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Leedsville, New Jersey Monday, June 29, 1778
Agnes's heart pounded as she stood in the midst of the battle. With the thick smoke clouding the air, she could barely see anything except for the soldiers grappling on the ground at her feet. The men twisted and thrashed about in their fight to the death, but none of them were Father or Uncle Fitz and she wanted to find them. She needed them at home.
Stepping over the combatants groveling in the dirt appeared impossible and dangerous. Instead, she turned. Behind her a man stood with a bayonet in his hands. He lunged toward her. She tried to scream, but no sound came from her lips.
Then, above the sounds of struggle, the sweet lilt of Colleen's voice singing Róisín Dubh floated on the air. Agnes woke with a start and drew in a ragged breath. A cold sweat covered her and tears moistened her cheeks.
She had been dreaming. Shaky, she pushed herself to sit in the big bed and rubbed her eyes. It was not surprising that her mind had conjured up images of battle. Only yesterday the sound of cannons, though a dozen miles distant, shook the ground as the British and Patriots clashed near Monmouth Courthouse. She and her sister, Margaret, had prayed for their father and uncle in the Continental army. Colleen spent the day singing merry songs of war. This morning's melancholy tune could only mean one thing: the Patriots had lost the battle and the British had won.
Dawn tinged the horizon and though Colleen continued her somber performance, the unmistakable rumble of heavy wagons sounded on the road.
Agnes's heart constricted with panic. Had the war come to their door?
Fearing the worst, she dressed and hurried into the kitchen. Her young sister Margaret stood at the table with flour up to her elbows as she rolled out sweet buns while Colleen trilled her doleful air as she stirred porridge over the fire. Margaret's thick blonde braids swung back and forth as she flattened the dough. She nodded at Agnes, but did not speak. They had learned long ago that when Colleen sang Roisin Dubh, it was best not to interrupt.
Colleen's recital did not prevent her from handling her chores. She lifted the kettle without missing a note and poured tea into a mug. The aroma of raspberry leaves and mint seemed to restore Agnes's senses.
"Thank you." She mouthed the words. After Father joined the army and marched off to fight, Colleen treated Agnes as the head of the household, which unsettled her. Until that point, Colleen had been like a mother to her.
Colleen set a steaming bowl of porridge on the table and Agnes ate slowly, with her body tensed, as she waited for the end of the song. She must know the news.
By the final cadence, Agnes's bowl sat empty and the smell of Margaret's sweet rolls baking in the oven wafted through the house.
"Hobart said three chickens are missing and Jonas is gone," Margaret blurted out the moment Colleen took a deep breath.
Agnes gasped in horror. Stolen livestock had become a regular occurrence with the Tories' raids, but Jonas was a special pig. The unfortunate animal had been shot a few months past in a surprise attack by a group of Tories. Agnes had dug out the bullet and healed the young hog with Colleen's help, for the Irish woman possessed a fine knowledge of the uses of herbs for healing.
Agnes swallowed her sense of loss. More important issues lay at stake beyond a missing, though dear, pig. "Who has won the battle?"
"The guns of the British are tramping past." Colleen put a hand to her heart and shook her head. "Does the king not rule these colonies with an iron fist?"
"The British left Philadelphia to retreat to New York," Agnes pointed out. "Did they defeat the Continental army? Why are they not fighting?"
"Yesterday was far too hot for a battle." Margaret wiped her brow with her apron. "Today is not much better."
Agnes rose from the table, and tucked the errant strands of her brown hair neatly into her cap. "Aye, I labored to breathe in the shade in the afternoon. Surely, someone will pass by the forge with an account of the fray."
"I'll bring you one of the sweet buns on my way to the inn," Margaret promised. "No doubt someone will carry tidings of the army's clash. Travelers are always thirsty and drink loosens their tongues."
"Ach, and it's dangerous to be talking with strangers," Colleen warned in her soft brogue. "What if you happen upon Tories? Why, any of them would stab their own mother in the heart."
"We cannot trust some of our disaffected neighbors either." Agnes sighed and stepped out of the house into the new day. The rolling wheels of the heavy wagons came faintly to her ears as they drew further away, but the pungent smell of smoke lingered in the morning air. The sun ascended above the horizon and turned the sky to rose. She hoped the rain would come soon and clear the skies of the insufferable heat.
Walking to the barn, she pondered Jonas's capture. The pig had become a rather clever creature. She believed he understood English and would never have allowed a stranger to put a rope around his neck. Surely, whoever seized him must have killed him first. Her eyes grew misty at the thought.
When she drew nearer, she noticed one of the wide stable doors already open. Had the British stolen the cow and calf, too? Her heart quickened in fear.
Stepping inside with caution, she saw no one in the shady interior. The cow mooed, the calf echoed his mother's call, and Agnes quelled her panic. She picked up the bucket and stool, sat next to the cow, and set to the familiar task of milking.
