It was a quiet day, accentuated by the cold clouds. Wind rushed through the trees and made a song that hushed the noise of the camp. Men still hurried hither and thither, forcefully encouraged by the sting in the air, but the usual hum was absent.
Benjamin hadn’t left his tent to experience the icy wind for himself; he was consumed with other, more important, matters. Papers littered the table in his tent: maps, letters, scribbled notes. He had sat pouring over them all night. Now he stood hunched over with his hands on the table. The wind, making a desperate effort to disturb another victim, whipped at the tent canvas around him, but he only turned up his coat collar and pulled another paper closer to stare intently at: a letter this time.
There was no knocking on the flap of a tent, but Caleb didn’t even try to announce himself. He simply barged in, coat open, hair mussed. Nose red.
“Eugh, bloody cold out there,” Caleb sniffed, exhaling warm air on his hands to bring feeling back. Benjamin didn’t look up, and the noncommittal grunt he gave could have been an acknowledgement of Caleb or just frustration at the wind. His hand was shaking from the cold as he reached for another paper. Caleb stilled and observed Ben’s posture for a moment. “You seem awfully entranced there, Tall-boy.”
This time, it seemed quite clear that he was being ignored. He had to think back for a moment before he decided that it wasn’t because of anything he had done. He moved forward then and stretched himself out on the chair across from Benjamin, propping his feet on the table to tilt his chair back.
Although Ben’s reaction was immediate, the way he shoved Caleb’s feet off the table seemed more habitual than focused. His eyes were still on the papers.
Caleb landed his chair back on all four legs with practiced inattention and leaned forward to see what Ben was looking at. Unable to decipher the upside-down words, he stretched his arms out across the table and splayed his fingers to cover as many words as possible. “I don’t like being ignored, Benjamin.” He was serious, but he also knew that Ben would be able to sense the joke in his voice.
Ben’s eyes flashed up and he glared right into Caleb’s eyes. “And I-“ his hands latched onto Caleb’s wrists, “don’t like being disturbed. Go find someone else who will give you the attention you so clearly desire.” He peeled Caleb’s hands away from the table and returned his focus to his papers.
Caleb furrowed his brow and jumped up. “Now look here, Ben-“
“No, Caleb! Enough! I have work—important work to do. And I can barely focus as it is, with my bloody tent about to blow away from this infernal gale. Yet I have no choice! If I go to the General sounding as clueless as I am, he’ll demote me with every right. This must be sorted.” He flailed his arms and turned away, more flustered than Caleb had seen him in months.
Caleb circled the table, hesitated, then leaned against it instead of going to Ben. “Washington wouldn’t demote you, no one could do this,” he waved his hand at the table even though Ben wasn’t looking, “better than you.”
Ben sighed and glanced over his shoulder. “You say that, but you don’t even know what ‘this’ is.” His head hung and he rubbed his eyes tiredly. Caleb shrugged and straightened up.
“Then show me. Tell me what’s gotten your panties in such a twist.” Caleb smiled cheekily when he said it, and this time Ben turned around and saw it. He glared half-heartedly but moved to the table to stand beside Caleb anyway.
“Well, these are the maps,” Ben began, sweeping the top layer of letters aside to reveal said maps, “and you can see where our troop locations are marked. Now, this letter,” he searched the chaos for a moment, then brandished it, “this letter says that enemy movement was marked near one of our camps, here, just across the river. But, I have another letter here, somewhere...” He looked around the table for a moment, then gave up with a sigh. “It says that a whole British army was spotted moving this way, two weeks ago.” He pointed a finger and swept it along the map. “But that can’t be possible, since we only know of one British army in that area. There is simply no way an army could have traveled all the way inland without any of our scouts noticing, but the numbers reported in the letters are too great to be an army that split up.” Ben paused to take a breath and glanced anxiously at Caleb, who was uncharacteristically expressionless. “You have to see that I can’t go to General Washington with the ‘intelligence’ that there’s a whole redcoat army we didn’t see coming, and now, can’t find.” He watched carefully for a change of expression on Caleb’s face. “So, what do you think?” Ben asked after a long moment.
Caleb was staring at the maps intently, unmoving. Finally, a twinkle of victory appeared in his eyes.“Wasn’t there a British camp here?” Caleb pointed on the map, past the places Ben had pointed out.
Benjamin nodded in recognition and manifested another map with a red marking where Caleb had pointed. “Yes, but we have it under siege.” His voice was glum.
Caleb shrugged. “When was the last time you heard from our boys who were laying siege? Maybe they were sleeping on the job and missed something. Or...at worst, they might have been taken by surprise and wiped out.”
Ben shook his head thoughtfully. “I don’t know. You really think the British would have been able to pull that off? Why would they abandon their camp and march out, if that is what happened? Where are they going?”
Caleb lifted his hands quickly and stepped back from the table. “I did my part, that’s your job.”
Ben narrowed his eyes at Caleb, but Caleb could already see that his mind was turning again. “Fine, then you’re going to leave me alone so I can work in peace?”
Caleb grinned and leaned back against the table. “Ah, I dunno about that.” He had to speak quickly to thwart Ben’s exasperated sigh. “If you wanted to thank me for my help, I might be satisfied to leave.”
Ben closed his mouth and watched Caleb evenly for a moment before the corner of his lip began to pull up into a reluctant grin. “Thank you for your service, Lieutenant Brewster. It is very much appreciated.” Ben said, smiling in full now.
Caleb stood up and grinned. “There we go! That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Ben rolled his eyes and shoved Caleb good-naturedly. “I can assure you, anything you have to say from now on will be significantly less helpful.”
Caleb was just happy to see him relaxed and engaging in their mutual teasing again. “Ah, you might be right, but can you really afford to send me away on the off chance I do say something else brilliant?”
Ben laughed aloud and turned to the table. “I’m sure I’ll manage.”
Gunshots barked in the distance and both men looked up sharply, then glanced at each other.
“Target practice?” Caleb posited.
Ben shook his head grimly. “We just went on powder ration.”
Caleb moved first, throwing aside the tent flap and stepping out into the bristling wind. His first attempt at a breath was painful, but by the second he had started to run and his lungs more readily warmed up the air he breathed in. He could hear Ben’s footsteps just behind him, crunching and thumping oddly on the frozen ground. Only a few scattered shots rang out, but the direction was clear. Other tent flaps were being pushed aside as they passed and more men were roused by the commotion.
Ben and Caleb had started to get to the outskirts of the city of tents when suddenly, from the foggy gloom, a figure ran wildly towards them from the direction of the shots. “An attack! It’s an attack!” He screamed when he saw them.
Ben stopped suddenly. “Caleb. Caleb!”
He stopped, turned back.
“To arms. Men! To arms!” The other men who had heard the gunshots looked confused at Ben’s cry, but many rallied and turned back to gather their weapons from their tents. Caleb also followed Ben’s order and headed to his own tent after exchanging a look with Ben that was meant to reassure both of them, but didn’t.
His hatchet went into his belt, his leather overcoat offered a sense of protection more than actual protection, and his musket, already loaded, cradled in his arms. He stepped out into the mayhem again and found himself heading in the direction of Ben’s tent, away from the gun-battle. As desperate as he was to get right into the fight, something in the back of his mind needed to speak to Ben first. He didn’t know what he needed to say, but suddenly he saw Ben’s figure in the distance and he quickened his pace.
