Snowflakes fluttered about the camp as though nature intended to soften the terrible screams and groans ripping through the surgeons’ tents. My best friend Bradley lay in one of them at the mercy of a weary doctor as I rested against the stability of an oak tree with my hands covering my ears. I closed my eyes, but all I could see was Bradley’s agonized face as he lay in the wake of a volley on the field less than an hour ago. I carried him back to camp myself, knowing the wagons full of broken men wouldn’t beat me there.
Gurgling followed an acute pain in my stomach. I fell onto all fours, retching as more soldiers streamed into the camp. A cruel breeze brought the overwhelming scent of death and infection to my nostrils.
I vomited again.
I just wanted to steal two horses, take Bradley, and go home.
Home. An ocean away.
Would both of us make it back there after this Sheol ended? It seemed as though my homeland existed in another world, back in a time where war existed only in stories. I discovered that “victory” came at the price of inflicting premature death and unspeakable pain.
I turned to the soft voice. It was Bryan, a fellow foot soldier. The look on his face told me everything. Bradley had been torn apart and left to die a wicked death on a filthy table as though life itself mocked his gentle spirit. He had not fired a single bullet at the enemy since they set foot in New England.
“Where is he?” I asked.
I shot up to my feet, feeling numb all over.
Bryan rested a hand on my shoulder. “I am sorry. We can’t go there. It is too … crowded.”
No hell could match what we were in at that moment.
“I’m very sorry, Jon.”
Bryan spun around and disappeared among the exhausted soldiers. Many of whom wandered aimlessly.
I ran, uncaring if anyone noticed my retreat. I stopped when I reached the edge of a gulley. Through the trees, I could see the patriots gathering their dead and wounded, men in blue who lay among the men in red on the now-quiet field. Those who no longer breathed were oblivious to the enemies that rested next to them. Was death the only escape from the war that had spread like a plague? In a soldier’s final moments, did he not question the idiocy of giving his life for a nation that could have stopped such battles in the first place?
All I saw in wake of the battle were wasted lives. Every man once possessed ambition and ideas, but war had no regard for human dreams. How I wanted to scream at those that started this war, who surely at that moment sat atop an upholstered chair with shined buttons and boots.
I looked away from the sea of fallen men. A thought crossed my mind that maybe I could escape and start over. As I cursed at myself for thinking as a fool, I turned and bumped into someone. A Colonial. My enemy. I jumped backward. With my heart slamming against my ribcage, I could not hear what he was saying as he fixed the barrel of his long rifle on me.
His icy blue eyes could have caused my blood to freeze had they held any measure of power. His face was caked in mud. Blood soaked his shoulder. He had likely lost a friend or two that day. Why was I sympathizing with a man who was about to blast a hole through my head?
Weapon-less, all I could do was watch him pull the trigger. Burning agony ripped through my shoulder. Blinded by pain and anger and fear, I threw myself into the American before he could reload. I wrestled him to the ground and squeezed my hands around his neck.
“Terrible aim,” I snarled.
His face twisted as he struggled both to breathe and to get out of my grasp. A man reduced to the state of a caged animal. Tears blurred my vision. I let him go and then reached over to take his weapon. He eyed me in resolute silence. I pointed in the direction of the field.
“Just get out of here,” I said.
He stumbled to his feet and sprinted away, probably confused as to why I would let him go free. Lucky for him, I was fed up with death. I wanted to think he would repeat the act of mercy on some other poor soul in the future, but it was unlikely.
I broke into a run in the opposite direction, the reality of my desertion and its consequences gnawing at the back of my mind. Worse still, I could come up against another soldier of the new world that might be a much better shot. Bradley flashed across my mind. Had it only been three years ago that we were school boys, playing pranks on the snooty girls in class and jumping in the pond when our chores were done?
My lungs burned as they worked to accommodate my rapid footsteps and violent sobbing.
I froze at the sound of a woman’s voice. Slowly, I turned. Her red hair was the first thing I noticed. It glistened in the sun, rivalling the shimmer of her new musket. Its barrel was pointed at me, but above it, her green eyes flashed like those of a frightened animal.
“Easy now,” I said. “I mean you no harm.”
“Famous last words, redcoat.”
She took a step closer. Those riding boots and tan trousers emphasized her long legs. I shook my head at myself. She could shoot me at any moment, yet there I was admiring her form as though it were the only thing of importance.
“You were crying,” she said.
Her eyes went to my bleeding shoulder and then to the dirt. “Are you a deserter?”
I swallowed and looked away. Running around the backwoods in my red uniform was suicide. Had she been a man, I would have been lying breathless on the ground.
As though to mock my survival, my wound’s pain intensified. I winced.
“You could say that,” I muttered.
She peered nervously from left to right before staring at me again. Despite the stern setting of her face, those eyes could not hide her terror.