With the steady rhythm of her hands, the bucket filled near to the brim. When a low moan echoed from the back of the barn, her breath hitched in her throat. She told herself the sound came from an owl, a mourning dove, or some other unfortunate creature calling for its mate.
Done with the milking, she led the cow and the calf outside to the fenced pasture. She returned for the milk and heard the groan again. Louder and more distinct, it emanated from the last stall.
She grabbed the rake hanging on the wall. Danger lay in moving an injured animal and she needed to protect herself from sharp teeth and claws. With her heart pounding and perspiration dripping from her brow, she tiptoed to the back of the barn.
She did not find a wild, suffering animal. Stunned, she blinked her eyes several times to be sure she had not fallen into a dream or a nightmare. On the hay lay a British soldier, her enemy, with a musket at his side. Blood and mud stained his red wool coat and white breeches.
Her pulse raced, and her initial reaction was to turn and run. She swallowed instead as she studied him. His eyes were closed and he had not shaven in days. He had fine features and a headful of coal black hair tied neatly at the nape of his neck with a strip of leather.
Though one of the king's minions, she thought him a handsome young man. She used the rake to drag the musket away from him. Muscular and tall, he would have no trouble overpowering her if he woke from his stupor.
She picked up the weapon, aimed the muzzle at him, and shouted. "Who are you?"
He whispered through cracked lips as he clutched his blood-soaked britches. "Water."
"How did you get in here?"
"W ... water." His fever-glazed eyes rolled back in a distressing manner. She judged him to be little older than her own eighteen years.
"Did you fight in the battle yesterday?"
"Water ... wa ..."
"Where is the rest of your company?" Uncertainty crept through her. In his current condition, he did not present a threat. She lowered the musket.
Though not a single breeze stirred in the morning air, he shivered violently in his thick red wool jacket.
She glanced toward the open door and listened. Hearing no one else approach, she turned to set the weapon against the wall in the adjoining empty stall. Behind her, the soldier's groaning increased. She whirled to find him clawing at the ground, dragging himself toward her.
Fear knotted in her chest as he reached out to grab her foot. She stepped back. The width of his shoulders bore testament to his strength. If he caught her, he might not let go.
"My ... horse." His demand came out as a tortured whisper.
Agnes fought to keep herself from trembling. She would not allow this enemy to see her alarm. "You have no horse."
He made a strangled sound in his throat, closed his eyes, and went still. Panic curled up her spine. Though he remained a foe, she did not want him to pass away in her barn.
Swallowing her dread, she knelt beside him and found the pulse in his neck. The slow but steady beat reassured her. She studied his chiseled features while smoothing the errant tendrils of his midnight hair from his face. His ragged beard tickled her fingertips.
He radiated vitality despite his infirm state. She found soft pleasure in simply gazing upon him, an odd reaction for her since she had little time for any such indulgence.
Agnes forced herself to tear her attention from his handsome face. She noticed the elbow of his red wool jacket had torn and the cuff had fallen away. A few ragged threads marked the places where fine brass buttons had been.
Until now, she believed herself immune to a man's appearance, but when she pressed her hand against her breast, the pounding of her heart surprised her. It must be because he had caused such a fright for her at first.
"'Tis a pity you fight on the side of the British." She gave a mighty shove and rolled him over onto his back. A small, folded sheet of paper slipped out of his jacket. Frowning, she picked it up and opened it, but she did not understand the message. Was it written in a foreign language? She tucked the note into her pocket.
Aware of her duty to call for the local militia to remove the soldier, she hesitated. He would be taken prisoner in a rough manner, be tortured for information, and receive little or no care for his injuries. If he lived, he would be traded for one of the Patriot prisoners held by the British.
If he lived ...
She clamped her lips together. She wanted him to survive, but the militia had little regard for the wellbeing of their prisoners. If he was a general or some other high-ranking officer, he would be worth more in a trade and receive better treatment.
Despite the thickness of his fine wool jacket, he had no rank.
A dangerous thought bloomed and she ignored the cautionary voice in the back of her mind. She examined the grisly wound on his thigh just above his knee. A lead musket ball had cut a deep gash through the flesh, but had not embedded itself within, which made it more likely that the soldier might recover. Still, he had lost a great deal of blood and filth lay in the lesion.
She thought of her pig, Jonas, again. Had her efforts to save the animal been fruitless? No doubt one of this soldier's compatriots had stolen her beloved pet. Yet, she did not harbor ill will toward this unfortunate man. He fought on the orders of his superiors and punishment would be severe if he refused. Had he been tricked into joining the army by taking the king's shilling? Her father had told her of the cruel manner in which men were seized into service.
"Agnes?" her sister called. "Where are you?"
