John Laurens wakes slowly, some sound at the edge of his senses pulling him from his rest. He blinks twice to chase the sleep away, the sound becoming more apparent, something like a bump or a knock, as if upon a door. He breathes slowly, seeing red curls before his face and he smiles. He slides his arm around the man in front of him under the blankets, holds him close for just a moment. Alexander Hamilton makes a small sound in his sleep, something happy and content. Then Laurens hears the sound again, not just a knock but a scraping and a groan.
Laurens rolls over quietly and rises from the bed, picking up his breeches as he joins Tench Tilghman standing near the window.
“More?” Laurens asks.
Tilghman, standing near dressed but for his coat, nods once. “A lieutenant I knew…”
Laurens gazes out the window at their new fortifications, a hasty fence of sharpened logs, sticks, any timber they had available to create a barrier twenty feet out around General Washington’s headquarters here at Valley Forge enclosing the house, the kitchen and barn.
Tilghman points with his finger against the glass to the far right of the ring, nearer the kitchens. A man in a torn uniform, blood crusted around his ear, struggles against branches now tangled with his limps. But no, he is not a man, not anymore.
“You knew him?”
Tilghman nods again. “Not well, a relation of a friend but…”
“Yes. No man should be reduced to such a state.”
The man – no the creature – continues to try and walk through the protruding wood. The sharper branches pierce its uniform, scratches forming on its gray skin. If Laurens did not wish to wake the rest of the room behind him, he would shoot the thing from this window.
“Why, Laurens, why this…” Tilghman asks quietly.
“You know I cannot answer you.”
“But how then, how can…” Tilghman cuts himself off with a harsh breath.
“How can the dead rise again?” Laurens asks, his voice icy. “It is a story we have heard but never one we thought to live; and I can but only blame the barbarism of the British as to this plague they bring upon us.”
Laurens turns sharply from the window and begins to dress. He steps around Meade, still breathing quietly on the palette on the floor.
It has been more than three weeks since the beginning of this new horror in their war. The first man who appeared in their camp, dead yet still walking, wore a red coat – a private of the British regulars. He attacked more than a dozen men before he was stopped. It took almost eight days from there to realize the truth of their situation, of how a bite from one of these walking corpses would create the same in the man he bit; how only a shot or knife to the head could stop the monster it made. Yet, by then it was too late, soldiers all over the camp were bitten and turned, even camp followers and servants. Riders sent out to seek help either did not return or spoke of the terror starting to spread into the civilian population.
They tried to fight back, to contain the dead and save the living, yet their army is thousands and when a man does not stay dead it becomes harder to fight. They were forced to fall back, Generals pulling as many living soldiers as they could into their different headquarters and wait for some plan.
General Washington’s headquarters is full in every room now attempting to shelter those they can. General Wayne and his aide share the larger aide-de-camp bedroom with aides Robert Hanson Harrison and John Fitzgerald as well as Captain Caleb Gibbs of the Life Guard and two of his men on the floor. Up in the garret, more than a dozen soldiers and servants share the cramped space, arrived from all over camp. Four stand guard in that room in shifts at all times of the night, keeping watch for more of the undead who could make their way toward their haven. More men sleep in the downstairs aide office, soldiers from other brigades. Even the General and Mrs. Washington opened their room for General Greene and his wife to sleep in safety here. Now their space and their food run dangerously short.
“Laurens?” Laurens turns his head to Hamilton as he rolls over in bed, his eyes suddenly awake and alert. “What is it?”
“No cause for alarm,” Laurens says as he buttons the last of his breeches and picks up his waistcoat.
“Not yet,” Tilghman says grimly.
Hamilton’s eyes tick to Tilghman for a moment, his mouth pressing tight. Then he looks at Laurens again. Laurens shakes his head once and steps closer. He touches Hamilton’s cheek, his fingers twisting in Hamilton’s hair. Hamilton reaches up and puts his hand over Laurens’ but neither of them say anything. Hamilton pulls Laurens’ hand down and squeezes once. Laurens wants to kiss Hamilton but their affection already shows too far. He wants to tell Hamilton how he fears for their survival, how he would stand in front of Hamilton no matter how dire the situation, how Laurens cannot lose Hamilton, not to something as horrid as this.
