The last rays of sun faded into twilight, and the wind whispered through the trees, as if warning Rachel to turn back. She encouraged her pa’s stallion forward, though her pulse threatened to strangle her. Somewhere, not far away, a wolf wailed into the night. The mournful song resonated within her, bespeaking tragedy. She searched the deepening shadows of the forest. What if all the British hadn’t retreated? What if there were still Indians and Tories out there, waiting behind those trees?
Something unseen rustled the leaves, and a twig snapped. Lord, what am I doing? How would she even find them out here in the dark? Maybe she should go home or to the Reids’ for another night.
Her course of action seemed so clear when General Herkimer, and what remained of his regiment and the local militia, limped their way alongside the Mohawk River from Oriskany. The general lay on a stretcher, his leg below the knee wrapped in a crimson cloth, his face pale and expressionless—like so many of the men with him. Eight hundred had marched north the day before yesterday and barely half returned.
Her pa and brother were not among them.
Stay with the Reids. That was all Pa had asked of her. Benjamin Reid’s bad leg compelled him to remain behind and watch over their farms. Though the safest place for her, Rachel could no longer wait there trying to carry on a casual conversation with any of the Reid girls or hide behind her mother’s Bible. She couldn’t abide the confines of their snug cabin a minute longer without knowing her own family’s fate. Since losing Mama to illness two years ago, Pa and Joseph were all she had. She couldn’t lose them, too. But she’d ridden for hours now. Where was she?
A little farther along the trail, the wind shifted slightly, carrying on it the odor of burnt powder and blood. Battle. Rachel’s hand came to her stomach in an attempt to calm the sickness churning within.
The horse whinnied, shifting as he tossed his head.
“Whoa. Easy, Hunter.” She slid to the ground and surveyed her surroundings. Both sides of the road were heavily treed and thick with underbrush. Even still, she could make out the dark forms of fallen men. She stumbled over her feet but kept moving. “Joseph! Pa!” You can’t be dead.
Dragging the horse, Rachel ran. Each step constricted her throat until she could hardly breathe. Bodies littered the road—Indian, Tory, and American alike. She maneuvered around them, searching faces in the faint glow of the remaining light. She should have brought a lantern.
The road sloped downward into a deep ravine. Her feet faltered. Hundreds of men—a patchwork of blue and homespun. All motionless. All dead. If only she could close her eyes or turn away, but every muscle held her in place.
The rasp of a voice jolted her from the trance. She yelped and spun toward the intruder.
“Rachel?” The murmur of her name accompanied the form of a man emerging from the trees. “What are you doing here?”
“Joseph.” Relief at seeing her brother alive stole the strength from her legs. They trembled as she moved to him and brushed her fingers across his cheek, stained with dirt and powder. His sandy brown hair was tousled and appeared just as black. Rachel wrapped him in her arms and clung tight. “Why didn’t you come back with the others? I was so worried...afraid something happened to you and...”
She glanced to his face and the strange expression that marked it. More accurately, a complete lack of expression. “Where is Pa? What happened, Joseph? Tell me.”
“Tell you? You can see it, can’t you? Everywhere you look.”
Of course she saw it. All of it. But… “Where is Pa?”
Joseph looked back, and Rachel followed his gaze into the blackness of the timbered ridge of the ravine. She pushed away and moved stiffly in that direction. Pa.
“No.” Joseph’s cold hand seized hers. “There is nothing left in there. He’s dead.”
“Let me go.” She wrenched away, breaking free before he was able to grab her arm and pull her back. Her vision hazed. “Let me go. I need him.”
“It’s too late, Rachel. He’s dead. I was with him. I watched the life bleed out of him...nothing I could do to stop it. Don’t go up there.” His voice pleaded and his eyes glistened. Joseph wiped a sleeve across his nose and motioned to Hunter. “Please let me take you home, and I’ll return for Pa’s body.”
Rachel stared into the trees, aching to pull away once again. She took in a jagged breath, managed a nod, and then surrendered to his firm hands. He assisted her into the saddle. Joseph retained the reins to lead the horse, but they didn’t make it more than a few steps before an unusual cry wafted in the breeze.
Shivers spiked up and down Rachel’s spine. “What was that?”
“It was no animal.”
The mewling of human suffering perforated the night. A yapping howl followed—a wolf answering the plea.
“You stay here.” Joseph forced the thin leather reins into her hands, shooting her a warning glance before he hurried off the path and into the thick foliage.
Ignoring his order, Rachel dropped to the ground, twisted the reins around a branch and ran after him. She wouldn’t be left alone again. Not in this place. Not in the gathering dark. As she caught up to him, she gripped his sleeve.
Their gazes met.
Joseph’s mouth opened; then, he nodded his head. Turning away, he allowed her to trail him.