“Ben!” Though he yelled with all his force, it was nothing against the tide of voices shouting randomly throughout the camp. As he drew closer though, Ben happened to turn towards him and relief flashed across his face. He reached out and pulled Caleb close enough so they could hear each other.
“I thought you would already be killing redcoats.”
Caleb shook his head. “I had something I wanted to say to you first.”
“...well, what is it?” They both had to lift their voices to be heard. The storm of gunshots was building in the distance.
Caleb shook his head again. “I don’t know.”
“Well, I’ll say something to you then.” Ben took a firm hold of Caleb’s shoulders to be sure he had his full attention. “If you do anything stupid, I will never forgive you. Promise me you’ll meet me right back here when this is over.”
Caleb shook his head in confusion. “Of course I will.” He met Ben’s eyes solemnly. “Right back here, I promise, Ben.” He suddenly flashed a trademark smirk and pulled away so sharply that he was simply there one moment and lost in the field of coats the next.
Ben took a deep breath that didn’t quite manage to shake the jittery feeling in his chest and forced himself to move through the crowd. As he walked, his hand pulled up to rest on the butt of his pistol and its familiar touch helped to focus his battle fever. As he neared the outskirts of the tent rows once again, he could see the serious nature of the chaos that had erupted.
Too many men were in white undergarments, shivering in the hostile chill. Too many men had comic looks of confusion plastered on their faces. Too many men were unarmed and loitering hopelessly. Even those who had managed to arrive, dressed and armed, looked aimless and unsure.
Benjamin Tallmadge did not stop. He brought himself to the front of the crowd and held up his musket with glistening bayonet.
“Men! The camp is under attack! On me!” He waited only for a few eyes to follow his voice before he turned and began to run towards the dwindling fight just beyond the tree line. He didn’t have to look back to know that he had a following now. He also didn’t have to look back to know that it wasn’t nearly as many men as one could hope for in the camp of a supposedly trained army.
He ran on regardless, with a torturous moment to think about where Caleb was, to wonder who was watching his back. Probably no one. But then, almost a relief, he could see gunsmoke ahead, rising from the fog, and hear the last cries of dying men. He slowed his pace and moved forward in a crouch, holding up his hand to guide the men behind him to do the same. He could hear, but not see, the evidence of enemies up ahead. Underbrush breaking, barked whisper commands, guns being reloaded with scraping metal.
He came upon a ditch and slid down into it. Twenty-or-so followers slid down behind him and they moved along its curve in an orderly fashion. He held up a closed fist and they settled down, crawling up to the edge of the ditch to peer out into the unnatural gloom. Scattered muzzle flashes made a few of them jump, but somehow Ben knew they weren’t discovered yet. Their attackers only hoped to hit something of value. That was promising.
Then the gloom lit up again, an explosion this time, wild activity following. Figures appeared through the mist and he fired just as wildly as the men next to him. Desperate fingers, reloading quickly. One more volley of fire before he knew it was down to bayonet work. He brandished his musket like a spear and rose up from the ditch. More shots were fired and he had a small moment to hope he wasn’t hit before he spied his target. He ran forward with a rallying shout unbidden and just saw the terrified look in the man’s eyes before his bayonet ended it. He inhaled: pulled back his musket and refocused on the next, the next, the next. Brothers-in-arms fell to the left and right of him, yet he moved forward, aiming for a target that fell just as he reached him. Was that Caleb’s handiwork? An agonizing burn in his right arm made him look down, over, enemy! He swung his bayonet and missed, pulled his pistol and shot, hit. Burnt powder burnt his nose, but he had to breathe, had to breathe. He could. Moved forward and forward, enemy, enemy, enemy. Slashed, cut, stabbed, had a moment to reload his pistol. Fired. Shouts to the left and right of him, behind him, all around him. He shouted once, screamed another but didn’t know why. He moved forward. Suddenly in a clearing, he found no enemies. He turned around and saw the truth of the carnage he had just survived...and helped to create. A few scattered muzzle flashes lit up the trees, a silhouette stabbing down into the ground. Slowly he began to recognize the figures standing all around, and his feet brought him back into the trees, made his eyes look down at the faces on the ground. He recognized some of those, too, but not so many. “Call out your allegiance,” he yelled.
“For America! For Washington! For Liberty!” It rang out around him, bringing a moment of life back to the frozen world. Then it faded away again. The wind had begun clearing the smoke until he was able to see the camp through the trees: and the figures running down, too late, guns in hand. They would help collect bodies now.
He looked down at his hands, saw that they were shaking and holding his pistol and his bayonet, disconnected from his musket. He would have to find that. He knelt and wiped the blood from his bayonet on the ground. The ground already had more than enough blood and entrails, but he gave it more. His arm...he hadn’t noticed, or must have forgotten, but now it dripped freely, more blood on the ground.
“Major! Are you alright?” A man he didn’t quite recognize came loping up to him and saw his arm. “You’re bleeding, sir! Can I take you to a medic?” He shook his head, found it dizzying. “I’ll go myself once this is under control. Have men secure the perimeter.” He rose with steady effort. The man hesitated, then bowed his head and ran off, shouting for men to follow. Some did. More didn’t.
Benjamin started walking, eyes roving intensely. He stopped again and again to kneel and turn over a bloody body, wearing an almost-familiar coat. Many of them were dead. Often they were soldiers, his soldiers. None of them were Caleb. He called medics over to the ones who screamed, spoke a word of comfort, then stepped back to let them at their work. Most of the figures around him were carrying stretchers now, instead of guns. A few had skirts. He didn’t blink at that.
As he wandered, he suddenly found himself straightening up, search halted. His hand clenched on his pistol butt and he watched tensely as a regal figure swept into the field of activity, flanked by guards. Men bowed and scraped, or just stopped what they were doing to stare, but General George Washington didn’t stop in front of them. He stopped in front of Ben.
Ben lowered his eyes a moment too late. “General. Sir.”
The General’s eyes quickly found the bleeding hole in Ben’s arm, but they settled on his face. “How did this happen? Not even half the men are dressed and armed, let alone in formation.” You should have seen this coming.
Benjamin didn’t have the words, but he swallowed dryly and found some anyway. “I don’t know, sir. I heard the shots and one man calling an alarm. I rallied who I could, but we are fortunate their numbers weren’t greater.” He stopped speaking for a moment, then quickly added, “I have men guarding the perimeter, looking for more of them.”
The General nodded slowly, looking around at his fallen men with a commander’s eye. “The priority should be to secure the camp. I want you to lead the search for any that might have gotten away. It will be dark soon and I want all patrols secured before then. Report to me immediately with anything you find.”
That Great Man nodded and walked away.
Ben’s heart dragged down, but he lifted his head and spotted someone with a medical bag walking nearby. “You! I need a bandage.” He called, jogging stiffly to catch her up. It was Anna. He hardly blinked at that either. She quickly began wrapping the wound in his upper arm with white cloth and steady hands.
“This area isn’t safe yet. You shouldn’t have brought the women here until it was.”
“No one is here that doesn’t want to be, Ben. These are their husbands...and their sons.” Her eyes were focused on what her hands were doing, but he could feel her wanting to ask a question.
“Whatever it is you want to say, it needs to wait.” He said it more harshly than he meant, but she stepped away, work already done, and nodded.
“Thank you.” He met her eyes guiltily, patted her shoulder, and moved away quickly.