Laurens nods once at Hamilton then stands up straight again. He glances at Tilghman, Tilghman eyes ticked toward them. Tilghman looks sharply away when he sees Laurens looking. With Tilghman and Meade now sharing their room and the probability of death even closer than war allows, Laurens and Hamilton gave up the pretense of hiding the nature of their intimate relationship from the other two men. If they are so much more likely to die, then Laurens refuses to not have one last kiss or touch of Hamilton’s hand, at least in the relative privacy of this one room. With the horde of undead before their doors, Tilghman and Meade were remarkably less phased by such a revelation.
“The sun is only now risen,” Hamilton says as he stands from the cot, Meade making noises of awaking as well on the floor. “We should hurry below. A rider may make it through this morning and we need news.”
“There are few undead on the fortifications,” Tilghman says, “but I can see many beyond stumbling about in the snow.”
“More than last evening?”
Tilghman glances back at Hamilton. “It is Gibbs who counts, not I.”
Hamilton frowns. “But surely you could tell if –”
“I do not know, I cannot stand the sight of them, why should ask me to look longer!”
Hamilton and Laurens glance at each other quickly.
“Tench.” Meade stands from his palette – breeches slept in, his shirt rumbled but a smile somehow on his face. “Come now.” He grips Tilghman’s arm. “Do not berate Hamilton so early. You must save this for later when I can properly join you, as I am barely awake now. I am sure Hamilton should deserve your ire more then.”
Tilghman’s lips quirk slightly but he crosses his arms, pulling away from Meade. Meade cocks his head and gives Tilghman a disapproving look, like a teacher with a naughty student.
“Now Tench, here.” He gestures with his palm toward the window. “Why not look at our guests? It is a fine example of the variety of uniforms in our forces. Why such an array of shades, some blue and green and trimmings of red, I think the gaiters on that creature there a purple!”
Tilghman laughs then, turning back to the window. “Certainly not, you must jest.”
Meade grins and nods. “Yes, I do. Who should wear purple in the army? How could you think so?”
“Yes, yes,” Tilghman says staring out of the window. “A purple on the white of snow would be far too extravagant.”
“Exactly, and far from regulation,” Meade says, his mirth lessening some as they two of them watch the poor lost sounds beyond their wall, dozens of frozen corpses shambling through the snow, waiting for warm blood to near.
Hamilton steps closer to Laurens as Laurens pulls his coat over his shoulders. Hamilton buttons his waistcoat, his shoulder brushing Laurens’.
“I think Meade more a blessing than any of us could deserve,” Hamilton whispers. “How he can even muster a false cheer I know not.”
Laurens clicks his teeth and drops his arms after fixing his collar. “One of us must.”
Hamilton looks at him again. “Can you?”
“I can find some satisfaction at least to see you still warm and breathing here, not lost yet.”
Hamilton chuckles once. “Perhaps less than warm.”
Laurens nods and smiles. “Let us descend.”
Hamilton picks up his coat, the two of them pulling on their boots while standing, and then leave the room, Meade and Tilghman finally falling into their own clothing. On the first floor, servants and soldiers roll up sleeping pallets, shoving as many as should fit in the space under the stairs. A harried looking woman from the kitchens passes between the activity, passing out cups less than half full with some steaming drink, be it tea or coffee or only water, it is hard to tell.
“Five men to clear the walls,” Hamilton says as he takes a cup from the girl. “And then I want a count of dead still walking we can see.”
“Yes, sir,” one man calls.
“Any new living in the night?” Harrison asks as he steps out from the aide-de-camp office, the sound of tables scaping on wood behind him.
“No, sir,” one chilled looking Private answers. “But a horse.”
“A horse?” Laurens and Harrison say at the same time.
“Yes, it came galloping from the north side with three undead in its wake. We managed to open the gate for it safely and find it space in the barn.”
Laurens glances at Hamilton.
“A rider?” Hamilton asks.
“It must be,” Harrison replies so both men turn to him. “What living horses we retain sequester in our barn. Blast.” Harrison shakes his head then looks at the Private again. “Did the saddle bags contain any letters? Any sort of word?”
The Private smiles. “Yes, sir. I gave it straight to his Excellency, sir.”
The three aides look at each other again then to the closed door of General Washington’s office.
Laurens turns back to the man. “Thank you, Private.” He waves at the stairs. “Go on, get some sleep.”
