July 18, 1864. 10:20 p.m. Near Marietta, Georgia
Disoriented, functionally numb, he opened his eyes. Why was he sprawled face down at the muddy bottom of a deep ravine, almost buried in forest debris? Where the hell was he?
With some difficulty he lifted his head, felt moisture on his lips. It tasted of blood. He shook his throbbing head gently, trying to clear his thoughts. He’d taken a tumble, hadn’t he? He shifted his view upwards. Saw a flicker of light far above. Someone was moving about up there. Torches. They were searching for him.
Dammit, he must have slipped off the edge! He tried to pull the shreds of his memory together. This was where he needed to be—at the bottom of the ravine. It was the shortcut to the river, to the boat he and Ben had hidden near the bank a week earlier anticipating its use. But, by god, he hadn’t intended to slide off the cliff to get here! He might well have been badly injured and he still had a long distance to travel this night. The general was depending on him.
Where was Ben? He’d know what had happened. He’d know … with a searing jolt of awareness, memory wakened.
The bullet had come from nowhere, thudding into his friend’s courageous heart, stopping it mid-beat. Why Ben? He had a loving wife, eight children waiting for him at home. Only a cold husk of a thin body was now left, propped against a tree trunk close by the Federal’s bivouac area—vital credentials placed where they would be easily discovered. A tear rolled from one eye, then the other—they slid across his cheeks, dropped soundlessly to the forest floor.
The rest of the memories came rushing back. He wanted to weep, to wail. It wasn’t just Ben Ross torn from his side this day. It was Moses as well. His old mentor, his teacher, his childhood guardian, and aside from Ben, his dearest friend. Murdered in the coldest of cold blood.
A wave of anger almost suppressed the pain as he thought of what Moses had faced there at the farm—he and the two stalwart warriors he had brought with him. Tortured first, then killed by barbarians with cruel knives. A lump lay large against his throat. Tears now streamed without cease from his eyes. But hard as it was to mitigate that horror, he knew it could have been so much worse. Moses, hero among heroes, had first provided Sara a fighting chance at survival.
They had found his little sister, he and Ben, where Moses had hidden her—in the cave by the spring. They handed her less than an hour later into the care of a good friend whom quite by blessed chance they met on the trail escorting a young mountain healer back to the battlefield infirmary. Captain Marshal Manning was one of the most honorable men he had known at the Point—his very pregnant sister would be well cared for.
He remembered everything now. Nothing about it was good. It was fear for Sara’s well-being that had taken them so far out of their way. The message she had received saying her husband was injured and needed her at their mountain farm had been a cruel hoax. If he and Ben had not received the warning letter from his father’s caretaker and ventured in haste to find Sara, she and her unborn child would have been murdered by the same bushwackers who had ripped the lives from Moses and his two men.
He still couldn’t quite bring his mind to the realization that Moses was gone.
The loss of Ben on top of that was beyond all reckoning.
His senses were mired in disorientation, disbelief. He and Ben had been so cautious—all their battle-honed instincts called into play on this crucial mission, creeping silent as ghosts around ambushes, past armies.
Not this army. Not Sherman’s army. Something decisive must have happened at Kennesaw Mountain. That great implacable army was on the move again. He and Ben had stumbled upon its fringes in the dark, hungry, thirsty, angry, forgetful of how they were clad—a fatal mistake.
He moaned. The pain was catching up with him. Damnation! No excuses left for not remembering everything now. After he’d placed Ben’s body at the fallen tree, a bullet had passed through his own shoulder, almost putting it out of action— if he could get a kerchief wrapped around it he knew he could move on. A second bullet must have pushed him over the side of the cliff. It had probably hit a lung the way he was wheezing.
Didn’t matter. The general was counting on him. His goal remained: Atlanta. Without the critical intelligence he and Ben were attempting to confirm, there would be no choice left but to torch the city. He had to get to the river, to the boat they had hidden close by. He knew someone on the other side who could mend him. A Creek healer, a good friend.
He tried to rise. The pain …!
He paused; tried again.
A darkness was creeping around the edges of his brain. His battered body demanded rest. He was doubtless well concealed under the forest debris. If he just lay quiet for a moment, no one would find him. All he needed was a short rest ….
When again he woke he realized it might be harder than he had allowed to get back to his feet. He remained very still after his first attempt, breathing hard. He tried again to rise … to his knees … to his feet. There. He was up. Shaky, but up.
Light was still flickering at the edge of the ravine high above him. Perhaps it was time to do what he should have done when he and Ben had first found themselves surrounded by Federal troops. Surrender. He was one of them after all, notwithstanding the Confederate gray he wore this night. There might be a short delay in his mission, but he knew the general would understand. He began to climb.