It wasn’t God Roger found with him, but the next best thing. The memory of Major Gareth Everett, one of his father’s friends, an ex-military chaplain. Everett was a tall, long-faced man who wore his graying hair parted down the middle in a way that made him look like an old hound dog, but he’d had a black sense of humor and he’d treated Roger, then thirteen years old, as a man.
“Did you ever kill anyone?” he’d asked the Major when they were sat around the table after dinner one night, the old men telling stories of the War.
“Yes,” the Major replied without hesitation. “I’d be no use to my men, dead.”
“What did you do for them?” Roger had asked, curious. “I mean—what does a chaplain do, in a battle?”
Major Everett and the Reverend had exchanged a brief look, but the Reverend nodded and Everett leaned forward, arms folded on the table in front of him. Roger saw the tattoo on his wrist, a bird of some kind, wings spread over a scroll with something written on it in Latin.
“Be with them,” the Major said quietly, but his eyes held Roger’s, deeply serious. “Reassure them. Tell them God is with them. That I’m with them. That they aren’t alone.”
“Help them when you can,” his father had said, softly, eyes on the worn gray oilcloth that covered the table. “Hold their hands and pray, when you can’t.”
He saw—actually saw—the blast of a cannon. A brilliant red flowering spark the size of his head that blinked in the fog with a firework’s BOOM! and then vanished. The fog blew back from the blast and he saw everything clearly for a second, no more—the black hulk of the gun, round mouth gaping, smoke thicker than the fog rolling over it, fog falling to the ground like water, steam rising from the hot metal to join the roiling fog, the artillerymen swarming over the gun, frenzied blue ants, swallowed up the next instant in swirling white.
And then the world around him went mad. The shouts of the officers had come with the cannon’s blast; he only knew it because he’d been standing close enough to the Lieutenant-Colonel to see his mouth open. But now a general roar went up from the charging men in his column, running hell-bent for the dim shape of the redoubt before him.
The sword was in his hand, and he was running, yelling, wordless things.
Torches glowed faintly in the fog—soldiers trying to re-fire the abatis, he thought dimly.
The Lieutenant-Colonel was gone. There was a high-pitched yodeling of some sort that might be the general, but might not.
The cannon—how many? He couldn’t tell, but more than two; the firing kept up at a tremendous rate, the crash of it shaking his bones every half-minute or so.
He made himself stop, bent over, hands on his knees, gasping. He thought he heard musket-fire, muffled, rhythmic crashes between the cannon blasts. The British army’s disciplined volleys.
“Fall back!” An officer’s shouts rang out sudden in the heartbeat of silence between one crash and the next.
You’re not a soldier. If you get killed… nobody will be here to help them. Fall back, idiot.
He’d been at the back of the rank, with the Lieutenant-Colonel. But now he was surrounded by men, surging together, pushing, running in all directions. Orders were being barked, and he thought some of the men were struggling to obey; he heard random shouts, saw a black boy who couldn’t be more than twelve struggling grimly to load a musket taller than he was. He wore a dark blue uniform, and a bright yellow kerchief showed when the fog parted for an instant.
He tripped over someone lying on the ground and landed on his knees, brackish water seeping through his breeches. He’d landed with his hands on the fallen man, and the sudden warmth on his cold fingers was a shock that brought him back to himself.
The man moaned and Roger jerked his hands away, then recovered himself and groped for the man’s hand. It was gone, and his own hand was filled with a gush of hot blood that reeked like a slaughterhouse.
“Jesus,’ he said, and wiping his hand on his breeches, grappled with the other in his bag, he had cloths… he yanked out something white and tried to tie it round… he felt frantically for a wrist, but that was gone, too. He got a fragment of sleeve and felt his way up it as fast as he could, but he reached the still solid upper arm a moment after the man died—he could feel the sudden limpness of the body under his hand.
He was still kneeling there with the unused cloth in his hand when someone tripped over him and fell headlong with a tremendous splash. Roger got up onto his feet and duck-walked to the fallen man.
“Are you all right?” he shouted, bending forward. Something whistled over his head and he threw himself flat on top of the man.
“Jesus Christ!” the man exclaimed, punching wildly at Roger. “Get the devil off me, you bugger!”
They wrestled in the mud and water for a moment, each trying to use the other for leverage to rise, and the cannon kept on firing. Roger pushed the man away and managed to roll up onto his knees in the mud. Cries for help were coming from behind him, and he turned in that direction.
The fog was almost gone, driven off by explosions, but the gun-smoke drifted white and low across the uneven ground, showing him brief flashes of color and movement as it shredded.
“Help, help me!”