The Private ducks quickly around them, taking a cup from the girl just before she leaves by the side door toward the kitchen again. Most of the beds are away now and a line of soldiers exit through the front door to their work of securing the fortifications for the day forward.
“Do you think it word from outside?” Laurens asks.
“I think it unlikely, more from one of our own,” Harrison says.
“Lafayette?” Hamilton asks, blowing on his drink.
Laurens makes a small noise. “It has been a week with nothing from him…”
“He is not fallen,” Hamilton hisses harshly. “I cannot believe it!”
“General Varnum is fallen.”
The three men turn as the door to General Washington’s office opens and Fitzgerald walks out. “His headquarters was overrun only a day past.” Fitzgerald holds up the letter. “From General Knox. His house still remains fast, but he fears it will not last long.”
“Varnum…” Hamilton whispers.
“Does he write of any of the others?” Laurens asks, “Maxwell? Lafayette? The Baron?”
Fitzgerald shakes his head. “No, but he writes that the undead are not merely our soldiers now. They see common clothes among them as well.”
“Camp followers?” Harrison asks with hope to his voice that his expression does not share.
Fitzgerald shakes his head again. “Knox writes of seeing a lady in the snow, a fine yellow dress with pink ribbon… her hands black with rot and her eyes…”
“Enough,” Hamilton interrupts, handing his cup roughly to Harrison. “We have seen it enough ourselves.”
“But perhaps less ladies.”
The men all turn to Mrs. Washington at the base of the stairs.
“Madam, we would not have had you heard…” Harrisons says by way of apology.
She shakes her head, some hair loose but most of her still as fine in her blue dress and gloves on her hands. “I can see it well from where I stand, you need not shield me.”
“If only you were not here madam,” Hamilton says. “You and Mrs. Greene should not be so subjected.”
“And why not?” Mrs. Washington says, her voice grim. “We see how far this threat spreads now. Be it better I wait in my home to be overrun without my husband beside me? No, sirs.” She looks sharply at the office door. “I assume General Washington is within?”
“Yes,” Laurens says and, before he may even think of stopping her, she marches past them, opens the door and enters, the door shut again before any of the four may speak.
“Perhaps she may convince him,” Fitzgerald whispers.
“We need not retreat yet,” Laurens says to Fitzgerald’s unasked question – the one they all think on, abandoning Valley Forge. “There is time.”
“Is there?” Fitzgerald asks harshly. “Varnum is fallen. We hear only from Knox. What if the rest are gone? What if this is our army.” He waves a hand about the house.
“Enough,” Harrison says harshly. He points at their aide-de-camp office. “Inside. We must review the supplies we have and how much longer we may make them last.” He points at Laurens and Hamilton with his hand holding the cup. “I want status on munitions as well. Then I want some reply and a ready man to attempt the ride back to Knox. We cannot let them think themselves alone.” Harrison then turns and marches into their office.
“What do they talk on now?” Hamilton asks Fitzgerald.
He stares at the pair of them quickly then blows out a breath. “They talk on the possibility of retaking our camp.”
Laurens raises his eyebrows. “Take it back?”
“There are thousands of the undead now,” Hamilton hisses. “How many living have we? Do we even know?”
Fitzgerald nods. “They talk just the same, but Wayne would not give up without a fight. Greene is more resigned to the defeat, his wife I think a factor.”
“And General Washington?” Laurens asks.
Fitzgerald only shakes his head and turns into their office. Hamilton suddenly grips Laurens’ hand. He threads their fingers and Laurens squeezes his hand back. Laurens cannot help but feel much as General Wayne; he would not give the ground of their own encampment away especially when the undead are their own men who deserve proper death and not this in-between horror; and certainly not when it is clear the British brought this sin upon them. Laurens squeezes Hamilton’s hand harder in his anger – the savagery, the unholy act, the horrific choice of attack from their enemy.
“Shh,” Hamilton says touching Laurens’ arm with his other hand, clearly telling Laurens’ mind by the grasp of his hand. “This is what is before us and, whatever the decision, we will fight, yes?”
“Yes,” Laurens says looking down at Hamilton. “And survive.”
Another part of Laurens wants to put himself and Hamilton on a horse alone, to ride away and fight past the undead plague for their own safety – for Hamilton’s safety – away from this hell.
They pull their hands apart and walk into the office. The four aides sit at their desks, General Wayne’s aide also with them as well, stoking the small fire burning with what appears to be a chair.
