularly—but she
smiled regretfully, though her color was better, and patted the
capped head of the baby in her arms.
“No, we do have to be going.” She glanced at her son,
still struggling to get down, and William saw her eyes flicker
toward the harbor and the stark pole that stood above the flood.
She resolutely looked away, fixing her eyes upon William’s
face instead. “The baby’s waking up; she’ll be
wanting food. It was so lovely to meet you, though. I wish we might
talk longer.” She said this with the greatest sincerity, and
touched his arm lightly, giving him a pleasant sensation in the pit
of the stomach.
The idlers were now placing wagers on the reappearance of the
drowned pirate, though by the looks of things, none of them had two
groats to rub together.
“Two to one he’s still there when the tide goes
“Five to one the body’s still there, but the
head’s gone. I don’t care what you say about the
gristly bits, Lem, that there head was just a-hangin’ by a
thread when this last tide come in. Next un’ll take it,
Hoping to drown this conversation out, William embarked on an
elaborate farewell, going so far as to kiss Mrs. MacKenzie’s
hand with his best court manner—and, seized by inspiration,
kissed the baby girl’s hand, too, making them all laugh. Mr.
MacKenzie gave him rather an odd look, but didn’t seem
offended, and shook his hand in a most republican
manner—playing out the joke by setting down his son and
making the little boy shake hands as well.
“Have you kilt anybody?” the boy inquired with
interest, looking at William’s dress sword.
“No, not yet,” William replied, smiling.
“My grandsire’s kilt two dozen men!”
“Jemmy!” Both parents spoke at once, and the little
boy’s shoulders went up around his ears.
“Well, he has!”
“I’m sure he is a bold and bloody man, your
grandsire,” William assured the little boy gravely.
“The King always has need of such men.”
“My grandda says the King can kiss his arse,” the boy
replied matter- of-factly.
Mr. MacKenzie clapped a hand over his outspoken offspring’s
“You know your grandda didn’t say that!” Mrs.
MacKenzie said. The little boy nodded agreeably, and his father
removed the muffling hand.
“No. Grannie did, though.”
“Well, that’s somewhat more likely,” Mr.
MacKenzie murmured, obviously trying not to laugh. “But we
still don’t say things like that to soldiers—they work
for the King.”
“Oh,” said Jemmy, clearly losing interest. “Is
the tide going out now?” he asked hopefully, craning his neck
toward the harbor once more.
“No,” Mr. MacKenzie said firmly. “Not for hours.
You’ll be in bed.”
Mrs. MacKenzie smiled at William in apology, her cheeks charmingly
flushed with embarrassment, and the family took its leave with some
haste, leaving William struggling between laughter and
He turned at his name, to find Harry Dobson and Colin Osborn, two
second lieutenants from his regiment, evidently escaped from duty
and eager to sample the fleshpots of Wilmington—such as they
“Who’s that?” Dobson looked after the departing
“A Mr. and Mrs. MacKenzie. Friends of my
“Oh, married, is she?” Dobson sucked in his cheeks,
still watching the woman. “Well, make it a bit harder, I
suppose, but what’s life without a challenge?”
“Challenge?” William gave his diminutive friend a
jaundiced look. “Her husband’s roughly three times your
size, if you hadn’t noticed.”
Osborn laughed, going red in the face.
“She’s twice his size! She’d crush you,
“And what makes you think I mean to be on the bottom?”
Dobson inquired with dignity. Osborn hooted.
“What’s this obsession of yours with giantesses?”
William demanded. He glanced at the little family, now nearly out
of sight at the end of the street. “That woman’s nearly
as tall as I am!”
“Oh, rub it in, why don’t you?” Osborn, who was
taller than Dobson’s five feet, but still a head shorter than
William, aimed a mock kick at his knee. William dodged it and
cuffed Osborn, who ducked and shoved him into Dobson.