At the edge of the trees, he found the man he had sent off earlier at the head of a patrol. “Have you found anything, Corporal-”
“Carter, sir. And, no sir, nothing yet. I have men heading down the riverbanks and they’ll know if boats were anchored recently.” Benjamin nodded, pulling out his pistol to reload it as they talked. “Good. I want to lead another patrol inland, in case they are trying to escape to the British lines. Form on me!” he called to the men around them. This time, a crowd of men emerged to join Corporal Carter’s patrol in formation. He turned to address them. “These cowards attacked our camp without warning. Now, some of them might be running back to their commanders to tell them precisely where we are and what our defenses are. We need to spread out to cover as much ground as possible before dark, but never get out of earshot of one another. Alert me immediately if you find anything.” They mumbled their ‘yessirs’ and Ben turned to lead them out across the short meadow that led further into the woods. As ordered, the men spread out to the left and right as they walked. Benjamin watched the ground hoping to see footprints or a blood trail, but he had a smothering notion that there wasn’t anything, or anyone, to be found.
Hard as he tried to hold onto his focus, he slipped into a drudgerous fog as he walked, only focusing on taking one step after another. Step, step, step. Endless forest floor that all looked the same. Eventually, he looked out to either side and realized that it had grown dusky. He couldn’t see anyone from his patrol, but he had to imagine that several of his men would come running if he called out. He found himself wishing there was something to call out for.
As if his thoughts had summoned them, quick footsteps approached from his right side. He somehow knew that it would be Corporal Carter before he had even made out the man’s face in the forest’s shadow. “Have you found something?”
“Yes sir, some of the men came upon a cabin with a fire lit inside. No one’s approached it yet, just in case...”
“How many of our men are nearby?”
“A dozen are gathered there, sir.”
Benjamin nodded. “That should be enough. Let’s go.”
They walked quickly for several long moments that served to send the thrum of battle fever through Ben once again, then Carter spoke in a hushed tone.
“Why do you think they would have stopped, sir?”
Ben shrugged, glancing over at his walking companion only briefly. “It might not be our enemy,” he answered quietly. “There are farms around here that provide crucial food to our camp. At worst, it might be a captive situation. Either way, we have to handle this with tact. Do you understand?”
Carter nodded. “Yes, sir.”
The light Carter had spoken of came slowly into view, breaking through the dim veil of the forest little by little. Looking carefully, Ben could make out the shapes of his men in amongst the trees. They joined the small group and Carter relayed what Ben had said. The darkness of the hour made it hard to see their faces, but Benjamin could only hope they understood that this might not be a fight.
He stepped out into the clearing around the little cabin. Although he was tempted to draw his pistol, he had to settle for resting his hand on its butt. If this was just a farmer and his family, they couldn’t afford to scare them needlessly.
Ben reached the door and lifted his fist to it, knocked twice, briskly. He could hear indistinct sounds of movement through the door and he listened intently for anything that might indicate that the dweller had a gun. He stepped back from the door slightly, body tense and readied for action. The door opened slowly and a woman peeked around to look at them. Ben let some of his edge fall away, but he reminded himself that women weren’t always harmless either. Anna always proved that much, gladly.
“Good evening, ma’am. I’m sorry to disturb you, but has everything been quiet here tonight?”
For a long moment, she just stared at him, his gun, his men, their guns. She nodded slowly.
“May we come in?” He asked, feigning a casual tone. She hesitated for so long that Ben expected she would say no, but then she nodded again and stepped back, swinging the door open.
Ben looked back at his men again and carefully held up four fingers out of the woman’s view. Carter nodded and Ben stepped into the cabin, followed by four of his men. The rest stood rigidly just outside.
The cabin was brightly illuminated by the fireplace and when Ben looked at the woman again he realized that she was much younger than he had first thought. Barely out of her teens, if that. He scanned the rest of the cabin carefully, but it seemed to be otherwise unoccupied. One plate was set out on the table with an uneaten dinner on it.
“I’m sorry, did we interrupt your meal?” Ben asked, turning to the woman.
She shook her head straight away. “No, that’s for my husband, for when he gets back.” As soon as she said it, Ben could see the fear and regret on her face.
“Where is your husband now?”
She shook her head quickly. “Nowhere. He’s traveling. I thought he might be back tonight, but I don’t know. He probably won’t be.” Ben drew in a soft breath and relaxed slightly, with effort.
“Where did your husband go?” He asked gently.
She shrugged, lowering her eyes and shaking her head again. “Into town.”
“And he didn’t tell you when to expect him back?”
“No.” She was barely whispering now.
Benjamin looked at Carter, who looked back at him with wide, clueless eyes. Ben bit back a sigh.
“Ma’am, in case you weren’t aware, we are members of the Continental Army under General Washington. Lying to us makes you seem suspect of treason. Where is your husband?”
She chewed her lip and tried to hide her shaking hands in the pockets of her apron. “I don’t know.” She hung her head, but Ben saw the tears beginning to fall. He took a deep breath and reminded himself of what he had just told her.
He was a member of the Continental army under General George Washington. He could handle a crying woman.
She sniffed. “He left earlier to meet up with...his friends, our neighbors. He was angry and said he wanted to take what he was owed.” She burst into sudden sobs and Ben cringed. He slowly, reluctantly, reached out and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
“It’s alright, just take a deep breath and tell me in your own time.” Carter went around them to the table and retrieved a tin of water to offer her. She took it shakily, gulping it down through hiccups. Ben pulled his hand back and waited.
“He took his hunting rifle with him, said he didn’t know when he would come back, but when he did, it would be with what we were owed. Just what we were owed.” She sniffed and sobbed at once, but seemed to have collected herself fairly well.
“Did he say who owed you?” Ben asked, suddenly realizing that he wouldn’t like this answer.
“Your George Washington. The rebel army.” Benjamin nodded slowly and Carter caught his eye. It seemed the truth of what they just discovered had dawned on Carter too. Ben returned his attention to the woman.
“Thank you for sharing this information.” He hesitated, then continued. “If anyone else asks, it would be best if you didn’t have any knowledge of what your husband did or where he went. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but it is unlikely that you will see your husband again.” She covered her face to try and hide her tears, but Ben didn’t think any less of her for them. He knew, though, that he couldn’t be the one to stay and comfort her.
He found himself looking to Carter. “This information must be taken to the General at once, but I don’t want the lady to pass the night here alone.” Carter nodded in agreement. “Ma’am, would you agree to let me leave Corporal Carter here to watch over you?” He had to speak up over her sobs, but she held them back just long enough to look over at Carter and nod tearfully.
“He can stay. I don’t want to be here alone.” She sniffed heavily.
“Sir, perhaps she should return to camp with us?” Carter offered. Ben’s first thought was to reject that suggestion, but then he reconsidered.
“I’ll leave that up to you to arrange, but if she does come back to camp...take precautions for her safety.” He gave Carter a weighted look, then turned and left the cabin once he was satisfied that Carter had understood him properly.
“We have the information we need, call the men to return to camp,” Benjamin told the men who were waiting outside. He started walking, listening absentmindedly to the echoing calls of “Fall back!! Return to camp!” It was easy to descend back into his daze as he walked, but now it was dark enough that he had to pay special attention to where he put his feet. Soon enough everyone from his patrol would catch him up, and he didn’t want to trip in front of the whole squad.