“The guards of last night report only three dozen dead in our near lawn,” Fitzgerald says to Harrison. “Some may have wandered away into the woods or drawn off by whatever animals remain.”
“That is less indeed,” Harrison says. “I hope that a good.”
Hamilton shuffles paper before him, “And how many men in our own house now? I know our flour still stocked, but meat?”
Laurens shakes his head. “We cannot sacrifice another horse, or will we have no chance of sending letters when needed.”
Harrison makes a frustrated noise then stands, holding out Knox’s letter. “A reply if you please, at least a start of how we remain here.”
“Should we not wait until His Excellency decides on an action?” Hamilton asks, “They speak on it now.”
“I can check,” Wayne’s aide says and quickly ducks out of the office.
Fitzgerald watches the man then swivels his head back around to Hamilton. “We do not know if they should decide anything today.”
“We have checked the powder and shot.” Laurens looks up as Tilghman and Meade come in, Laurens just now noticing the sound he had heard of a door closing. Meade shakes snow from his hat as he speaks. “The stash in the barn is still sound and Gibbs plans to make a try for the hill and the stores there.”
“He thinks some left?” Harrison asks.
“On their last attempt they could only raid one hut before too many undead came upon them,” Tilghman answers. “He says there is another.”
“And where should we keep it all?” Hamilton asks. “Our fort here is only so large.”
“And not so large at all,” Meade mutters.
“Keep your counsel,” Harrison snaps, “we will find space even if we must build a hut from our tables out on the very lawn!”
The men all dip their heads in some chastisement. Laurens tries as best he can but the positive of their situation dwindles each day and they have little left to fuel their spirits, not when they must watch dead eyes and dead feet walk so near every morning and night. Hamilton glances at Laurens, seated beside him. His hand twitches like he wants to grip Laurens’. Laurens wants to hold him close, to whisper promises and care, that they will not die here, not like this.
Tilghman walks closer to Laurens’ table now, his head tilting. Laurens sees him gazing out the window behind Laurens, a frown on his face. “Is that…”
Suddenly a shout comes from outside the house, “Runner! A runner!”
Every man in the room jumps up to look from the windows. Laurens presses his face close and indeed he sees what looks like four men running across the distant snow. Half a dozen dead follow them, slower but insistent. The undead around their own house start to take notice, turning at the sound of living feet. The guards within the walls pull their rifles but seem unsure what to do.
“Four men,” Harrison says. “If they keep pace…”
“But the undead here,” Meade hisses.
Then Laurens sees the riband across the chest of the one man – an aide-de-camp. The man shoots over his shoulder and when his head turns back Laurens recognizes the face.
“It’s Walker!” Laurens says.
“Benjamin Walker?” Hamilton says. “The Baron’s –”
“Yes…” Then Laurens sees the man nearest Walker, it is William North, another of the Baron’s aides-de-camp as Walker is. He stumbles in the snow, losing ground. “They will not make it.” Laurens hisses.
Laurens turns around and pushes past the other men. He hurries to the front door and grabs a sword and baldric – weapons now always waiting at the door. He throws it over his head and grabs one of the ready pistols, shoving it into his belt.
“Laurens, wait!” Hamilton shouts from the office.
But Laurens opens the front door and runs out into the snow. The three men outside on duty jerk in surprise.
“Shoot them!” Laurens shouts pointing toward the nearest dead as he runs. Then he points at one man nearest the wall. “Open the gate!”
Laurens does not slow down even as the man stumbles toward the gate, not questioning Laurens’ momentum. Laurens hears shouts behind him. He sees the gate moving open, just enough space for him. Laurens races through and pulls his sword from its sheath. A rotting face turns to him, hands outstretched and Laurens slashes straight through the arms, its hands severed under his blow. He slips on the snow as he skids around the slower dead but he does not fall or stop. Laurens keeps moving and now hears feet behind him. Suddenly Hamilton runs alongside him, an angry expression on his face as he pants in the cold. Laurens glances back and sees Tilghman behind them, two other soldiers Laurens knows from the Life Guard with them.
“We get to them and right back!” Laurens shouts as Hamilton flings a wild stab with a dagger in his hand at a former Lieutenant groaning toward them.
“Hamilton and I shall gain them…” Laurens huffs, “once we reach…” He shoots a look back at the other three men, “Guard the rear on our retreat until… until we reach them!”