Her fingers remained tangled in the fabric of his shirt.
They followed the moaning to a tiny meadow strewn with more bodies.
Rachel gaped at the shiny black patches of blood evident on almost every corpse and covered her nose and mouth against the stench saturating the air.
As they drew near, the moans ceased.
Joseph called out, but there was no reply. “He must be here somewhere.” Frustration edged his voice.
“Maybe he’s too weak. We’ve got to find him if he’s still alive.”
Joseph moved out, stepping over the fallen, checking each for any sign of life.
Rachel stood back, frozen. Motionless. Numb. The man’s whimpers, though now silent, resounded in her mind. What if he were still alive? What if he woke again to this dark and death, only to become as the corpses surrounding him, with no one to lend him life…to help him?
Rachel forced her feet into action as she picked her way around a dead Indian. Though she tried to keep her eyes averted, they rebelliously wandered to the large hole in the middle of his chest. Her hand flew to her mouth as she lurched away. Stumbling backward, her feet tripped over a red uniformed body. She landed hard on the ground beside him. Bile rose in her throat and she twisted, retching into the nearest bush.
“What happened?” Joseph rushed to her.
She sat upright and wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve. Her whole body shook.
Joseph grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet. “You shouldn’t have seen this. Let’s get you home. Whoever it was must already be gone.” He led her away, stepping over a fallen soldier’s body.
Rachel shrieked as the hem of her dress snagged on something.
“Do not leave…me.” An almost voiceless plea met her ears. “Please.”
She pivoted on her heel to where the soldier lay in his blood, his eyes wide, one hand extended. Rachel shivered.
Joseph also reacted, bringing his pistol to the enemy’s position.
The man coughed, and closed his eyes in pain. His brilliant scarlet coat and white breeches were smudged with grit and mud, his right hip a bloodied mass of flesh, probably ripped through by a musket ball.
“Rachel, go to the road.” The pistol trembled in Joseph’s grip.
“You’re going to kill him?” She glanced to the soldier.
His eyes remained closed. His mouth moved slightly as though speaking to someone. Perhaps he was praying.
Pushing past the nausea, Rachel swung back to her brother, reaching for him. “You can’t do this.”
Joseph jerked away. “This is exactly what both he and I have done since morning. How many of our neighbors do you think he’s personally sent from this life?”
Silence hung between them.
Joseph lowered his head and weariness returned to his voice. “I’m so tired of this, but there’s no other choice. Go back to the road and wait for me. I’ll be along in a minute.”
She couldn’t do it. Rachel moved, but not in the direction required by her brother. Instead, she knelt beside the wounded soldier and laid a cautious hand against his cool forehead.
His eyes fluttered open and peered up with evident fear. Confusion ridged his brow. Did he know he could expect no mercy and therefore could not understand her actions? His eyes rolled back, and his head slid from the large stone on which it had been resting. His body became limp with no sign of life other than the shallow, irregular breaths which moved his chest.
“Joseph, I know he’s our enemy, and I do hate him…” Rachel shook her head as she tried to swallow back the bitter taste still coating her tongue. “But we can’t kill him, and we can’t leave him to die out here like some dog we don’t like. Can we? I…I don’t know anymore.”
“What are you suggesting?”
Rachel watched the soldier, her frown deepening. “Without the uniform he would appear the same as any of us.” Her gaze rose to Joseph’s face and the tension etched in his usually kind features. “Mama taught us to love our enemies—do good to those who hate you. That’s what’s written in the Bible. I see the uniform, but…”
“All that Bible talk is right and good, but it’s only a book. What if this was the soldier that killed Pa…or Jarrett? There isn’t hardly a family in this valley who hasn’t lost someone today. They slaughtered us, Rachel.” His voice faltered. “If anyone found out we had protected or saved a British soldier—an officer, no less—we could be shot. This is war.”
Rachel stood, not able to look at the dying man as she stepped away. Jarrett Adler...dead? He’d only been twenty, less than a year older than her. An attractive young man with his wheat blond hair and teasing blue eyes. More than once she’d considered the possibility of a future with him, and now he was dead, too. Same as Pa.
“I’ll wait by the road,” Rachel whispered, too drained, heartbroken, and scared to argue further. She would never fully understand war and the insanity required for one man to kill another in such a way. She didn’t want to try to understand it. Rachel hurried, almost running to put as much distance as possible between herself and the nightmare. Still, the haunted eyes of that soldier, that man, wouldn’t leave her. Perhaps they never would.
Hunter waited on the road, nibbling on what grass lined the trails.
