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July 7, 1777, Hubbardton,Vermont
"Where do you think we are, Blackthorne?"
Stephen maintained his rigid posture, his eyes slanting to the right the only indication he’d heard the muttered question. He could just make out Granger’s profile-’and one of Granger’s dark eyes staring sideways at him.
"Somewhere between Fort Ticonderoga and the mouth of hell," Stephen said through stiff lips.
"We passed the mouth of hell a few miles back."
Stephen nearly broke discipline and laughed. The idea comparison was an apt one. The scenes they’d passed on the road to this god-forsaken wilderness lacked only Lucifer to complete the picture. The carcasses of half-butchered cattle, the leavings of a retreating army with no time to do the job properly, festered along the way, bloated and fly-infested under a sweltering July sun. The stench of death, sticky and sweet, tainted the very air. The beasts had been part of some family’s livelihood once, but now they lay as a rotting sacrifice to the god of war.
The prostrating heat only added to Stephen’s suffering. The oppressive scarlet wool of his uniform felt all the thicker, the burden of his gear all the heavier. From the driving snows and icy winds of a Boston winter to this inferno, the climate in the colonies delivered such extremes. After four years, he still wasn’t used to it.
A gimlet-eyed major strode past. "Quiet in the line!"
Stephen shifted his eyes to focus on the scene in front of him. The glare of the early morning sun blurred the lines of the sharp incline ahead. Nothing moved at its crest, but Stephen held no illusions as to what lurked at its top-’possible death in the form of a colonial musket ball.
After a hellish twenty-four-hour march on little rest along a rough mountain track, he almost didn’t care. It would bring to an end an existence he’d come to resent.
The order came out of nowhere. Automatically, Stephen lowered his bayonet. His voice joined the chorus of shouts that erupted along the line, as he labored up the slope.
A volley of lead greeted them at the hilltop. All about him, red-coated men fell. He raced at the nearest homespun-clad rebel, but the other man refused to give way. His shot already discharged, the rebel ducked behind a makeshift wall to reload.
More of the enemy surged up behind the first. Stephen launched himself at them, heedless of anything but the need to break through the rebels’ line. Stopping to worry whether this man-’whether any of them-’still had a shot was pointless. At this range, it would all be over in an instant. One moment, he’d be blinking the sweat out of his eyes; the next-’nothing.