They arrived back at camp in the last few minutes of dusk, just before the night’s sky turned black. They had to walk back through the hours-old battleground, but now the only signs of the death that had occurred there were the rusty stains in the earth that were almost impossible to note in the dim light.
The formation behind Ben slowly dispersed as men went to their tents, cook-fires, or wives.
The task ahead of Ben was much less pleasant than theirs. He rehearsed his opening statement desperately as he walked, but as he was let into the General’s house, he realized that this was too horrible a thing to be lightened by a well-thought out opening.
An aide showed him to the tactics room, which was really just a second dining room that was now covered in maps. Washington was standing before one of those maps, back to the door, and he didn’t turn around when it opened or shut.
“What is it, Major Tallmadge?”
“Sir...” Somehow he needed the General to look at him before he could say it. Washington turned around and looked at him with that guarded, meaningful look. Ben forced himself to breathe. “Sir, my patrol found something.” He couldn’t seem to bring himself to say it.
“Spit it out, Major,” the General said, not unkindly.
“The men who attacked the camp were farmers, sir. We found a cabin, with a lady, and she said that her husband wanted to take what was owed to him by the Continental army.” He couldn’t remember being this anxious over Washington’s reaction in a long time, but the lack of a reaction was somehow, most definitely, worse.
“Are you certain?” The General asked slowly, steel blue eyes holding Benjamin’s steadily.
“As certain as I can be, sir. The only way to be more sure would be to have her identify her husband’s body.” Even saying it felt awful.
Washington nodded slowly. “It won’t come to that, I trust your account. I want you to find the families of any other farmers that were killed. They must be compensated for the deaths of their breadwinners.”
Benjamin bowed his head, relieved by an order that was easy enough to follow. “Of course, sir. I’ll send men back out in the morning.”
“No, I want it done tonight. They should know that their husbands aren’t coming home to them, and that they will be paid what is owed. Paid too late, I’m afraid, but we aren’t thieves.”
Benjamin hesitated to speak again, but thankfully the General didn’t seem to have anything else to say, so he gathered his nerve. “I understand, sir, but the men are tired and many of them had to bury their friends tonight. If they could just have tonight to grieve-“
“Do the families of the dead not also deserve their night to mourn? The men will have their chance for grief later, do you understand, Major?”
Benjamin was just opening his mouth to utter a ‘yessir’ when there was a knock at the door and it opened suddenly, without summons.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, General, but I heard that Major Tallmadge had come to see you. He is needed urgently at the medical tent.”
Like mirrors, Ben and Washington frowned in concern.
“Who is it?” Ben asked hoarsely, voice suddenly lost. Oh God. Caleb. How had he forgotten to find him?
The aide hesitated, glanced at the General. “If it’s alright, sir?”
“Who is it?” Ben rasped, fear closing his throat as he repeated himself.
“It’s alright, our business is done for the night.” Washington said, nodding at the man.
The aide moved back from the doorway and nodded at Ben. “If you could follow me, Major.”
Ben couldn’t. His feet, his legs, not even his fingers would twitch. Suddenly he didn’t want to leave the candlelit, map covered room that smelled of books and forgetting. The aide gave him a strange look and gestured out into the hallway.
“Go to your friend, Major. Time might be precious,” the General said softly. Ben looked back at him, eyes blown wide open, jaw trembling slightly. He couldn’t. He just couldn’t, “Go.”
Really his knee just buckled, but that somehow sent him out into the hallway, then he was following the aide with quick footsteps down the corridor, through the door, and into the night air that echoed the cold dread in his chest.
The camp had come alive around its nighttime campfires, but they were going straight toward the liveliest tent of all; the one that cried and buzzed like a hive of bees. It smelled, too, of death, as they drew closer. The aide held the tent flap aside for him, but didn’t look to be going in.
“Towards the back, on the right,” was all he said.
Ben fought his own body to step inside, with added resistance from a nose that wanted him to recoil from the putrid smell of death.
Walk, run, away.
The wails of the dying and grieving shuddered his heart. He didn’t want to join their grief.
Even so, he stepped inside.
If battle had been chaos, this was...madness.
Women acting as nurses ran here and there with worry lines engraved on their faces. Doctors wiped their blood-stained hands on bloodied aprons and covered mangled bodies with bloody sheets. Everyone else was sprawled out on tables and cots, all pale and injured and blood-covered. Some weren’t moving and it was perfectly impossible to tell if they were dead or sleeping. The rest writhed, screaming out their pain for God to hear. If He heard.
Ben hadn’t eaten all day, but his body was desperately trying to find something to throw up to demonstrate its displeasure. He covered his nose and mouth with one hand and forged into the fray.
Towards the back, on the right.
He edged past cot after cot. Some morbid thing inside him made him look at those he passed, but eventually he had to keep his eyes up or risk backing out. It wouldn’t be Caleb in here. Caleb wasn’t one to fall to such bad luck: he was luck in flesh. Nothing could bring him here. Certainly not farmers with a debt grudge.
Ben made an effort to swallow, breathe, and edge past a minister who was hunched over a dying man. He couldn’t look, but he did. It wasn’t Caleb, but this was only the middle of the tent. Someone screamed, he flinched. No one else flinched. No one else even turned their head. He did, and regretted it. Dying slowly, a man who might otherwise have been brave.
He moved on.
A medic in front of him stepped to the side and he could see the back of the tent. Now that he had to look at the faces on the cots, he couldn’t. It was impossible. But....there, there he was.
Lying there, a cot of his own, a dozen bandages all forging into one, blood mostly. His shirt was gone, his pants torn, hair matted, beard bloody. He shouldn’t have even been recognizable, but Ben would know him anywhere. Instead of joy at seeing his friend, this time, his heart stopped. Then pounded, then stopped again. He wanted to throw up and cry, and run to Caleb, but this time he would really never move again. Just stare at his friend until they both died: one of injury, one of heartbreak.
“Time might be precious. Go.”
Ben lurched forward on wooden legs and found himself staring over Caleb’s injuries. Some medic had tried to tend to his wounds, but one still showed through the bandages enough for Ben to see that it was made with a hatchet. Caleb’s own hatchet most likely, and wasn’t luck a whore when she turned.
It wasn’t a laugh or a sob, it was some mix of both, and suddenly Ben was crying. He collapsed to his knees, hiding his face against Caleb’s side, clinging desperately to the hot hand with his cold ones as he sobbed.
People, medics, doctors, loved ones, brushed past him, but it was a long moment before he awakened to their presence again, realized he shouldn’t be making such a spectacle of himself here. He was a Major, not a mere man to be swayed by his fear.
He slowly pulled out his handkerchief and dried his face, stood up and took a long, slow breath.
He looked down at Caleb again and touched his cheek with a tender hand. He felt the need to say something, but it was his heart not his head that was begging Caleb to sit up and smile at him, reach for his hand. There was no way to possibly put that into words.
A hand touched his arm timidly and he looked up to see Anna standing there. She looked almost as terrible as he felt, covered in blood. The blood of other men, not her own, and that was something. But the look in her eyes, that hurt. She knows.
He tried to say something first, to make some excuse for himself, some lie, but she beat him to it.
“I’m so sorry, Ben. I didn’t want you to have to see him like this, but I knew you would be upset if I didn’t have you sent for.” Her smile was gentle and apologetic, and it certainly didn’t feel right to have such a fiery woman tiptoeing so carefully around his feelings.