Grasping the reins, Rachel hugged the animal’s neck, pressed her cheek into the soft coat and braced for what seemed inevitable—the shot of a pistol. “Let him die, Lord. Take him before Joseph has to. Please, let him be dead already.” Her heart thundered. Not from fear, but with the realization that she couldn’t let Joseph kill that man. She had to stop him. Pushing away, Rachel darted back into the forest, her skirts hitched high. She stumbled over her feet as the stillness of the night shattered, the sharp crack echoing. No.
The man had begged for his life.
And she’d left him to die.
Rachel backed away several steps before turning. When she reached the road, she laid her hand against Hunter’s jaw. “I…” I feel his death is my doing. Was she so weak? Hundreds of men lay dead, and she wasn’t sure if she could live with the death of her enemy?
Fatigue dragged Joseph’s footsteps as he approached. “Rachel?”
She slipped under Hunter’s neck, and then looked over his withers.
Joseph’s face appeared eerie in the rising moonlight.
“Don’t say anything,” she begged.
“Rachel, I need you to help me get him on the horse.”
Her mind could not comprehend the meaning. She moved around Hunter, her gaze drawn to the form lying at Joseph’s feet. The red coat was gone, but the bloodied hip, the gash on the head, and the man’s face…
“But… you said…and the shot?”
Joseph glanced away. “Wolves. I wanted to frighten them.” It was said dryly. Perhaps he could find no true excuse. Wolves would be too shy to come anywhere near here tonight.
“I guess. I really don’t know.” A hand passed over his eyes. “We can take him home and let him die in peace.”
A simple enough plan, but...
“What will we do if he recovers?” This man was a British officer—their enemy. She couldn’t forget that.
“I don’t reckon he will. There’s not much life in him. Besides, we aren’t here to save him, only give him a chance to die on his own.”
Exquisite agony pulsated through his whole body with each beat of his heart. The scent of horse filled his nostrils as he attempted a breath. His lungs refused to expand, as though the full weight of the animal resided on top of them and across his stomach. They ached from the pressure. The swaying of the ground only compounded the intense pressure threatening to burst his head apart. Why did the ground sway? Was he back on a ship? That did not explain the horse sitting on him, or why he hung upside down. Nothing made sense. He opened his eyes to the blackness…and fur? The sleek coat of a horse. Hence the smell. But the animal did not lie on him as assumed. Instead, it seemed he was slung face down over the back of a horse. No wonder his stomach pinched so. He had to get off.
At first his arms refused his beckoning. Numb from dangling above his head, they might as well have been severed from him entirely. Slowly, however, he wielded enough control to bring them to the saddle over which he was draped. Planting them against the firm leather, he pushed, writhing his body up with the same motion. As he slid from the saddle, a feminine scream pierced the air, a hammer to the spike already driven through his temples.
His feet touched the ground, but little good that did him. Like his arms, they refused to heed his will. He should have considered that before he disembarked. The frantic voice of a woman and the lingering aroma of horse sweat faded. Agony ripped through his right thigh, and he hit the ground.
“Let me help you get him back up on Hunter.” The woman’s words filtered through the haze residing in his mind as it resurfaced to consciousness.
“What, so he can throw himself off again?” The deeper voice rasped with anger.
Who were these people? What did they want with him?
“After bringing him this far, we can’t leave him. Only a couple more miles, and we’ll be home.”
Home…would not that be agreeable? At least, it conjured a pleasant sensation within him. No images, though. A dim light glowed high above as he forced his eyelids open, blinking against the grit. As much as his eyes begged to remain closed, he refused to allow them such luxury. Not with the face of an angel hovering so near, shadowed but still somewhat visible in the moonlight. Young. Large eyes. A halo of gold. Who was she?
Someone yanked on his arm, heaving him upward. Lord, not back on the horse. Anything but that. “No.” He tried to pull away, and his body again sagged to the earth.
“He’s awake.” Her voice.
The man’s was edged. “How is that possible when he shouldn’t even be alive?”
Did they speak of him, implying he should be dead? Perhaps that explained the pain—the struggle to remain cognizant to anything around him. Dead. How far off was he from slipping away completely? What held him here? He stared at the young woman as she knelt beside him.
“We’re trying to help you.”
He attempted to wet his lips, but his tongue was just as dry. Blood and gunpowder tainted his senses. “What happened?”
The man pulled her aside. “There’s no time for this. We either get him back on that horse, or leave him here.”
As they dragged his body from the ground, all thoughts and awareness fled, returning in waves of oblivion and torture. Finally, he awoke on a solid surface, a floor, the only movement the flickering of a candle set upon a table across a small room. Closer, a chair held the form of a woman, her head tipped back. Asleep. He let his eyes close, allowing exhaustion and pain to take him. No use fighting it any longer. God willing, he would awaken. But if not…he only wished he could remember what he had sacrificed his life for.