A sudden, lurching stomach was never a good thing to have when one is galloping toward the enemy. It is almost always followed by the earth tilting the wrong way and the muddy ground coming up to meet one at an alarming rate. The shrieking scream of a man’s horse is also a bad sign; something best to be avoided if one wants to remain saddled. Unfortunately for John Laurens, everything seemed to go wrong at exactly the same time.
His bay mare recoiled as she took a bullet to the neck, and the beast threw herself onto her hind legs. John gripped his thighs tight to her belly. In the frantic few seconds he had, he scanned the battlefield for the shooter to no avail. Cannon smoke had shrouded the field in a hazy white. Men looked more like spectres as they dashed through the fog, the shouts of command barely audible over the haunting cries that came from all directions. John desperately tried to slip his left foot from the stirrup but it caught in the leather as it twisted. With another shriek, his desperate seconds were gone as his mare’s legs gave out from under her and she toppled.
The unexpected blackness caught John by surprise. His vision came slowly back; spotted at first, then ill-defined like a poorly made lens. White. Everything was white and grey. No, that was the overcast sky. What had happened? He had fallen and then…? It was hard to concentrate over the ringing in his ears. All other sounds were muted and muddled, no more than vague suggestions of booming artillery and human cries. When John tried to take a sharp breath, he let out a cry of his own.
Pain, thick and searing bit into his side. He coughed, sending another wave of agony down his chest. A broken rib? He poked tenderly with weak fingers at his muddy uniform. Yet another whip of pain told him it was probably more than one. John swore and clenched his eyes shut. His tongue tasted like paper in his mouth Why was it so hard to think? He felt as if he were wading through a river that was trying its utmost to pull him under. He fought to keep himself above water. Small breaths, taken through the nose. In and out. In and out.
He was rewarded with more pain. His head was clearer, but pinpricks nipped at his skull. John groaned, drunkenly threading his fingers through the hair at his temple. They came away wet and he swore again, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. As much as he wished to fight on, there was no having it. He had to get up and return behind Continental lines. Crawl, if need be. Right now he was too exposed, too much in the open, and too easily could he be picked off with a bayonet. Laurens just knew he wouldn’t hear the end of it from Hamilton. Shot off his horse before he could even fire? It was embarrassing to say the least.
Speaking of which, where had his poor mare landed? It was a shame; the girl had been sent up to him from Mepkin. A finely muscled creature, and difficult to spook even as gunfire cracked around her. Now Josephine had died taking a bullet for him. An honest fate for a loyal horse.
John attempted to shift his left leg and met resistance. Hot, visceral resistance. He bit off the confused yelp that wrestled in his throat, breathing heavily and painfully as he tried to raise himself onto his hands. His mare, it seemed, had fallen directly on him, crushing his lower left half. The animal herself was silent in a way only the dead could achieve; a glazed eye reflecting the smoke that lazily drifted above them.
Oh God. John tried to shift himself again and was met with the doubled agony of his leg and the resulting sear in his side from a sharp intake of breath. How had this happened? He’d only fallen from his horse. Many a man had been turned from their saddles with barely an injury. Looking down, Laurens couldn’t even call himself to anger as horror filled his gut instead. His left foot – from what he could see of it – was facing the entirely wrong way. The heel of his muddy boot had fully twisted around and now pointed toward the sky. The gruesome sight was enough to make him gag.
How was he to get away now? His other foot still hung limply in its stirrup, undamaged but hardly useful. Trying to twist it out would simply add more agony to that which had now set his whole body ablaze.
John swung his head out to the battlefield. He could hardly tell which men belonged to which side any more than when he had fallen. His immediate vicinity was empty of the noticeable living. He could pick out a few blue uniformed bodies scattered about the mud, but they were as silent as his mare. The cannon smoke had only gotten thicker as he squinted to his horizons on either side. Which army was his? It was so difficult to tell.