“No, I...just....I’m glad you sent for me, but I wouldn’t have been upset.” A simple look from her called out the lie. He rubbed his face self-consciously and couldn’t think of an easier lie to tell.
“We both know that isn’t true, Ben. You care for him and there’s no shame in that.”
“Stop. No. It’s not that.” He put on a careless tone, but he was no actor. “It’s just that Abe isn’t here, so I can’t protect him, but you and Caleb are. I thought that meant I would be able to protect you both.” He ended softly, head hanging low as one mindless hand brushed against Caleb’s. “He’s so damned stubborn and reckless. I told him to be careful,” his voice broke and he cleared his throat quickly, looking desperately to the canvas roof above him to keep the tears at bay.
Anna looked at him sadly. “It’s not your fault, Ben. Caleb has always been hard-headed. And I know if there was anything you could have done, you would have done it. Bad things happen.”
Some biting retort came to Ben’s lips, but he held it back and took a breath instead. “Has a doctor seen him yet? How bad are his wounds?” Is he going to die?
Anna shrugged regretfully. “I don’t know, Ben, I’m sorry.” She glanced down at Caleb and a look, both hard and soft, came over her face. “I only saw him when he first came in. He had more blood on him then, but I don’t think it was all his. I tried to clean his wounds, but there were so many. Then a real medic came over to do his bandages and...I wanted to stay, but I had to help other people too.” The last part sounded suddenly like an apology and Ben realized with awkward discomfort that that was actually what it was. She was apologizing for not helping more.
He pulled her into a sudden hug before he had even meant to do it, but he knew by the way she melted into it that she needed the comfort, perhaps more than he did. After all, the comfort he craved the most came from different arms.
“You’ve done so much more than anyone could ask of you, Anna.” He pulled away just as quickly. Those were the only words he had to comfort her, but he did wish he had more.
Anna shook her head slowly and looked away, but carefully not at any of the prone bodies around them. “I almost thought I hated Selah for not being a fighting man, but now I’m just relieved. I’m so relieved I don’t have to look for him in a place like this.” She bit her lip and looked back at Ben. “Does that make me a bad person, to be so selfish?”
Ben almost laughed. “No. Never. I think that just makes you sane.” He struggled to ignore how similar his sentiments about Caleb were. Only he didn’t get to be relieved. If Caleb survived (God, how awful that if sounded in his head) he would only be feeling this again the next time Caleb ran off into battle. How nice it would be to escape all this. He had never been able to imagine the kind of life that would let him and Caleb live happily together, but that didn’t stop his longing for it.
“Maybe we should step outside, get you some fresh air.” Anna suggested gently, and Ben realized that he had been watching Caleb. He shook his head.
“Ben,” and this was Mother Anna now, who had often been the voice of reason when Abraham wasn’t there and Ben was feeling particularly reckless, “you look dreadful. I know you’ve been through a lot today, so please take a moment for yourself.” Ben shook his head again, but he knew the truth of her words in the effort it took to make that small movement.
“I’ll stay here. There’s plenty of time t—“ He trailed off, remembering that, really, there was no time. He had another mission to do before dawn’s light. He rubbed his face and sighed tiredly, feeling another urge to cry, which was exhausting. But perhaps focusing on another mission would help to hold back the tide of emotions that was threatening his composure again. That didn’t make it any easier to turn away from Caleb’s bedside.
“I have to go on a mission for Washington.” He said softly, looking down at where his hand met Caleb’s.
A fire lit on Anna’s face instantly. “Not tonight, surely? You’re exhausted. You can barely stand, let alone lead a mission. And now that you have Caleb to worry about... Go back to Washington and tell him that you won’t go on another mission until you’ve slept. You’re no good to anyone like this.” Ben surprised her with a soft chuckle.
“I’m no use to anyone...?” He repeated teasingly.
Anna huffed quietly, but a light smile stole over her face anyway. “You know what I mean, Benjamin Tallmadge, now go tell it to Washington or I will.” Ben shook his head again.
“No. The fresh air will do me good. I’ll be back by late morning,” he said, resigned. He could sense another objection coming so he kissed her forehead quickly, then moved towards the front of the tent and freedom from the oppressive sadness that lingered here. He allowed himself a quick look back at Caleb’s motionless form that didn’t reassure him.
It was often hard to leave Caleb, but this was...torture.
As he stepped outside, the penetrating air somehow managed to feel cool and welcome as he began his walk to the nearest communal bonfire. Normally he might pick his men more carefully, but he would consider himself lucky to find anyone in the whole camp who would brave another mission tonight.
Already, even from a distance, he could tell that the huddled figures posted like statues around the campfire wouldn’t be willing candidates for his mission. Still, he put on his Majorly posture and entered the warm, lighted circle of the fire.
He looked at the faces around him, hoping for someone familiar. Well, no one could spend months in the same camp without becoming familiar with most faces.
He approached a small group who were sitting slightly apart from the rest and cleared his throat. “Evening, men.” He said, and was greeted in kind. “I need a dozen men to go on a search mission. Are any of you up to the task?” It felt stupid and unimportant in his own ears, but being more specific about said task definitely wouldn’t win them over. He was quite sure that he wasn’t the only one in the camp who couldn’t face crying widows bravely.
One laughed. The others watched him solemnly until their spokesman stood up. “Respectfully, sir, you’d have to be crazy to ask us to go out into the forest on a night like this. Especially to just wander around looking for something. You’ll have to find some other men. Respectfully.”
Benjamin nodded. “Thank you for your honesty.” He couldn’t say anything else without sounding disappointed, tired. He walked away from the warm arms of the campfire.
As he walked to the next fire, he had a sudden thought, and changed his course to the forest, away from the river.
Walking through the lodgings of the camp followers was always strange in his uniform, but most of the women had their children asleep and their husbands abed, so he was largely unobserved. He realized that he didn’t know exactly what he was looking for, but he heard a slight commotion to his right and moved to meet it.
A small group of people were putting up a tent near a young campfire and he spied the figure of Corporal Carter next to one of the women. He hurried his footsteps to reach the fire’s warmth and Carter turned to spot him almost at once.
“Major? What are you doing here, sir?”
Ben forced a faint smile. “Unfortunately I must ask something of you, and the lady.” He bowed his head at the newly-made widow he had met at the cabin earlier. Carter frowned and the widow looked nervous, but not wholly handicapped by grief. That was a promising sign that her assistance might be available.
“What’s the mission, sir?”
“The General wants the families of today’s casualties to be identified and informed of their recompense.” He sounded tired when he said it, he knew, but he could only hope that Carter was as good as he seemed and would lend his aid.
The Corporal nodded slowly, then glanced to the widow at his side. “You want her help, too, sir?”
Benjamin bowed his head slightly. “Yes, I’m afraid so. I truly wouldn’t ask this of you, madam, except that the other widows deserve to know that their husbands aren’t coming home tonight.” Apparently parroting the General was the thing that was going to get him through this.
She watched him intently for a moment, then looked to Carter and nodded slowly. “So...you want me to tell you who to talk to?” She asked quietly.
“Yes. I don’t expect you to know everyone we need to talk to, but anything you can tell us will be helpful. If you don’t mind coming to my tent where I have paper and ink, I can write down a list of names.” She nodded her agreement. “And Carter, if you could find a few men who you trust with a task like this.” Ben hated himself for saying it: knew it was just because he didn’t want to ask more men himself. Cowardice. Fuck. “Or you could take down the names...” Carter looked a bit lost, or maybe just thoughtful, but shook his head quickly.