"Back here." She wiped her bloodied fingers on the jacket of her foe and stood, but she found it nearly impossible to tear her gaze away from the young soldier. She did not think she had ever seen a man with such a noble appearance. She had never traveled far from Leedsville, so her opinion hardly mattered. Still, the lurch of excitement the sight of him stirred in her breast was most remarkable.
Margaret ran toward her, but stopped and gasped when she saw the silent soldier in the hay. "Is he dead?"
"Not yet, and I've a mind to keep him in this world." If she could save a pig, she could heal a Redcoat with any luck.
"You must call the militia."
"I will not." Agnes frowned at her twelve-year old sister. "He is already severely wounded. He has family somewhere praying for his safety. What if someone found Father or Uncle Fitz in their barn? We would hope someone would treat their wounds and feed them."
"He should be a prisoner."
"He will die if his injury does not receive adequate attention."
"Aye, but ..." Margaret did not look convinced. "The British do the same to the Patriots. There are men rotting in prison ships in New York harbor."
"I'll be pleased if you would take care of the milk while I get Colleen. She can guide me in gathering the things I'll need to clean out his wound and treat it."
"He's our enemy," Margaret reminded. "And Colleen hates the British."
"We are going to be Good Samaritans and I'm sure Colleen will understand that this young man was forced into service for the king as many of her own Irishmen have been." At least, Agnes hoped Colleen would give him the benefit of the doubt.
"If it was Father in some Tory's barn, he'd be shot."
"We must do what the Lord asks us to do." Agnes insisted. "Here's the milk. Pour it through the cheesecloth and set half aside for Aunt Sally."
Margaret set her mouth in a stubborn line. "What about the sweet buns? Mr. Newton at the inn will expect me to deliver them."
"Mr. Newton must wait today." Agnes hurried toward the house as Margaret trudged along behind her. The day showed signs of being almost as hot as the preceding ones had been. By the time she reached her door, she struggled for breath. Colleen was not inside. She found her tending to the lavender in her herb garden.
"What herbs do I need for a gash in the flesh?" Agnes asked.
"And who has been cut?" Colleen questioned with a note of suspicion in her voice.
"An unfortunate traveler." Agnes thought it best to start with small amounts of information. She loved the Irish woman, but harboring a British soldier was dangerous and Colleen thoroughly embraced the Patriots' cause.
Colleen stood and pressed her lips into a thin line. She hurried to the house and directed Agnes in filling her basket with all she needed to tend to the wound.
"Is he feverish?" Colleen asked. "Insensible? In great pain?" "He's handsome," Margaret announced as she divided the milk evenly.
Agnes froze as all the blood in her body swept downward.
"Is there more I should know about this young man?" Colleen put her hands on her hips and stared at Agnes.
She cast her gaze to the floor. "He comes from far away."
Colleen paused in lifting another basket from a peg on the wall. "The Lord commands us to help the alien in a foreign land. There were many who were kind to me when I first arrived in this land, even though I was Irish."
"We are so very glad you came to us." Agnes's voice tightened, for she remembered Colleen's arrival as if it were yesterday.
"I will gather boneset for his fever and brew it, but you hurry along and tend to his wound. You learned much in caring for Jonas." Colleen sighed. "I am grieved that he has been taken."
Agnes's eyes misted. "I am, too."
"He was my best friend, next to Francis." Margaret's lips trembled.
Colleen left the house and headed toward the woods to find the blossoming boneset, which grew wild in many places.
Agnes handed Margaret the kettle to carry. They walked to the barn once more.
"I think it will be best if we take off his jacket and remove anything else that would mark him a British soldier," Agnes whispered, though there was no one about to hear her.
"We must tell Colleen who he is." Fear flashed in Margaret's eyes.
"It is not necessary. We will burn the jacket." Agnes had always sought to set a good example for her sister and in her heart she knew what she intended to do would be morally correct if not politically wise. "It's a terrible thing when men kill their own brothers because an already rich king is greedy for more wealth."
"Then the Redcoat should join our cause," Margaret insisted.
"He was probably tricked into taking the King's shilling."
"Aye, that is cruel," Margaret agreed.
They hurried to the barn together, but before they reached it, they saw the miller driving his wagon along the lane toward them.
"Good day to you." He pulled at the reins when he came abreast of them and doffed his hat. "Why is the blacksmith shop not open?"
Agnes's heart hammered against her ribs. She usually opened the forge early in the day. "Is there something you need?"
"Yes, four more hooks." The miller pulled at the brake and jumped down from the wagon. He reached for a sack of flour from the back.
"Please bring the flour when you come for the hooks later," Agnes suggested.
He shot her a quizzical look before he shoved the sack into place again. He stared at the folded linen, the kettle, and her basket.
Agnes clutched at Margaret's sleeve and prayed her sister would say nothing. "As you can see, a sick animal needs my attention right now, sir. I bid you good day."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Patriot's Heart"
Copyright © 2014 Penelope Marzec.
Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
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