“Gennelmen!” The menacing cockney tones of Sergeant
Cutter brought them up sharp. They might outrank the sergeant, but
not one of them would have the nerve to point this out. The entire
battalion went in fear of Sergeant Cutter, who was older than God
and approximately Dobson’s height, but who contained within
his diminutive physique the sheer fury of a full-sized volcano on
“Sergeant!” Lieutenant William Ransom, Earl of
Ellesmere and senior of the group, drew himself up straight, chin
pressed back into his stock. Osborn and Dobson hastily followed his
lead, quaking in their boots.
Cutter strode back and forth in front of them, in the manner of a
stalking leopard. You could just see the lashing tail and the
preliminary licking of chops, William thought. Waiting for the bite
was almost worse than getting it in the arse.
“And where’s your troops, then?” Cutter snarled.
Osborn and Dobson at once began sputtering explanations, but
Lieutenant Ransom—for once—walked on the side of the
“My men are guarding the Governor’s Palace, under
Lieutenant Colson. I’m given leave, Sergeant, to dine with my
father,” he said respectfully. “By Sir
Sir Peter Packer’s was a name to conjure with, and Cutter
abated in mid-spew. Rather to William’s surprise, though, it
wasn’t Sir Peter’s name that had produced this
“Your father?” Cutter said, squinting.
“That’s Lord John Grey, is it?”
“Er . . . yes,” William replied cautiously. “Do
you . . . know him?”
Before Cutter could reply, the door of a nearby tavern opened, and
William’s father came out. William smiled in delight at this
timely appearance, but quickly erased the smile as the
sergeant’s gimlet gaze fixed on him.
“Don’t you be a-grinnin’ at me like an
’airy hape,” the sergeant began, in dangerous tones,
but was interrupted by Lord John’s clapping him familiarly on
the shoulder—something none of the three young lieutenants
would have done if offered significant money.
“Cutter!” Lord John said, smiling warmly. “I
heard those dulcet tones and said to myself, why damn me if it
isn’t Sergeant Aloysius Cutter! There can’t be another
man alive who sounds so much like a bulldog that’s swallowed
a cat and lived to tell about it.”
“Aloysius?” Dobson mouthed at William, but William
merely grunted briefly in response, unable to shrug, as his father
had now turned his attention in his direction.
“William,” he said, with a cordial nod. “How very
punctual you are. My apologies for being so late; I was
detained.” Before William could say anything or introduce the
others, though, Lord John had embarked upon a lengthy reminiscence
with Sergeant Cutter, reliving high old times on the Plains of
Abraham with General Wolfe.
This allowed the three young officers to relax slightly, which, in
Dobson’s case, meant a return to his earlier train of
“You said that red-haired poppet’s a friend of your
father’s?” he whispered to William. “Find out
from him where she’s staying, eh?”
“Idiot,” hissed Osborn. “She isn’t even
pretty! She’s long-nosed as—as —as
“Didn’t see as high as her face,” Dobson said,
smirking. “Her tits were right at eye-level, though, and
those . . .”
“Shh!” Osborn stamped on Dobson’s foot to shut
him up as Lord John turned back to the young men.
“Will you introduce me to your friends, William?” Lord
John inquired politely. Rather red in the face—he had reason
to know that his father had acute hearing, despite his artillery
experiences—William did so, and Osborn and Dobson both bowed,
looking rather awed. They hadn’t realized who his father was,
and William was at once proud that they were impressed, and mildly
dismayed that they’d discovered Lord John’s
identity—it would be all over the battalion before supper
tomorrow. Not that Sir Peter didn’t know, of course,
He gathered his wits, realizing that his father was taking leave
for them both, and returned Sergeant Cutter’s salute, hastily
but in good form, before hurrying after his father, leaving Dobby
and Osborn to their fate.