“I can find the men we need, sir.” Ben almost sagged in relief, but he managed to hold himself together.
“Good, then we’ll meet up again by the horse paddocks. Make sure the men are armed, not too heavily, but enough.” Carter bowed his head and hurried off. Benjamin held out his arm to the widow, who took it meekly. As soon as they began walking, alone now, he realized with horror that he hadn’t asked her name either of the two times they had met. But wasn’t it too late to ask now? Or was it worse to keep calling her ma’am in all future interactions?
“Ma’am, I must apologize for my lack of manners,” and wasn’t that something Caleb would laugh to hear, “but may I ask your name?” She looked up at him, but the blessed half-moon hid most of his blushing and her surprise.
“Erm, it’s Elise. Shepherd.” She cleared her throat. “And your name, sir?”
“Major Benjamin Tallmadge, at your service. And, may I offer the formal condolences of the Continental army and General Washington. You will, of course, be among those who receive compensation for the loss you have suffered.”
She sniffed softly and Ben was reluctant to look down to see if she was crying. Thankfully, after a brief moment, she drew in a long breath and spoke calmly. “Thank you for the courtesy, Major, but I don’t care for your army’s money. That was my husband’s campaign, not mine. I wish only to return to my father.”
Benjamin nodded soberly. “If that is what you want, I’m sure we will be able to provide an escort for you.” She drew in a breath to begin her argument, but Ben anticipated it. “Please, I must insist. A safe escort to your father’s house is the least we can do for you.”
There was a short pause as she pondered the offer.
“Perhaps....if my escort was Corporal Carter, I might accept. We’ve been getting along rather well,” she said shyly.
Ben was surprised at first, but then he smiled slightly into the night. “I’ll see what I can do, ma’am.”
While he didn’t condone distractions for the troops, it made him glad to think that maybe Miss Shepherd wouldn't be alone for too long. Once the war was over, Corporal Carter would be free to seek her hand, if he so chose.... and if he survived.
Ben swallowed thickly against the sudden dryness in his mouth. Since he had joined the war (hell, ever since the war had started) such morbid thoughts seemed to lurch to the forefront of his mind to counter any thoughts that even bordered on pleasant. The reoccurring nature of these morbid thoughts didn’t mean that he had stopped being affected by them either.
Fortunately, they had kept up a good pace and were within sight of his tent. A welcome distraction.
He had only a brief moment, before he pulled back the tent flap to admit her, to realize that he hadn’t tidied his tent in ages. Nor had he been here to light a candle since nightfall.
“I must apologize for the state of things in here,” he said quickly, rushing in after her to scoop papers and empty inkwells off the table. Only then he found himself standing there with papers and inkwells and nowhere to put them. Pulling back a sigh, he dumped them carefully back on the corner of the table and went to the oil lamp that hung from his tent’s support pole. He struck a match and lit the lamp, then turned to face the mess that had been illuminated.
Miss Shepherd stood politely near the door of the tent, looking around with mild interest. Ben leaped at the papers that held sensitive information and concealed them quickly in his desk drawer, thinking all the while of how he should have had her wait outside. It would have seemed rude, but by now secrecy should have been more of a habit than manners. He sighed at himself as he brushed maps and more papers aside to clear a spot at the table. It would take far too long to clean the whole mess up, so he began the search instead for a blank sheet of paper and an inkwell that wasn’t dry. He set them out on the table. Finally, he was able to pull out a chair for her.
“Sorry for the delay,” he mumbled quickly, rather more embarrassed than he wanted to be. She took her seat and when he moved around her to take his own seat, he tried to compose himself with a slow inhale...exhale. “Now, if you could, start with the family names of anyone you saw your husband conspiring with.” Elise winced at the word ‘conspire.’ Ben readied his pen, wincing slightly at his own choice of words.
“You must understand, Major, that I didn’t really see him conspiring with anyone. I didn’t even realize what he meant to do until a few weeks ago, and I still didn’t believe that he would actually do it until you came to my door tonight.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Shepherd, I didn’t mean to suggest that you were a co-conspirator, or that you were involved in any way.”
She took a breath and shook her head. “I should be the one apologizing. I just don’t want to be blamed for the mistake..treachery my husband committed.” Her eyes sparked suddenly with fear. “You aren’t going to punish the wives of these men for being traitors, are you? Is that why your men will be armed?
“No,” Ben said quickly, “I can personally assure you that no one will be charged or punished for crimes they didn’t commit. Treachery is not something that we simply assume people to be guilty of.” Actually, that was exactly how it seemed to go these days, but the General didn’t seem to have the slightest thought of suspecting these women when he and Ben had talked. “Please, trust me. We only want to assuage the loss these families have suffered in the only way we can.”
She nodded slowly and took a steadying breath. “I’ll trust you, Major, but I don’t know that I can bring myself to say the names out loud. Could I write them down?”
“Of course.” He slid the paper and inkwell over to her, then sat back quietly as she began to write.
The oil lamp flickered dangerously a few times, so he got up and lit a few candles, then brought them back to the table. The wind gusted against the tent’s canvas, making the candles flicker just as wildly, but eventually Elise finished writing the names in spite of the shiver she had developed.
He took the list and waved it gently to dry the ink. “Thank you. I know I have asked a lot of you, but I promise I won’t misuse this information.” He folded the paper and stored it carefully in the inside pocket of his coat.
“Thank you for the assurance, Major.”
“I can escort you back to your tent now, if you wish.”
She nodded and stood up. He extinguished the two candles, leaving the oil lamp, and moved to hold back the tent flap for her. When they emerged into the full force of the wind, she actually reached out for his arm, and he offered it gladly. While he would probably never see her again, he would hate the idea that she distrusted him. After all, he represented the Continental army and if he earned someone’s distrust, it reflected badly on the reputation of more than just himself.
The walk was silent except for the sounds of their footsteps on the half-frozen ground, and very cold. He almost offered his coat to her to stop her shivering, but soon enough they reached her new campsite where the young campfire had aged rapidly and was now plenty large enough to warm her. The tent was also fully fledged and Elise relaxed at the sight of it.
“Thank you, Major Tallmadge, for escorting me back.” It was a mask of politeness, he knew, but bowed his head all the same. She pulled away, then turned back partway. “And please remember your promise to ask about Corporal Carter.”
And, there, that interest was so genuine, he nodded quickly. “Of course. I won’t forget your wishes, m’lady,” he said sincerely, pleased when she offered a faint smile before turning away once again.
Now it was on to business that certainly didn’t offer smiles. Yet he hurried.
Carter was already standing near the horse paddocks with ten men. Benjamin had hoped for more, but he couldn’t claim surprise. If anything, he was impressed that there were ten.
He pulled out the list as he approached and unfolded it. “Corporal,” he acknowledged, “I see you were successful. Did you tell them the purpose of this mission?”
“Yes, sir. They all know.” Ben nodded, finding himself relieved once again by Carter’s initiative.
“Alright then,” he began tearing the list carefully into six sections. “I want you all to pair up and take one of these lists of names. Stop at every house and cabin you see. I don’t expect every name to be found tonight, but I want a good effort to be made. Understood?” The men murmured their ‘yessirs’ and paired up, then they took their lists of names and the group set off into the trees.
