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Redundant Freedom: Part 1
The sound reverberates just behind my head, sending a chill down my spine. I turn slowly and find myself staring down the barrel of a musket. The sharp point of the bayonet hovers just centimeters from my nose, far too close for my liking.
“Stand still,” says a tremulous voice, “as you value your life.”
A panic seizes me and my breath catches up in my throat. I know he’s a British regular before I even look at him, but I raise my eyes anyways. The man in front of me seems blurry, though I can’t say whether it’s from the midday heat or the thick swamp air. I breathe in the dank smell of muddy water; it’s all I’ve smelled for days and I swear it’s starting to get to me. I manage to clear my head anyways and get a good look at my adversary. As I glance at his haggard face, I breathe an involuntary sigh of relief. The boy in front of me can’t be more than seventeen and though I don’t have much on him in years, I clearly have him in stature. His hands are shaking nonstop and I can see that he holds the gun gingerly, like it’s a piece of china. His light hair is damp with sweat and clings to his forehead, wisps falling in his bloodshot eyes. From the pallor of his skin I’d say he’s injured badly. And from the way he’s looking at me, I’d say he ain’t shot a man in his life.
“Lord, you look like I feel,” I muse, swiping the sweat from my forehead. “Swamp ain’t like a walk on the Thames, is it?”
“I said hold still! And drop your weapon.”
“Easy there,” I say as I lay my rifle on the ground. “It ain’t like I’m an ambush or anythin’ of the sort. Just taking a walk in the marsh’s’all. Can’t a man take a walk without one of you Reds interrogating him?”
“Silence! I have orders to shoot any rebels on sight. State your name and business and I might let you off with a flesh wound.”
The tension gets so thick I swear I can feel it, though in this heat I think I feel a lot of things. A mosquito lands on his finger, the one that’s sitting on the trigger. Neither of us moves and I consider the soldier in front of me once again. Slowly, a smile creeps onto my face.
“Christ, that’s an awful mighty statement for someone with an empty gun,” I declare with a grin. His blue eyes widen, betraying the truth in what I’ve said. “Go on then, shoot me. I’m a rebel and I’m in sight. Give me that flesh wound.” He hesitates, so I make sure my final words push him over the edge. “I’d follow through with orders lest you be wanting to live up to your name, bloody back.”
He lunges, but it’s too late. I’ve ducked and grabbed my rifle. Before he has a chance to run me through with his bayonet I pin him to a tree and throw his musket a few feet away.
“Stand still,” I say dangerously, “and unlike you, my rifle is loaded.”
“How did you-” He pauses a moment to catch his breath. “How did you know it wasn’t loaded?”
“First off, I didn’t smell any black-powder when you had it pointed at my face. If there was any in there I would’ve smelled it. Second, if you’d loaded the thing I wouldn’t heard you tear a cartridge. I put two and two together and figured you didn’t have a cartridge to load in the first place. But it’s not important because I ain’t giving you the chance to make the same mistake twice.” He glares at me and I find myself wondering if I look so childish when I scowl.
“It may not have been loaded,” he begins in a condescending tone, “but it is a long land pattern service musket issued by his Royal Majesty’s Army. Your hand-me-down rifle pales in comparison to the capabilities of my weapon.” I c*** my rifle and aim at a tree in the distance. Seconds later, a bird falls into the cattails below.
“I made that shot at, oh, let’s say 250 yards, but I’m sure it will be just as precise pressed into your chest. Now, state your name and business.” I nudge him in the side with the barrel of the rifle for emphasis and he lets out a cry of pain. It’s then that I notice the dark blood stain on his jacket.
“I am Private William Sterling of the British Army, serving under Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Tynes. During the skirmish against the rebels last night I was injured and…”
“Left behind,” I say, not without sympathy. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen an injured British private lying half dead in the marsh.
“Temporarily forgotten,” he snaps back. “But nevertheless I shall receive just rewards for my proper conduct as soon as I make it out of this Godforsaken swamp.” His face makes the level of his repulsion clear and I smile a bit.
“This here’s Tearcoat Swamp off Black River, and like the good South Carolina man that I am, I know it better than my own yard.”
“Yes, you rebels made it quite clear that you know the land when you appeared out of nowhere and ambushed us yesterday.” He tries to stand up straighter but only succeeds in making his skin more green than white. I’ve seen a man go that color before, when he was in real pain from a wound. I look at his face and am struck by just how young he is.
“How’d you say you were injured again?”
“I didn’t,” he says bitterly, “but if you must know, I was stabbed in the side.” I look at his face and am struck by just how young he is. He’ll never make it out of this swamp alive, not in the sorry state he’s in. If he were older it might be different, but I couldn’t live with myself if I left him out here to die.
“Tell you what Sterling; I’ll cut you a deal. You give me that bayonet of yours, and I’ll lead you out of the swamp. Then we’ll part ways as unlikely friends.”
“What would you want with my bayonet?” he asks, not bothering to hide his disdain for me.
“Easy. Rifles aren’t like muskets and sometimes the only thing that’ll do a decent job loading ‘em is a bayonet. Only I don’t got one, and you do. So you give me yours and I save your life. Rebel’s honor,” I add with a mock bow.
“As if there is such a thing,” he mumbles. He looks at me, then back to the rifle that’s still pressed to his chest. “Fine,” he says. “But I’m not going to give you the bayonet until we’re out of the marsh.”
“Fair enough.” I sling my rifle over my shoulder and offer him a hand. “Private James August, at your service.” He takes it and gives me a limp handshake.
Without another word I turn and begin walking through the mire. I’d been hiding in the swamp for days, scouting British activity. Although I pride myself on being born and bred in the marsh, I haven’t been in this deep before. The trees are so tall I can’t see the tops, although they seem to be suspended on their roots like stilts. The trunks are smooth and free of branches which makes climbing one a real pain. The trees aren’t the real problem out here though; it’s the ground, or at least the lack thereof. If you’re not walking on mud, then you’re waist-deep in water. The water out here’s home to all manner of God’s creatures, but mostly mosquitoes. Mosquitoes and poisonous snakes. Getting lost out here would be a death sentence.
“Listen here Sterling,” I say loftily, “the swamps a dangerous place and if you don’t know what you’re doing, any step could be your last. You’ve gotta promise you’ll listen to me no matter what and you won’t touch anything or wander off or nothin’ like that, alright?” I hope to hear some reverence in his reply, seeing as I’ve just saved him and all, but instead I’m met with the same scornful tone. Figures I’d get stuck with some condescending, wise-mouthed Tory.
“If you think I am idiotic enough to wander off on my own in this appalling mess of filth, then you are even more thoughtless than you appear, Private August.” After he’s done berating me, his glare fades away and he looks tired and helpless. I know he’s real ill when I take his musket and he doesn’t protest. I have a feeling he’d fight me for it if he was in perfect health.
We start heading east, towards the river. I hate to travel when the sun’s at its peak but I don’t have much of a choice. Sterling walks just a few feet behind me, breathing heavily and continually wiping his forehead with one hand. The other clutches his injured side. I wonder how he made it from the battle to the center of the swamp. He must have dragged himself a long ways. It’s a shame he was going in the wrong direction.