“I saw you speaking to Mr. and Mrs. MacKenzie,” Lord
John said casually. “I trust they are well?” He glanced
down the quay, but the MacKenzies had long since disappeared from
“Seemed so,” Willie said. He was not going to ask where
they stayed, but the impression the young woman had made on him
lingered. He couldn’t say if she was pretty or not; her eyes
had struck him, though —a wonderful deep blue with long
auburn lashes, and fixed on him with a flattering intensity that
had warmed the cockles of his heart. Grotesquely tall, of course,
but—what was he thinking? The woman was married—with
children! And red-haired, to boot.
“You’ve—er—known them long?” he
asked, thinking of the startlingly perverse political sentiments
that evidently flourished in the family.
“Quite some time. She is the daughter of one of my oldest
friends, Mr. James Fraser. Do you recall him, by
William frowned, not placing the name—his father had
thousands of friends, how should he . . .
“Oh!” he said. “Not an English friend, you
don’t mean. Was it not a Mr. Fraser that we visited in the
mountains, that time when you fell sick of the—of the
measle?” The bottom of his stomach dropped a little,
remembering the sheer terror of that time. He had traveled through
the mountains in a daze of misery; his mother had died only a month
before. Then Lord John had caught the measle, and William had been
sure that his father was about to die likewise, leaving him
completely alone in the wilderness. There hadn’t been room
for anything in his mind but fear and grief, and he retained only a
jumble of confused impressions from the visit. He had some dim
recollection that Mr. Fraser had taken him fishing and been kind to
“Yes,” his father said, with a sidelong smile.
“I’m touched, Willie. I should have thought you might
recall that visit more because of your own misadventure than
“Mis—” Memory rushed over him, succeeded by a
flood of heat, hotter than the humid summer air. “Thanks very
much! I’d managed to expunge that from my memory, until you
His father was laughing, and making no attempt to hide it. In fact,
he was convulsed.
“I’m sorry, Willie,” he said, gasping and wiping
his eyes with a corner of his handkerchief. “I can’t
help it; it was the most—the most —oh, God, I’ll
never forget what you looked like when we pulled you out of that
“You know it was an accident,” William said stiffly.
His cheeks burned with remembered mortification. At least
Fraser’s daughter hadn’t been present to witness his
humiliation at the time.
“Yes, of course. But—” His father pressed the
handkerchief to his mouth, his shoulders shaking silently.
“Feel free to stop cackling at any point,” William said
coldly. “Where the devil are we going, anyway?”
They’d reached the end of the quay, and his father was
leading them—still snorting like a grampus— into one of
the quiet, tree-lined streets, away from the taverns and inns near
“We’re dining with a Captain Richardson,” his
father said, controlling himself with an obvious effort. He
coughed, blew his nose, and put away the handkerchief. “At
the house of a Mr. Bell.”
Mr. Bell’s house was whitewashed, neat, and prosperous,
without being ostentatious. Captain Richardson gave much the same
sort of impression: of middle age, well-groomed and well-tailored,
but without any notable style, and with a face you couldn’t
pick out of a crowd two minutes after seeing it.
The two Misses Bell made a much stronger impression, particularly
the younger, Miriam, who had honey-colored curls peeping out of her
cap, and big, round eyes that remained fixed on William throughout
dinner. She was seated too far away for him to be able to converse
with her directly, but he fancied that the language of the eyes was
sufficient to indicate to her that the fascination was mutual, and
if an opportunity for more personal communication should offer
later . . . ? A smile, and a demure lowering of honey-colored
lashes, followed by a quick glance toward a door that stood open to
the side porch, for air. He smiled back.
“Do you think so, William?” his father said, loudly
enough to indicate that it was the second time of asking.
“Oh, certainly. Um . . . think what?” he asked, since
it was after all Papa, and not his commander. His father gave him
the look that meant he would have rolled his eyes had they not been
in public, but replied patiently.
Excerpted from AN ECHO IN THE BONE © Copyright 2011 by
Diana Gabaldon. Reprinted with permission by Bantam. All rights