Ben found himself paired up with Carter, who didn’t seem to be in a mood for talking. That was fine...only, in the dark silence of the forest he found himself dwelling on things he didn’t want to think about. Mainly Caleb. Really, just Caleb and nothing else. And that wasn’t new, but this time it was accompanied by the gnawing, nauseating question of if, and he couldn’t bear it.
“Miss Shepherd,” he said it too loudly and too suddenly, but the night was there still to hide his embarrassment from vision, “she refused monetary compensation and insisted that she simply wanted to go home to her father. I offered her an escort and she asked if you might be the man for the job.” He let the proposal hang in the air for a moment, but he could sense, even from Carter’s silence, that the idea appealed to him. “Of course, such a task would have to be approved by your commanding officer, but I thought I might ask you first. I wouldn’t want you to be sent away on a mission that you have no interest in. I could-“
“It’s fine. It’s...it’s alright sir. I’d be happy to escort Miss Shepherd to her father.” Carter said it with a quick eagerness that was impossible to miss, and Ben found himself smiling slightly. “If my commanding officer approves...”
“I’ll put in a good word,” Benjamin said mildly, and that was that.
Soon enough, Benjamin and Carter came across a house alone. They approached, guards up, list ready. Ben knocked solidly, they heard movement inside, and the door opened.
It was a young man, barely in his teens by the look of him.
“Good evening. I’m sorry to disturb your household at this hour, but we are conducting an important inquiry. Could you tell me your family name?” Ben asked, dropping his hand subtly from his pistol butt.
The boy’s eyes settled on the blood on Ben’s arm with interest. “It’s Cane, but I don’t see why you’d wanna know that. Why do you wanna know that?” The boy asked, with a particular haughtiness that reminded Ben of Abraham.
He glanced at Carter, who had the list and nodded gravely, before turning back to answer. “Is your mother here, or are you the man of the house?”
“Yeah, my mother’s sleeping with the baby and my father and brother’s away, so here I am.”
Ben exhaled slowly. “Cou-could you go wake your mother? There’s something important I have to tell her.” He found himself speaking more gravely than he meant to and the boy sobered up, suspicious now.
“Alright,” he mumbled, disappearing from the gap in the doorway to fetch his mother.
Ben shifted uncomfortably, too full of dread to even look to Carter for support. Too soon, there were footsteps and the door opened wider to reveal a women who couldn’t be much past her thirties. Ben cleared his throat thickly.
“Good evening, ma’am, I’m Major Tallmadge. Sorry to disturb your rest. Are you Mrs. Cane?” She nodded wordlessly, eyeing them both with suspicion and worry. Oh God, there was no easy way to say it. “Ma’am, I regret to inform you that your husband is dead.”
She swayed precariously at first, but then she latched onto the door with white fingers and stared him down. “Do you have his body?” She asked with a voice rough from sleep.
“There are bodies, yes, but we aren’t asking anyone to identify them. Did you have any knowledge of your husband’s possible grudge against the Continental army?” She nodded, her grey eyes beginning to brim with tears. “Then I’m afraid it is quite likely that he is dead. You may try to identify his body if you wish to bury him yourself, but if not, I can assure you that he will receive a proper burial. I am here to offer the condolences of General Washington and to assure you that you will receive full compensation for your loss. You can claim it at our camp in Valley Forge, or it can be sent to you here.”
She remained quiet for a long moment, silent tears trailing down her cheeks as she stared at him. “Alright, Major Tallmadge. I’ll send my boy to pick up this compensation on the morrow, but you can bury my Henry yourselves. Goodnight.”
The door closed so suddenly that Ben jumped. There was such a twisting feeling in his stomach as he stared at the door that he wanted to retch, but he choked it down and turned to Carter. Behind him, the sounds of muffled sobs leaked through the door. “Let’s keep moving.”
The night didn’t get any easier; neither the weather nor the bad-news bearing showed signs of letting up. Somehow, almost every house they came to belonged to one of the names on the list. Twice, Benjamin had to catch a fainting widow, and once dodged a thrown candlestick. It became a relief to hear the names and see Carter shake his head. That meant they only had to ask for directions, which was easier by far.
As dawn’s light crept into the sky, they came upon a house at the edge of the woods, near a creek.
They went to the door, Benjamin knocked, and it opened to reveal a young girl, not even in her teens.
“Good evening, Miss. I’m sorry to disturb you, but I am conducting an inquiry. Could you tell me your family name?”
She eyed him suspiciously. “Well, it’s almost morning, but-” she shrugged, “-my family name is Monroe.”
Benjamin had a disheartening feeling that Carter was about to nod his head. Sure enough, he did. Ben took a deep breath. “Are your mother or father here? I have important business with them.”
“My father’s away...at work. He leaves early. But you can tell me. I’m the woman of the house.” She said it so proudly. Ben felt his heart clench until he struggled to draw in a breath.
“Do you have any siblings here?” He asked tightly. It was hard to ask. The answer was harder to hear.
“Yes, but they’re all smaller than me. I’m the woman of the house.” She said the last part more slowly this time, as if he was too thick to have understood it the first time.
Benjamin did look back at Carter this time, pleadingly almost, and reluctant to do what he knew he must. Carter looked back at him, wide-eyed and innocent again. Ben steeled himself and looked back at the girl.
“Has your father ever talked to you about the Continental army?” Perhaps this was a misunderstanding. He could hope.
She hesitated, then nodded. “He doesn’t like them much. He says,” she paused, scrutinizing Ben’s outfit suddenly. “You’re part of the Continental army, aren’t you?” It was setting in, Ben could see it in her eyes. His hope was crushed.
“Yes...I’m Major Benjamin Tallmadge. I’m sorry, but I have something difficult to tell you. You have to be very strong to hear it, okay?” She nodded slowly, eyes wide and nervous. Ben knelt down and forced himself to meet her child eyes.
“If I’m correct and your father left last night instead of this morning, then he was involved in a battle and he didn’t make it out alive. I’m so sorry.” He really, really meant it too. But that didn’t change the slow way the light in her eyes died, the way she looked past him to Carter and saw the same apology there that doomed her childhood. She stood still as a statue, eyes fixed back on Ben.
“Bring him back. He has to be back before my brother and sister wake up. I can only watch them alone for one night. Otherwise we go to my Aunt’s house. Bring him back.” She said it quickly, and by the end, tearfully.
Ben swallowed thickly and shook his head. “I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I can’t.” She began to cry harder, sobbing now and hiding her face with her hands.
“Bring him back!”
He knew she understood, and he couldn’t blame her for denying it, but the dammed mission clawed at the back of his mind. “I need you to look at me for a moment.” She sniffled and peeked between her fingers at him. “I need you to tell me who can take care of you. Your aunt, can she take care of you?”
The girl shook her head and inhaled through hiccups.
“I have eight cousins,” she mumbled.
Ben nodded slowly. “Who can take care of you and your siblings?” He asked again, gently. The girl lowered her hands and took a deep breath, then stared at the ground, her tears delayed for a moment. Ben almost thought he would have to ask again when she answered.
“My great Uncle, he lives by the water. He has a big house and grown up children. They don’t live with him anymore.” Ben nodded, but held back his sigh of relief for a moment.
“Do you know the name of the place where he lives?”
She shook her head at once. “No, but it’s not far away. Our old horse can make it there and back in a day.” Now Ben let out a soft sigh of relief.
“Alright. I can make sure you get to him, but I need some time to make the arrangements. Will you be alright here with your siblings until then?”
