Jim staggered along. About an hour before it may have been a run; now he was reduced to stumbling, his heavy leather boots catching on roots and brambles that impeded his escape. The air was thick. It stuck in his lungs like honey, causing him to gasp in short, ragged breaths. His heart was still racing, beating against the confines of his ribs like the tattoo of drums on the battlefield. The sun was setting, but he did not see its vivid hues. His eyes remained trained on the earth before him, glazed over with fear and exhaustion. Fear pulsed from the soles of his clumsy boots to the sweat dripping from his unkempt hairline.
Jim lurched across a bark-stripped root. His knees gave way beneath him and he fell face first, his head narrowly missing a large mossy rock. He lay there for over a minute, stunned. As he watched, an ant crept over the top of the rock, its antennae twitching. Slowly, Jim turned his head and looked down at his hand where his musket still rested, gripped stubbornly. He marveled that he hadn’t dropped it long before. A musket ball had rolled in front of him, released from the metal barrel when he fell. He had not unloaded when he started running, as he should have. In fact, few rational thoughts had passed through his head since the first shot had been fired, accompanied by the deafening reports of a hundred others, thick grey smoke blanketing the battlefield like thunderclouds.
He should have unloaded, Jim thought. The musket could have gone off any time during his panicked flight. He could’ve shot himself in the foot! A fitting ending to his story that would have been, he thought bitterly. He cursed himself for his cowardice. He cursed his musket. He had been eager to obtain it and proud to bear it in the beginning, but it weighed on him in more ways than steel and wood could alone. Its power in his eyes had quickly diminished in the hellish scene. Its release, each one making his ears ring and his shoulder ache, had sent one miniscule lead ball into the endless lines of the enemy, only to be lost in their terrible ranks. It wasn’t the gunfire that had made Jim’s stomach turn, he was sure of that. It was the terrible order of the red uniforms, in the midst of chaos. Men around him had been crying and praying and fighting and running, but still the enemy came. Calmly, like emissaries of hell, their crimson jackets blazing like fire. Jim shuddered at the nightmarish memory. Did they bleed? He couldn’t tell. Their bright red coats had encroached on his vision until they were all he could see, and his fingers fumbled the small lead balls, sending them tumbling over the cobblestones, and his ramrod jammed in the hot metal barrel of his musket. Many men had fled. More had been shot. But Jim had been unstoppable in his fear, he remembered bitterly. He’d run, bullets raining around his head, as his eyes were blinded by sharp flashes of gunfire, his ears assailed by the cruel blasts of firearms. The gunpowder—he could never forget that smell, not if he lived a hundred years. The smell clotted in his throat, burning his nose. He’d run through it all, and no man had been able to stop his terrified flight. Now he’d been brought down at last by a tree root.
Jim limped to his feet. His heart hadn’t slowed its frenzied pace—nor had it stopped; he knew not whether to bless or curse this chance. He still lived, and he hated himself for it. He knew he’d be damned for his cowardice, by God and men alike. He was a dead man, he knew; deserters and traitors all met the same end at the gallows. He couldn’t understand why he’d run. Better to die a hero than live a coward; he’d heard all the other men say it. Many of the same men he’d seen in the battle before he ran. Many of them had been crying, praying or running. Others had had lain dead on the cobblestones, bathed in in the rusty hues of blood and sunset. But George had kept shooting. George would never have run.
Jim stood unsteadily. His powder horn remained strung to his hip, along with his small pouch of lead musket balls. There was blood on his jacket. He stared at it for a while, puzzled. It was not his.
Jim not so much made camp as collapsed, the sun setting behind him. He had no idea where he was. He merely put his back to a tree and relinquished whatever grip he retained over reality. He cast his jacket off into the moss. The musket never left his hand.
Jim woke cold and stiff. He tried to stand and groaned. It felt as if his legs were on fire. He sat down quickly. His jaw was stiff, his brow damp. A thin layer of dew had settled over his clothes. The musket’s barrel was tarnished, and he knew the powder must be damp. He tapped the butt of the rifle to knock it out of the muzzle. He sighted down the barrel. Perfectly straight. The redcoats had been so close he could see their faces, he remembered. They’d fallen all right, but he couldn’t see them bleed. Those damn red jackets. But George hadn’t run. He’d kept on reloading right until the first lead had grazed his arm. Even then, George hadn’t been scared. Jim could still see him, crouched behind the old stone wall, his jaw set grimly as he sighted down the barrel at the endless crimson ranks. Jim could still hear the clatter of George’s musket on the cobbles when the enemies’ bullets finally found their mark.