He didn’t dare call out. Drawing attention to the wrong man could spell his end. Not that there was enough breath in his lungs to do so anyway. Desperation crawled under his skin like buzzing insects. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t wait. By God, what am I going to do? The thought stuck fast as he grit his teeth.
What would his father say if he could see him? An unfired gun thrown out of reach, and his broken son crushed under the horse Henry had given him. He might die. No, he probably would die. Where was the honour in this death? Henry Laurens’ eldest son had died a fool that had charged off alone into the fray in a vain pursuit of glory. John could almost feel the phantom disappointment.
And what of Martha? What of the child? The widow and the daughter of a man who felt nothing but guilt when he thought of them. And Alexander, his dear Hamilton. What would he think of Laurens? They had promised to drink to victory together after the battle. He pictured Hamilton’s bright eyes and smug smile as he assured John that glory today would be his. A smile that had only grown as Laurens had scoffed and pushed at his shoulder. Well. Perhaps glory would be his. But Alexander may have to drink alone tonight.
His heart ached as he laid himself flat and stared at the sky, the desperation quickly and hopelessly leaking from him like water. A part of John always knew he would die in battle. In fact he had wanted it. But not like this. There were still things he wanted to do. His plan for the black battalion, for one. And then there were still things he wanted to say, most of them to Alexander. He wanted to tell Hamilton how much he admired him, how dear of a friend he thought him. He wanted to sit on a hillside and tell the man everything he had kept from him – his family, his hopes, his wife.
But most of all, John didn’t want to say anything at all. He wanted to listen to Alexander ramble about the law, about the future, about anything so long as his warm, animated voice filled John’s silence. He wanted to wrap himself up in the ambiance that was Alexander, and watch the way the light reflected off the rich auburn strands of his hair. How cruel that all Laurens had now were last minute memories.
More gunshots cracked somewhere to his right. Laurens ignored them in favour of the sky. Some of the smoke had cleared a bit and the clouds had parted enough that patches of blue could be seen peeking through. There was nothing to be done. Laurens resigned himself to his fate, whatever that proved to be. The muddy ground was uncomfortable, but his time in the army had made him grow used to disagreeable situations. At least his stillness had caused the pain to lessen.
A heavy thump of boots drew his attention from the bird that keened overhead. Resigned as he was, John couldn’t help but tense, readying himself for the man that came closer. The boots stopped here and there, followed by a shuffle of fabric and the wet slide of flesh being pierced. Oh. He wanted to laugh. The bodies around him were Continental men, there was no doubt who those boots belonged to. And John could do nothing. Perhaps the man would see his officer epaulets and send out a call to take him captive. Perhaps he wouldn’t bother and just kill him. John wasn’t sure what would be worse.
A face entered his view. It was a boy, no more than seventeen, and evidently startled that Laurens was still breathing. He flapped his mouth like a fish, before looking somewhere behind him, unsure of what to do. His red coat looked barely worn. The stitching was still in place, as was the buttons. His rifle straps hadn’t a nick to be seen. The boy stood there for a good minute, still floundering, and frantically searching for orders that would not come.
“Boy,” Laurens said, trying to gain his attention. Or he would have, if the sound that came out of his mouth had been anything more than a pathetic croak.
It worked nonetheless. The boy jumped in fright, clutching his rifle in a white-knuckled grip close to his chest. Laurens could hear his breathing. The boy was frightened. Laurens found he wasn’t feeling too differently.
They stared at one another, each unsure of what to do next until a cannon boomed beyond. The boy looked to his rifle and pursed his lips. No. Don’t. Please don’t.
“I’m sorry,” he said as he pointed the bayonet at John’s chest. His accent was familiar.
Not an Englishman’s. The boy was a loyalist.
Laurens opened his mouth to speak.
Pain, thin and sharp, erupted in his chest as the blade slid home. No! It couldn’t end like this. The pain faded quickly, but as the world tunnelled black, so did everything else. Laurens had to fight. If he could just stay awake then he would be fine.
I’m so sorry, Alexander.