She nodded absently, wiping her face with her sleeves.
“It might not be me coming to pick you up, but they will be wearing blue uniforms like me. Is that okay?”
She shrugged and didn’t meet his eyes. “I have to go. I have to make breakfast soon.”
Benjamin nodded. “That’s fine. Just promise me you will be okay here until the men in blue uniforms come for you.”
She looked up and met his eyes, fierce bravery dawning behind her tears. “I’ll be strong.”
Ben nodded and stood slowly. Looking into her tear-red eyes, he opened his mouth to try to say something comforting, but he couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t be a lie. She watched him with steady eyes for another moment, then closed the door.
After a moment, Ben spoke quietly. “Let’s get back to camp.” He turned away from the door and the childhood he had helped to end and walked towards the trees. Carter followed him silently.
It was another long walk. By the time camp came into view the sun was breaking over-eagerly through the night’s fog.
“I’ll see to it that you are excused from your duties today.” Ben said when they were just reaching the outskirting tents.
“Thank you, sir. I’ll speak to the other men and see how many widows and families they identified.”
Benjamin shook his head quickly. “There’s no need. I can take care of that later. You should rest. It’s been a long night.”
Carter smiled faintly. “With all respect, sir, you barely look able to stand. I can talk to the men and report back to you after we’ve both had some sleep.”
It took Ben a moment to think of a rebuttal, further demonstrating how tired he was. “I must insist. You have done more than enough for now, and I’ll hear no more about it.”
“Very well, sir.” Carter gave a salut and they went their separate ways.
Now that he was alone, and very much aware of how tired he was, Ben couldn’t help but think of everything he had yet to do. The loudest thought was the one for Caleb. His heart ached to see Caleb, to know that he was alright, and most importantly, still alive. But the thought that won out was one for duty. The General would want to an update on how the mission had gone. God, how he hated his own sense of duty in its relentlessness.
His tired feet brought him to the main house, unimpeded by the camp activity that wouldn’t begin for another hour or so.
He was admitted straight to the tactics room, where it looked like Washington had spent a restless night. Candle smoke was thick in the air, with a few low-burning candles still flickering weakly in their puddles of wax. Several chairs were pulled away from the table, and more papers were laid out now than before. The General stood up as soon as the door opened and Benjamin stepped inside.
“Major Tallmadge, was your mission successful?”
Ben hated to give anything less than a full report, which found him twisting his hands uncomfortably. “For my part, yes sir. Corporal Carter and I complied a list of potential names of the farmers that were killed and assigned ten other men to more names. We found all but one of the names on our list. Here, I have a record of whether they will be coming to camp to identify their loved ones, and which ones want their compensation delivered to them.” Ben produced the list and laid it on the table. “The Monroe’s are a special case. The father was the only adult in the household, so the children need to be brought to their uncle by the water within a day’s ride of their house.”
Washington nodded thoughtfully as he processed what Ben had said. “That can be arranged, I’m sure. Would you like to be involved in the preparations?” The General asked, giving Ben a rather strange look.
He shook his head tiredly, struggling to keep his tired mind from the girl’s tearstained face. “No, sir. As long as the children are delivered safely to their uncle, I don’t need to be involved.” Washington nodded slowly.
“Very well. If you have nothing more to report, I suggest you go to your tent and rest before you fall asleep where you stand,” the General said with a tired, yet surprisingly warm, smile.
Ben smiled weakly and nodded, then remembered. “Sir, Corporal Carter was invaluable to me tonight. I would like to recommend that he be relieved from his duties today so he can rest. I would also ask that he be considered for a particular escort mission.”
Washington waved a hand. “That will be considered in due time, Major, but for today I will ensure that the Corporal is not considered truant from his duties. You may go.” He said it dismissively, but for once Benjamin was relieved rather than chastened.
“Thank you, sir.” He bowed his head and left, closing the door quietly as he went.
As soon as he stepped out into the morning air his thoughts went immediately to Caleb. Tired as he was, he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep without checking on Caleb first. Yet even as his feet carried him there, he felt a pit of dread growing in his gut.
What if Caleb was dead? Dying? How well would he sleep then, with his world in pieces and his heart lost?
He almost turned towards his own tent then and there, but the hospital tent was already in sight. It would be far worse to try to ignore his dread, he knew it.
When he pushed the canvas aside and stepped in, he again had to fight the urge to turn back. The smell was just as repulsive, but the activity was more orderly now that so many of the injured men had died. Empty, blood-stained cots proved it.
He tried to focus on the simple act of moving, instead of the singular thought that loudly reminded him that Caleb might not be here at all anymore.
Despite his efforts to ignore his unease, his lungs stopped working as he approached the place where Caleb’s cot was-but-wasn’t. He couldn’t stop the soft cry of horror at the empty bed that threatened to prove his worst thought true. He couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, as he stared at the place where Caleb had once been.
A soft touch on his arm startled him back into his own body and he turned wildly to look.
“Are you looking for Caleb Brewster?” The woman asked gently. He could only nod helplessly. “He’s been moved to a clean bed on the other side of the tent where he has some privacy. Anna Strong told me to expect you.” She offered a sweet smile that he was numb to in his state. Her expression shifted to confusion at his lack of response, but fortunately for Ben, she took the initiative to lead him to the other side of the tent where several cots in a row were surrounded by curtains.
They stopped in front of two light curtains and she pushed one aside to reveal Caleb, lying there with fresh bandages. Ben tried his best to mumble a ‘thank you’ as he stumbled forward and collapsed by Caleb’s bedside.
“Do you want me to send someone over to give you a fresh bandage?” She asked, nodding at his arm. Ben glanced down, surprised, and saw that the formerly white cloth on his arm was soaked through with blood. He shook his head numbly. It didn’t hurt anymore.
She gave him an questioning look, but dropped the curtain back into place and left them alone together.
Caleb was still pale, still barely breathing in anything more than gentle gasps, but the fact that he was breathing at all seemed too great to be reality. Ben clasped Caleb’s hand tightly and bowed his head. The sobs came suddenly, sweeping over him like a cascading waterfall that he was powerless to stop. He could barely breathe as he tried to muffle his sobs with one hand pressed tightly over his mouth, deeply grateful for the curtains that granted him the freedom to be so weak, even just for a moment.
Then, the warm hand in his squeezed slowly and he looked up breathlessly, fearing to hope, to see Caleb’s gentle brown eyes looking back at him. “Aww, Tall-boy, don’t cry so hard over me,” Caleb rasped softly, “I’m not done yet.” A smile, faint but perfectly beautiful, graced his lips. Ben wiped the tears from his face quickly and grinned so wide it hurt.
“I wasn’t sure if you would wake up at all. You could have made a bigger show of staying alive.” Ben spoke so quietly that it was barely a whisper. His hand reached out of its own accord to caress Caleb’s cheek gently. Caleb just smiled, eyelids almost slipping shut before they fluttered open again. Ben was too overcome to speak again so he just held Caleb’s hand tightly, fearing to let go, and watched his face, so alive, now that his eyes were open.
Slowly, it seemed that Caleb was going to fall asleep again, so Ben began combing his fingers over Caleb’s hair, matted as it was, which had often put Caleb to sleep when they were younger. Just as he hoped, Caleb’s eyes slipped shut again, peacefully, and Ben smiled in victory. He didn’t notice when, a few moments later, his own head began to nod and he drifted off, head pillowed safely against Caleb.