“Yes!” Tilghman shouts back as he dodges the reaching hands of another undead.
One of the life guard men shouts, hands grabbing at his neck. He staggers and almost falls before his companion grabs the creature by the hair, yanking it back and driving a knife into the ruin of the undead’s face.
“You…” Hamilton growls as they turn. “You damn… I could kill you… myself.”
“I know,” Laurens says.
Ahead he sees them now, Walker pulling North up from the snow. Behind them, one of the living men screams as an undead drags him down into the snow, blood flowing from his neck.
“Harry!” North shouts but it is far too late.
The third man with them fires his pistol, not at the dead creature but at their companion, putting the screaming man quickly out of his misery.
“Run!” Hamilton shouts at them. “Do not stop!”
The three remaining men are close now, almost within reach. Laurens sees more dead behind them, more than Laurens first saw.
“God…” Hamilton gasps.
“Keep moving, we are here now!” Laurens shouts.
Then Laurens slams into Walker. Walker hugs Laurens tight for a moment, his eyes wild. “They came… we… we tried, but the doors…”
“Not now!” Laurens snaps, pulling back. “Keep moving.” He turns Walker around and pushes him behind himself. “Go, go.”
North gasps high. “Laurens… they…. Peter, oh god, they tore him apart!”
“Du Ponceau?” Hamilton says then he shakes his head. Pierre du Ponceau is – was – the Baron’s secretary. “Come, come!”
Hamilton grabs North’s arm and then the arm of the third man with them, a Captain who only breathes hard and says nothing. Hamilton turns and pushes both of them back after Walker toward their headquarters.
“Run, run!” Hamilton says. “Tilghman, lead them back!”
Tilghman does not respond. Laurens looks over his shoulder, hears shouts. He sees at least five of the undead setting upon Tilghman and the life guard. Tilghman jumps back from one creature drawing his pistol. One of the life guard stabs his sword into the mouth of an undead as it reaches for Walker.
“Hurry!” Laurens shouts.
Laurens turns back then to the monsters which chased their compatriots. He stops moving as he sees a tall, familiar man shambling close through the snow. It seems like the wind follows him, a spray of snow and ice swirling around him, four other undead in his wake. His hat remains on his head, his sword at his hip but blood coats the white of his uniform, dripping off his buttons. He seems to walk faster than the others, as if he remembers Laurens and makes directly for him. Laurens thinks he hears the man’s voice, remembers his halting attempts at English and his far faster German. The now risen dead figure of Baron von Stueben marches toward Laurens, but an arm’s length away.
Laurens never thought the Baron could fall, never thought the Baron who tried to make them into a real army could be drawn down by their scourge too. He never imagined the Baron could look this terrible – a chunk of his cheek gone, bone exposed, tears in his uniform, his waistcoat shredded, clear bites of flesh torn from his legs and neck – blood everywhere, absolutely everywhere, even on his outstretched hand as it suddenly grabs Laurens around the throat.
“Baron…” Laurens gasps as he stares up into dead glassy eyes, blood shot and nothing there, nothing left.
The Baron’s mouth gapes, teeth and cold air and Laurens thinks he should have run, he should have moved, he should raise his sword now.
Then a shot hits the Baron’s head with a crunch, thick blood hitting Laurens’ face. The Baron’s dead hand falls away from Laurens’ neck and the Baron lands in the snow, still and truly dead once more. Laurens turns quickly to see Hamilton with his pistol held out straight and a half-mad expression on his face.
“Not now,” Hamilton says, “I will not lose you now.”
Hamilton grabs Laurens’ lapel and pulls him around again, dragging them both away from the grasping hands and groaning sounds of the undead still advancing. “Run!” Hamilton snaps.
Laurens awakens from his trance once more and races alongside Hamilton. Another man tries to grab for them but Laurens breaks a fissure into the dead man’s face with his sword. Ahead of them, he sees the other men moving fast.
North shoots a creature that grabs for Walker with a scream of rage. Laurens thinks of Hamilton coming for him – North bears the same intimate relationship with Walker as Laurens does with Hamilton. Laurens thinks about how the pair of them managed to make it this far, how many times they may have screamed at the other near lost. He thinks about himself and Hamilton trying to escape across the snow with General Washington following them, as dead as the Baron. Laurens gasps hard and focuses, focuses on the rescue now and making it back inside the walls.