These woods had no cobblestones. A musket dropped here would fade away, the wood rotting, the tarnished barrel sinking into the humus as seasons passed. Jim got to his feet and picked up his jacket. The fire in his legs was gone.
Jim first heard them while he was walking along a ridge, overlooking a steep gully. He’d avoided the road. He had heard their laughter; laughter like that of any man, but it made him uneasy. His feet made no noise on the soft moist ground. And then he saw the men. They were in a clearing not far from the stream running through the center of the valley. He was separated from them by a number of old pine trees. There were tents, and men crowded around a small fire pit. Some wore red jackets, but most of the men had left theirs on the ground and wore dirty white shirts, not unlike the one Jim wore beneath his brown jacket. Some were bare-chested. Their muskets lay propped up against fallen logs. Jim knew he should run. His heart was beating rapidly, adopting its former pace. But he would not move. Instead he stood above, looking at the men who were his enemies through the tall, regal pines. He could see the men’s pallid faces, and their eyes, no longer overshadowed by brimmed hats. Jim was no longer afraid.
The British captain sat on a log facing Jim, writing in a book. He looked very young. He had a curved sabre at his hip. The others had bayonets fixed on their muskets. They had not seen Jim.
His hand was cramped. Jim looked down and saw the musket still fixed firmly in his grip. Without hesitation he lifted it up and half-cocked the flintlock. He took the powder horn strung at his hip and poured a measure into the flash-pan. He closed the flash-pan and rested the butt of the rifle on the ground. He poured the remaining gunpowder into the barrel, removing the small pouch of bullets from his belt as he did so. He dropped one tiny lead ball into the barrel, then put the wadding cloth in. He took out his ramrod and pushed the bullet and wadding into the depths of the barrel. He returned the ramrod back to its place on the underside of the musket and lifted it to his shoulder, sighting down the barrel. Perfectly straight. The whole procedure had taken Jim less than twenty seconds. George would’ve been pleased. Across from Jim, on the other side of the gully, the captain looked up from the campfire, directly at Jim. Jim saw the whites of his eyes.
“Hey! You there!”
The other scrambled to grab their muskets; soon no less than twenty barrels were pointed at Jim where he stood on the ridge. The captain drew his pistol and held it by his side.
“Why don’t you come down here, boy,” He commanded. Jim slid down the mossy bank and stepped gingerly through the thick tree trunks until he was level with the redcoats. Only the thin stream separated them.
“What’s your name, boy?” The captain demanded. He wasn’t wearing a jacket. Jim could still see where he had left it, next to the log where he had been sitting near the fire.
“My name’s Jim. Jim Crowley.”
“Well Mr. Crowley, why don’t you put that gun down and come over here.” The captain was young; he couldn’t have been much older that Jim. His hair was a light yellow, and had already begun to recede from his forehead. His shirt was white and looked very clean, a sharp contrast to Jim’s own.
“Can’t do that, sir,” said Jim.
“Are you a deserter, Mr. Crowley?” Asked the captain.
“I suppose so.”
“I suspected as much. So you’re a clever one, Mr. Crowley.” Several of the soldiers laughed, but there was no mirth in their eyes.
Jim still held the musket steady. It was pointed at the captain.
“Look Mr. Crowley, why don’t you put down your firearm and step on over here.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir.” Jim could see the sheen of sweat on the captain’s forehead.
“You have no other option!” Jim could see the whites of the captain’s eyes.
“One,” said Jim. He pulled the trigger. The musket roared eagerly to life under his shoulder. It bucked beneath his grip, but Jim held it fast.
The miniscule lead ball hit the captain in the left leg, felling him instantly. Blood, bright red, flowed from the wound. Jim saw it.
“So you do bleed,” he said.
Twenty-three muskets roared in response.
The great pine trees across the stream were peppered with holes, much of their bark lying on the ground. Jim breathed in the fragrance of their needles. His lungs leapt inside of him, his breathing shallow and ragged. His heart beat slower now. The sun sifted down through the canopy of needles, far above, that shrouded him. Jim did not feel its warmth, nor did he feel the pain that wracked his body. He could only feel the warm steel of the musket beneath his hand. It made no sound when he fell to the soft carpet of needles below. It never left his grip.