“Take off that abominable coat and follow me. I will dress your wound and that is all. Understand, kid?” she snapped.
She was not more than four years my senior. Twenty-two at the most. I bit my tongue to avoid asking her why she was gallivanting through the woods so close to enemy lines with a gun that she could not even hold properly.
“Thank you,” I said instead.
I was careful to follow her at a safe distance. I held my breath, enjoying the soft sounds of wind, birds, and our lively footsteps. I felt as though I had suddenly stepped in Heaven, despite my injury’s throbbing. I was alive.
A small stone house peeked through the brush and the girl picked up her pace. I wondered if there were others in there. Perhaps her red-headed siblings or her angry father who would shoot me without blinking.
“Take off your boots, boy.”
I complied as she did the same.
She exhaled loudly. “You are very lucky that my husband is away fighting.”
My pulse raced. Husbands were far worse than fathers. She opened the door quickly. Her eyes never left me as I stepped in to the small, but comfortable home.
“Sit down so I can see the damage.”
Her back faced me as I removed my shirt. She took a couple of rags from the cupboard and then brought over a pail of water. She winced immediately at the sight of my blood-covered torso.
“It’s looks worse than it is,” I said. “I think the bullet went right through me.”
“I’m not very good with blood,” she sighed.
“You are being very brave.”
She soaked one of the rags with the water, avoiding my stare. I braced myself as she brought the drenched cloth to my wound. The moment my eyes closed, Bradley’s screaming face returned to my mind’s eye.
“I’m sorry, but this will only make you better,” she said softly.
I opened my eyes and saw the bottle of brandy in her hands. I yelled out as she poured the amber liquid over my wounds.
“You should have given me some of that to drink,” I said between clenched teeth.
She gave me the bottle with a shaky hand and I drank what was left. I felt ashamed of my cowardice. Greater men had suffered atrocities from fighting, while my case was relatively minor.
She disappeared and then came out with a folded clean white shirt.
“Thank you for your kindness, Miss.”
“If you truly are deserting the army, I commend you.”
“I … I think I have.”
She sat down, gazing at me in amazement. “What made you leave?”
“My friend fell today.”
She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.”
Her sincerity struck at the grief that I had been trying to keep locked away. I keeled over, weeping.
Bradley, how am I going to go on without you? My dearest, closest friend!
A warm hand rested on my arm. I couldn’t stop crying. The void that his death had left in my soul was unbearable.
Her soft voice rose above my sobs. “I will make you some tea.”
I wiped my eyes, grateful for the small distraction, but my insides ached.
“You are very kind.”
“It is the least I can do.”
Here we were. Away from the battlefield, our opposing views mattered little in a time of tragedy. Human generosity still existed in some places. The world was not yet ruined by selfishness and hate.
“What was his name?” she asked.
“Bradley. Bradley Maylard. He was eighteen years old. A couple of months younger than I. He was the kindest heart on that battlefield. He refused to fire one shot. He didn’t even want to fight, but they did not give him a choice back home.”
I looked up at her then. Her hands covered her mouth.
She turned away from me. “He must have been a wonderful person.”
Her long hair swayed as her head turned to the window. I heard them then. The King’s army. My army. Had they come to look for me? Surely they would never go to that length for a mere foot soldier.
The girl and I went to the window. Three men on horses – colonels – rode toward the house.
“Follow me,” she said.
She had already gone out the back door. I ran to catch up with her. The birds’ chirping ceased as I followed my new savior through the maze of trees, as though the soldiers’ presence had spread through the forest and suffocated their inspiration. A knot formed in my gut at the thought of what would happen to this kind young woman if we were caught. Why was she helping me?
I stopped cold, nearly running into the side of a barn with my thoughts so scattered.
“Hurry, boy!” she called from inside.
The comforting scent of straw and horses hit my nostrils when I strode in. It reminded me of home. She had already climbed onto a bay mount. I walked over to a chestnut gelding and allowed him to smell my hand.
“Please tell me that you can ride bareback.”
“I was a farm boy before I became a soldier. I’ll manage.”
I climbed on to my new horse, gently kicking his sides to guide him out of the stable. We brought our horses to a gallop. I dared to look back. Red coats atop stealthy thoroughbreds could be seen through the trees. Once we reached the clearing, she guided her horse north. I prayed that she knew what she was doing. Our animals would not outrun His Majesty’s.
A steady trail of smoke brought my attention to the left. My heart raced faster at the sight of tents ahead. She was leading us toward a Colonial military camp. A group of soldiers lined up with muskets. They had clearly seen the British soldiers. I glanced back. The Lobsterbacks had turned their horses around. Elation surged through me for a moment, until I beheld my enemy’s base full of men that would plant a bullet in my skull had I still been wearing my uniform.
The girl slowed her mare to a walk and drifted close to my horse.
“Don’t say a word, all right? I will handle this.”
A tall lieutenant approached us with an expression duller than his fading coat. His eyes, however, were ablaze. He glared at me before fixing his attention on the girl.
“Brother,” she smiled.
“You careless girl! You shouldn’t be riding out here with the Lobsterbacks crawling all over the place. Aren’t you a little too old to be playing games?”
“It was not our intent to gallivant about the countryside. Redcoats came to our house.”
His expression eased. “Go on.”
While the girl explained our situation, I couldn’t stop staring at the men walking and limping around the camp. My enemies were just as worse for wear as my comrades. Some of them were missing limbs or wore thick bandages that did not stop the blood from soaking through. I blinked and took a deep breath to stop my eyes from watering. All of us were slaves to the old, pompous men that sat in their comfortable rooms, insisting that we fight in the manner of “gentlemen” until America and England reunite.
“I would drag you back home myself if we were we not in the midst of battle plans. You need to get out of here quickly.”
“Do not fear, brother. My new friend will see me to safety.”
I cleared my throat. The officer gave me an odd glance before turning back to bark out orders to the men. He likely thought me to be a coward who never bothered to sign up for the “the cause”.
“We need to go,” she called.
She tilted her head at me, likely wondering what I was doing staring straight ahead like a simpleton. My horse responded first, stepping toward her until I regained the lead and caught up with her.
“I am so sorry,” I said. “I have put you in a terribly dangerous situation. Do you have family that live close by?”
She gave me a sidelong glance. “I love my family, but this may be my only chance to have an adventure. Are you with me?”
I shook my head. It was madness, travelling at such a time where the lands were riddled with armies anxious to fight. Such a journey with no plan in place would be perilous even if in the absence of war. Then I thought of how enslaved I felt being a pawn in the war against America’s liberty. Had I not witnessed the unspeakable peril of a battle’s aftermath, I might have forcefully insisted the girl go home and return to my regiment. But for the first time in my life, I was given the opportunity to taste freedom in a new land with an intriguing person.
“I am with you, m’lady.”