“Come on!” he hears carried across the wind.
Laurens sees Meade and Harrison at the gate of the fortification, the two of them waving in encouragement. They are so close now. Two undead come from the left, one grabbing at Tilghman and another at Walker. Laurens speeds up and pulls the creature off Walker who nearly falls with the attack. Laurens throws the undead back, its fingers tearing buttons off his lapel. It grabs for Laurens again, pulling at his arm. Laurens tries to keep moving, to yank his arm free. He twists his other arm around until he gets his sword under the creature’s chin – he had blue eyes in life – then Laurens drives his sword upward. The thing makes a gurgling noise and falls limp. Laurens stumbles backward as he yanks his sword free once more.
Someone shouts ahead of him. Hamilton cries, “go, go.” Tilghman’s voice screams once and another man yells with him. “Shit!” North shouts and another gunshot goes off. They cannot have any ready shot left. Hamilton barks something and Laurens sees him swing out his sword wildly at two undead too close again. Then Laurens remembers his own gun. He pulls it forth just as they reach the wall. He feels Hamilton’s hand on his sword arm, pulling, pulling, all of them almost inside. One of the life guard men falls, an undead grabbing him by the neck as it sinks its teeth into the man’s arm, blood flowing forth. Laurens aims and shots the life guardsman in the head so both fall back into the snow.
Then the gate slams closed in Laurens’ face. Those of them left all stand inside the walls panting for breath. Several guards come with fixed bayonets and stab at the undead that try to force themselves against the walls.
“Idiot!” Hamilton snaps at Laurens. “You damn idiot!”
“I would not leave them!” Laurens snaps back at him.
“We left two in the snow!”
“It would have been four!”
“But to run out there,” Hamilton hisses. “Alone? What did you think to do?”
“Stop!” Harrison snaps then lowers his voice. “It is done, and I will not debate the right or wrong.” He points at the house. “Inside, learn what they know.” Harrison pushes Laurens and Hamilton in the back, marching with them. “I will tell His Excellency.”
The rescued and rescuers all walk into the house, the adrenaline falling and the cold making them shiver. They tromp back into the house to find Mrs. Washington and Mrs. Greene waiting with cups of hot tea, handing them to the three men who made the arduous journey here.
Mrs. Washington hands another to Laurens with a grim look on your face. “He spoke once of your rashness but I suppose I could not have imagined how far such extended.”
Laurens stares back at her, unable to answer. She turns away again, a look on her face much like a mother, and takes another cup from a servant’s tray to give to Tilghman.
“Come,” Hamilton says to Laurens, gripping his arm. “We should sit.”
They walk into the aide office. Walker and North sit instead now at the one table, Fitzgerald standing near them as he puts his own coat over North’s shoulders.
“In the night,” North says. “We awoke to the sound of breaking wood. A larger number of them, I cannot say how many, but the doors broke under their weight.”
“We did not have time to create such fortifications as yours,” Walker interjects, “no wall but the house’s.”
“I think they were Maxwell’s brigade, I recognized some faces in the rush… but we could not fight them back. Once inside it was like a swarm, and we in our beds, only two on guard. We… we had little chance.” North makes a sound like a sob and he hunches over his cup. “We only…. we only escaped…”
“We only escaped because of the Baron,” Walker says, his voice stark and blank as if his emotions fled with the horror. “The Baron pushed pistols in our hands and hurried us out the side door. He stood in the way, told us we must make here to tell you… He faced half a dozen for us, to go back for Peter…” North looks up toward Laurens and Hamilton. “Even though he knew…”
“He bought us time.” North’s face contorts then he peeks up from the untouched tea in his hand. “You did not… did you… did you see him behind us?”
Walker swallows hard and looks down again, his breath uneven.
“No,” Laurens lies. “We did not see him.”
“Do you know of any of the other Generals?” Fitzgerald asks. “We had word from Knox this morning. General Wayne and Greene are here. What of the other brigades? Do any still stand?”
“Have you heard anything from beyond the Valley?” Tilghman asks as he limps into the room, sitting heavily at the opposite table, his teacup clinking in his hand. “Perhaps even any of our other forces north or south, do they fight the same undead as we?”
North and Walker only stare up helplessly, as if the question of anything beyond the ring of undead around their encampment is beyond such comprehension now.
