The crack of the pistol’s report came from directly behind the courier. Sizzling past so close to his ear he could feel the heat of it, the musket ball whined off into the windy night.
Instinctively he crouched, bringing his head close to his mount’s straining neck. “Go! Go!”
The mare responded with a burst of speed, stretching the distance between her and the pursuing British patrol. Flying strands of mane whipped tears to the courier’s eyes as he fumbled beneath his cloak for the handle of the pistol shoved into the waistband of his breeches. His hand shaking, he tore the weapon free and cocked it with his thumb.
“Hold! Pull up and surrender, you blasted rebel!”
The shouted command reached him faintly above rushing wind and pounding hoofbeats. Mouth dry, stomach knotted with fear and exhilaration, he searched the shadowy landscape for an escape route.
In the darkness off to his right beyond a high stone wall, wooded hills loomed up. Inside the line of trees the woodland dropped to a winding creek, then rose again into the hills, the courier knew. Reining his mare hard right, his breath coming in sharp pants, he glanced over his shoulder at the same moment the wind shredded the clouds high overhead.
For an instant splintered shafts of moonlight rippled across hill and hollow, gleaming on icy remnants of a late snow that still clung in sheltered areas. Touching the irregular stone walls that wound through the rolling farmland, the light glimmered across the blood-red uniforms of the soldiers stampeding after him through the murky Massachusetts countryside.
The quick glimpse revealed three soldiers in the patrol. The one who had fired had dropped back, and the officer now held the lead. He hung stubbornly close, trying to aim his pistol while he swung wide in the attempt to cut his quarry off.
The dim bulk of the stone wall raced toward the courier. A tangled growth of brambles topped the wall on the far side, reaching thorny fingers well above the stones. With reckless determination, he urged his mount on, raising in the stirrups at the exact instant the mare gathered her haunches under her and took flight.
She skimmed over the seemingly impossible height as effortlessly as a gull and lit softly on the other side. Hardly breaking stride, she fled toward the line of trees. A crashing sound reached the courier, and he threw an anxious glance back.
The officer had angled his mount off to a partial break in the wall some yards down. One of the two soldiers was riding hard toward the wall’s far end.
The other had tried the wall at the same point as the courier, but had miscalculated the jump. Before his mare swept around a bend that for the moment cut him off from the patrol’s sight, the courier caught a brief glimpse of dislodged stone slabs spilled across the ground and the thrashing legs of the fallen horse.
He urged his mount between the trees. A dozen strides into the woods he pulled up hard behind a head-high outcropping of rock screened by slender saplings and dense undergrowth. Shoulders hunched, head bent so the wide brim of his hat shaded his face, he sat motionless, calculating that his black cloak and the midnight black of his mare would render them all but invisible in the shadows.
The mare stood silent, head down, lathered sides heaving. Gripping the reins tight with one hand, the courier aimed his pistol with the other, holding it steady with difficulty. His heart beat so hard that for a moment he was overwhelmed by the irrational fear that his pursuer must hear it.
He could make out the sharp crackle of fallen branches and rustle of dry leaves underfoot as the officer fought his way through the dense growth, cursing in frustration. The creak of leather and jingle of metal drew steadily closer.
The dim shape of a horseman materialized between the ghostly trunks of the trees. The thud of hoofbeats slowed, then for long, heart-stopping moments paused within eight feet of the courier’s hiding place.
He became aware of the stinging tickle of perspiration that wound past the corner of his eye onto his cheek. Holding his breath, he aimed his pistol at the rider’s breast at point-blank range, his hand grown suddenly steady, finger tightening over the trigger.
The mare’s ears pricked, but she made no sound. When the tension reached the point at which the courier feared his nerves would snap, the sound of other hoofbeats approached from the left.
“Captain! Scott’s horse fell on him,” a hoarse voice called out. “He’s in a bad way.”
Muttering an oath, the rider reined his horse around to face the oncoming rider. “I’ll be right there.”
The courier could hear the second rider move off, but still the officer did not spur his mount forward. Instead, he urged him round until he again faced the courier’s hiding place.
“I know you’re there somewhere, you rebel devil,” he rasped. “Come on, you cursed Oriole! Show yourself! I know it’s you!”
Motionless, eyes fixed on the officer’s indistinct form, the courier willed him to ride on. The pulse of his blood sounded like thunder in his ears.
The officer waited for several moments more, finally taunted, “One day you’ll make a misstep, and then we’ll have you. And you’ll hang at last.”
Giving a harsh laugh, he moved past the courier’s hiding place, fighting through the low-hanging branches. Within seconds he vanished into the night as completely as though the earth had swallowed him up.
Feeling weak, the courier lowered his weapon. For some minutes longer he waited, every sense strained to the breaking point. But no sound reached him except for the moan of the wind through the bare limbs of the trees and the creak of interlaced branches high overhead.
Taking a shaky breath, he took the pistol off cock and shoved it back into the waistband of his breeches. “Thanks be to God!” he exclaimed with a low laugh. “That was entirely too close.”
The mare tossed her head, and he patted her lathered neck. When he was certain the patrol had to be well out of sight and sound, he spurred her out of their hiding place, urged her down the slope and across the shallow creek. Silent as a specter, they moved up the flank of the hill on the other side and slipped over the summit.
Thus unnoticed, the courierknown to General Thomas Gage and the British garrison in Boston only by the name “Oriole” for the whistled notes of his characteristic signalmelted into the impenetrable cloak of the forest beyond.