He saw the man then, on hands and knees, dragging one leg, and splashed through the puddles to reach him. Not much blood, but the leg was clearly wounded; he got a shoulder under the man’s arm and got him on his feet, hustled him as fast as possible away from the redoubt, out of range…
The air shattered again and the earth seemed to tilt under him, he was lying on the ground with the man he’d been helping on top of him, the man’s jaw knocked away and hot blood and chunks of teeth soaking into his chest. Panicked, he struggled out from under the twitching body—Oh, God, oh, God, he was still alive—and then he was kneeling by the man, slipping in the mud, catching himself with a hand on the chest where he could feel the heart beating in time with the blood spurting, Oh, Jesus, help me!
He groped for words, frantic. It was all gone. All the comforting words he’d gleaned, all his stock in trade…
“You’re not alone,” he panted, pressing hard on the heaving chest, as though he could anchor the man to the earth he was dissolving into. “I’m here. I won’t leave you. It’s gonna be all right. You’re gonna be all right.” He kept repeating that, kept his hands pressing hard, and then in the midst of the spouting carnage, felt the life leave the body.
He sat on his heels, gasping, frozen in place, one hand on the still body as though it was glued there and then the drums.
A faint throb through the rhythmic sounds of gunfire. His bones had absorbed that without his noticing; he could feel the ebb when the first rank of muskets fell back and the surge when the second rank reached the edge of the redoubt and fired. Something in the back of his head was counting… one… two…
“What the hell,” he said thickly and stood up, shaking his head. There were three men near him, two still on the ground, the third struggling to rise. He got up and staggered over to them, gave the live man his hand and pulled him up, wordless. One of the others was plainly dead, the other almost so. He let go of the man he was holding and collapsed on his knees by the dying one, taking the man’s cold face between his hands, the dark eyes bleared with fear and ebbing blood.
“I’m here,” he said, though the cannon fired then and his words made no sound.
The drums. He heard them clearly now, and a sort of yell, a lot of men shouting together. And then a rumbling, squashing, splashing and suddenly there were horses everywhere, running… Running at the fucking redoubts full of guns.
A crash of guns and the cavalry split, half the horses wheeling, back and away, the rest scattering, dancing through the fallen men, trying not to step on the bodies, big heads jerking as they fought the reins.
He didn’t run; he couldn’t. He walked forward, slowly, sword flopping at his side, stopping where he found a man down. Some he could help, with a drink or a hand to press upon a wound while a friend tied a cloth around it. A word, a blessing where he could. Some were gone and he laid a hand on them in farewell and commended their souls to God with a hasty prayer.
He found a wounded boy and picked him up, carrying him back through the smoke and puddles, away from the cannon.
Another roar. The fourth column came running through the broken ground, to throw themselves into the fighting at the redoubt. He saw an officer with a flag of some kind run up shouting, then fall, shot through the head. A little boy, a little black boy in blue and yellow, grabbed the flag and then bodies hid him from view.
“Jesus Christ,” Roger said, because there wasn’t anything else he could possibly say. He could feel the boy’s heart beating under his hand through the soaked cloth of his coat. And then it stopped.
The cavalry charge had broken all together. Horses were being ridden or led away, a few of them fallen, huge and dead in the marshy ground, or struggling to rise, neighing in panic.
An officer in a gaudy uniform was crawling away from a dead horse. Roger set the boy’s body down and ran heavily to the officer. Blood was gushing down his thigh and his face, and Roger fumbled in his pocket, but there was nothing there. The man fell and doubled up, hands pressing his groin, and saying something in a language Roger didn’t recognize.
“It’s all right,” he said to the man, taking him by the arm. “You’re going to be all right. I won’t leave you.”
“Bòg i Maryla pomò&zring;cie mi,” the man gasped.
“Aye, right. God be with you.” He turned the man on his side, pulled out his shirt-tail and ripped it off, then stuffed it into the man’s trousers, pressing into the hot wetness. He leaned on the wound with both hands, and the man screamed.
Then there were several cavalrymen there, all talking at once in multiple languages, and they pushed Roger out of the way and picked the wounded officer up bodily, carrying him away.
Most of the firing had stopped now. The cannon was silent, but his ears felt as though fire-bells were ringing in his head; it hurt.
He sat down, slowly, in the mud and became aware of rain running down his face. He closed his eyes. And after some time, became aware that a few words had come back to him.
“Out of the depths I cry unto you, O, Lord. O, Lord, hear my voice.”
The trembling didn’t stop, but some little time later, he got up and staggered away toward the distant marshes, to help bury the dead.
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Excerpt from GO TELL THE BEES THAT I AM GONE, Copyright © 2021 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved. Please do not copy and repost this excerpt elsewhere; instead share the link to this blog post. Thank you.
And many thanks to Yolande Tordjman for the beautiful collage of bees on lemon blossoms!
This excerpt was also posted on my official Facebook page on July 4, 2021.