After a pause, Walker says, “No, nothing but that we think Maxwell fallen.”
“Lafayette!” North says abruptly. “We had word four days past. His headquarters still remain and at least thirty men or more with him.”
Someone shifts sharply near the door and Laurens just catches Harrison turning out of the doorway, clearly heading to General Washington’s office.
“Still…” Meade says quietly, standing nearer Tilghman now. “Four days.”
Laurens nods. “When a night can lead to three men remaining.”
North makes a small noise and stares resolutely at the fire.
“But there is a chance,” Hamilton says. “Lafayette may live as well as his men with him. We may rally.”
“Because of one Frenchman?” Fitzgerald remarks, his tone dark.
“Because we need some hope!” Hamilton snaps.
Suddenly Tilghman’s teacup shatters on the floor. The men in the room all start in surprise. Meade leans over Tilghman as the man hunches over.
“Tilghman? Are you well?”
Tilghman shakes his head, opens his mouth as if to speak then closes it again. He looks up at them once sharply. His eyes look strange, paler somehow. He turns his head and stares at Meade. He reaches out his hand. “I feel…”
Then Tilghman’s head knocks backward and he abruptly falls from the chair sending shards of his cup skittering around their feet.
“Good God!” Walker snaps as he and North jolt up to standing and back away toward the wall.
“Tench!” Meade cries just as Fitzgerald says, “Tilghman, oh Lord.”
The pair of them crouch down beside Tilghman, patting his cheek and touching his brow.
“He cannot be…” Hamilton says.
“I did not see him bitten,” Laurens says low.
Hamilton shakes his head. “We were all set upon, running quickly.”
“But so fast, he could merely be overcome from the exertion.”
“You think that –”
Before Hamilton may say more, however, Tilghman jerks up from the floor. His hands fly up and grasp Fitzgerald’s head. Tilghman twists, his legs barely following, unnatural and wrong, and he sinks his teeth with a growl into Fitzgerald’s upper arm. Fitzgerald screams, lashing out with fists. Tilghman’s legs hit the table sending a chair sliding, nearly knocking Meade off his feet. Hamilton jumps back to avoid Fitzgerald’s waving arms and Laurens’ tries to grab him; but Tilghman tears a chunk of Fitzgerald’s shirt and flesh away so Fitzgerald falls backward again, hitting Walker’s knees.
“Grab him!” Hamilton shouts to Walker of Fitzgerald. “Pull him back!”
“A gun!” Laurens cries. “A knife, anything, now!”
They all try to back away as the undead Tilghman growls and twists around onto its knees, grasping out in all directions for what it deems food of its fellow aides-de-camp. It grabs Laurens’ ankles so he stumbles, hits the edge of the table.
“Move!” Hamilton shouts. “Get out, out!”
Laurens falls down suddenly as Tilghman pulls his leg, off balance with too many men and furniture and confusion in too small a space. Tilghman crawls up Laurens’ body, its teeth bared and growling like any mindless animal. Suddenly Meade grabs Tilghman’s shoulders, hauling the thing back and holding it fast against his chest.
“Help!” Walker says as he holds a handkerchief against Fitzgerald’s bleeding wound. “Please!”
“Kill it!” North screams.
“Here!” Hamilton says, reaching around fallen chairs to Laurens to thrust a dagger into Laurens’ hands. “Now!”
Meade’s face is stricken as he holds Tilghman’s thrashing form fast, tears leaking from his eyes. Laurens stares at Tilghman’s face, only moments ago talking with them, holding his tea as any day in the office.
Meade gasps hard. “Just do it!” And he scrunches up his eyes.
Laurens heaves himself up onto his knees, grips Tilghman’s hair. “I am sorry my friend.” Then he plunges the knife swift and sharp through Tilghman’s temple.
The body stops moving, arms falling down and slack over Meade, only a small amount of blood dripping from the wound. Laurens leans back on his haunches and drops the knife onto the floor. After a silent pause, Laurens hears the voice of General Washington and Harrison out in the hall behind him.
“… check when he returned?”
“So quickly… another loss as this…”
“I will not accept…”
Laurens stares at Tilghman as Meade shifts around out from under him. His face is almost calm but for the blood around his mouth, blood that is not his own. Meade’s hand strays gently over Tilghman’s uniform, smoothing out his lapels and moving Tilghman’s arms around to a more natural state by his sides. Laurens sees then a stain of blood high on Tilghman’s hip shaped much like a bit mark, covered before by his uniform. Tilghman may not have even realized in the rush back that he was bitten.
“What of Fitzgerald?” Laurens looks up at Hamilton who spoke so softly perhaps only Laurens could hear. Both their eyes shift to where Walker still sits with Fitzgerald, Fitzgerald wincing and holding his hand over Walker’s on his arm. “If Tilghman turned so fast…”
“No,” Laurens hisses, “we cannot.”
Meade sniffs hard, his hand brushing strands of Tilghman’s hair back into place. “Tench…”
“We have to,” Hamilton hisses.
Laurens stands up, close to Hamilton. “Perhaps there is a way, if we bandaged –”
“You know that is not the case! It has been the same with every person bit.”
“I hear you!” Fitzgerald snaps as he struggles to his feet. Walker and North both stare at him, edging slightly away. “There is no choice.” Fitzgerald drops his hand from the wound. “I know.”
Laurens holds up a hand. “Fitzgerald…”
“He is right,” North says softly.
“I did not ask you!” Laurens snaps.
“Laurens,” Hamilton grips his arm. “You cannot fix this now.”
“But to lose Tilghman and…” Meade looks up at Fitzgerald, tears down his face now. “John, no… not…”
Fitzgerald gives Meade a look but only shakes his head. He looks back to Laurens and Hamilton standing before him. “I would not turn into one of those. I would die a man, please.”
Laurens breathes in sharply. “There could be time.”
“Not enough, not to test this,” Fitzgerald says. “You have to, one of you has to.”
Hamilton turns out into the hall behind Laurens. Laurens keeps watching Fitzgerald, his jaw tight. Laurens steps forward and grips his hand. “Fitzgerald, I am sorry. I ran out and they followed me, if I had not…”
“Stop,” Fitzgerald says, pulling his hand away from Laurens. “Enough. Apologies are nothing now, just…” Fitzgerald blows out a breath and winces. He brings up his hand toward his arm but drops it again without touching it.
“Here,” Hamilton says coming in once more with a pistol in hand.
“You cannot do so in here,” Meade says, still crouched near Tilghman. “It is not…”
“And where else?” Hamilton snaps. “There is blood stained here now, there is blood and death all around us!” Laurens sees Hamilton’s hand shaking. “Should I take our friend outside in the cold to die?”
“Hamilton, stop,” Walker says palliatively.
Hamilton stands before Fitzgerald with the pistol half up yet he hesitates. Then he looks at Laurens. “I… I do not…”
“I know,” Laurens says taking the pistol from Hamilton. He looks at Fitzgerald who stares resolutely back. Laurens cannot help but see a person, his friend, a real man before him. “Fitzgerald…”
“Just do it.”
“Give it to me.”
Laurens turns sharply to General Washington standing right behind him now. Laurens stares then places the pistol into the General’s waiting hand.
“Out,” General Washington says. “Everyone.”
Walker and North hurry quickly around the General out into the hall. Hamilton shoots a look at Laurens then steps back and away. Laurens glances down at Meade but the General touches Laurens’ shoulder. Laurens nods and turns away following the others back into the hall.
“Meade,” The General says softly. Meade does not move for several seconds, still staring down at Tilghman. Then he stands up jerkily and marches around the General.
All the aides-de-camp, Walker, North and several more soldiers stand crammed into the hall watching. They should leave perhaps, give Fitzgerald his end in private, but a stronger feeling stays between them all somehow, how they cannot leave either man in that office alone to bear this.
General Washington nods once, the sound of the pistol cocking. He looks at Fitzgerald and says, “I thank you for your service to our country, Lieutenant Colonel. You are a brave and honorable man. It was an honor to serve with you.”
“Thank you, sir,” Fitzgerald whispers, almost too soft to hear.
Then the General raises his arm, points and fires one shot. Laurens hears Fitzgerald hit the floor with a thump, but Laurens' eyes have fallen closed. Hamilton’s hand fists tight around his and not a man around them speaks.
When Laurens opens his eyes again, General Washington faces the assembled party. “This is enough,” he says. “I will not lose more men bit by bit. We cannot only survive here. We must fight, be it win or die. We will seek out every other General and his house, find what strength is left among our army and then we shall retake Valley Forge or we shall retreat from this place. We wait no longer, we fight.”