"In God’s hands!" screamed Jessup as he shivered under his blanket.
His shakes would not stop. The heat from the mid-afternoon sun had been unable to break through the trees. Most of his comrades felt fortunate sitting in the coolness of that forested shade, but for Jessup, it was little more than he could bear. His hands twitched as he lay on his side, looking for one of the few dry patches of his blanket. Jessup’s discomfort was so upsetting that Hawkins made a point to stare past him at a patch of laurel down by the creek.
"I wonder how many of ’em redcoats pass out this time of year," he said as he sat on a piece of deadwood, playfully rolling a musket between his hands. "Ain’t no way they march all day under them glorified blankets without wilting."
Jessup stirred a little. He barely had enough energy to stay lucid inHawkins’presence.
"In God’s hands!" Jessup yelped.
"They’re closin’ in on us," said Hawkins. "The British Legion has broken off into smaller troops to see if they can rustle us out."
He swallowed hard.
"I wish we could just sit up in the brush and take potshots at ’em all day long," he continued, "but we ain’t got the people or the bullets. Captain wanted to stay here and see if you could ride this out. You know, every man helps. But we gotta move."
Hawkins stood up and paced the swath of shade where Jessup laid.
"The one good thing for you is that you don’t have to walk with that Maynard boy all day long," he said. "It could be the coldest day of winter and he’d still smell like the inside of my boot. Now, it’s mid-July and he stinks like–you smell better than he does. And he won’t shut up either. Keeps asking me how to talk to a woman. He’d do better for himself to trade his tongue for a bar of lye."
Jessup’s eyes rolled into the back of his head as Hawkins let out a nervous laugh.
"In God’s hands!"
During skirmishes, Hawkins had heard many young men panic and repeat that same phrase over and over. A simple jarring scream in their direction usually stopped them. In cases of smallpox, yelling did no good. The only time its victims were fully coherent was immediately after a long sleep. All Hawkins could do was chew his bottom lip for a minute before revealing a bittersweet smile.
"Yeah. I guess it is."
Jessup closed his blistered eyelids.
"I hate this," Hawkins said, too jittery to quit speaking. "It’s just that if we don’t leave now, this’ll all be over for us."
"In God’s hands!"
Jessup pulled his blanket up to his neck. Hawkins stood up and surveyed his friend’s condition. "You’re in the worst stage. If you make it through the night, you’ll probably live."
Hawkins took a deep breath. "Course, they’ll be comin’ through here soon. If you wanted to save yourself a lot of pain, you could go up behind and hug one of ’em redcoats."
Jessup stared off into the area beyond Hawkins.
"It’s not like they don’t do it to us. I hear General Washington has to dip his letters in vinegar. Just run down there and hang on to one for dear life. They’ll be feelin’ peaked before they hit Tryon County."
"In God’s hands!"
Hawkins sighed and ran his fingers through his mammoth beard to stroke his face. He then produced a flintlock pistol and laid it by Jessup, who paid it no mind. "Whatever you decide to do, Captain wanted you to have that."
Hawkins picked up his musket and turned to walk away. "I don’t mean to harp on this again, but if you grab a redcoat, make sure he don’t already have pits in his face."
Hawkins began his jog back to the militia’s camp, not waiting for acknowledgement. Jessup laid his head down, his eyes tearing up under the warm blankets of their lids. It took him less than two minutes to drift off to sleep.
The shirt and the blanket were soaked when he awoke. This was becoming a daily routine. He would collapse in the afternoon, wake up doused in a fever-broken sweat and do as much as he could with his hour of clarity and renewed vigor. Jessup rose and hobbled down to the creek, not bothering to put on his boots. The creek was about fifty feet from his blanket and he labored every step. When he finally arrived, he forced handful after handful of water down his throat and rested on his knees.
The sun had found its way through the trees and he could see a crystal-clear image of himself in the water. His face looked like a spored potato. He ran his hand through the maze of sores that had taken over his face. The gigantic pus-oozing blisters were surrounded by pools of oil. How does one ever come back from this, he thought. The little pockets of infection covered his back and his rear end. As much as Jessup wanted to lie on his back and catch his breath, the discomfort was too severe.
"It’ll get worse," he remembered Hawkins telling him. "Them bumps will harden; feel like you got pebbles under your skin. But if you get to that part, you’re gonna live."
The sores were beginning to simmer, which was a preamble to the fever’s return. Jessup stood up and trudged back to camp. The blisters on his feet had busted and were oozing between his toes. He made each step gingerly.
The whole thing was unnecessary, Jessup thought. The Hickory Holler Boys had gotten word that the British were trying to spread smallpox to the colonists. To combat it, the troop had to undergo a process where each cut their skin and inserted a smallpox scab under it. After that, the Captain told them, "It’s in God’s hands, but the chances of you getting the pox are one in a hundred." Most of the volunteers were better after a feverish couple of days, and only had little cluster scar to show for it. Only Jessup’s condition had progressively worsened with each morning. On the fifth day, he set up his own camp in between the roadway and the creek and waited to recover.
When he made it back to his camp, Jessup tiredly but slowly eased downward to his blanket. His stomach churned most of the time and he had not eaten in three days. He had a tough time keeping anything down, even water. If this keeps up, I’ll just die of thirst, he thought, as he looked up at the sky. There was maybe an hour of daylight left.
"Them redcoats have probably set up camp by now," Jessup said to himself.
If I’m not sick, I’ll eat some breakfast tomorrow, he thought as the fog of fever wrested control of his brain.
Jessup had been asleep for less than an hour when he felt the rumbling of unified footsteps. The British had not set up camp after all. They must be marching through the night to catch us, he thought. Jessup closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He would have to muster all his energy to rise and carry his flintlock and himself to the roadway.
The British always marched with arrogance, Jessup’s father had told him. The redcoats would walk straight through anything in their path but be oblivious to their surroundings. Serving in the Hickory Holler Boys had proved that to him. Jessup had fired into the moving walls of red countless times and sent the ranks tumbling, yet the columns never lost a step.
Now, he sat behind a tree only four yards from the British regiment. There must have been a hundred of them, marching double file. The sun had set, so Jessup knew they could not see him but he wondered if they could smell his infected flesh. It probably wouldn’t matter if they did, he thought, they’d just walk straight ahead anyway.
He did not know why he was even considering Hawkins’ suggestion. Grabbing a soldier probably would slow those redcoats down considerably and it sure beat dying alone by a creek in North Carolina. But it would not be an act of heroism, or at least one that could be justified in any Christian sense.
Then again, things were bad. His militia had left him with the directions of "we’ll be north, come find us." They were not specific because they had no idea where they were going. The only direction the Hickory Holler Boys could take was away from the British. Infecting just one redcoat with smallpox would be of help.
The five-foot roadway did not look like it was cleared for the passage of wagons. Jessup would not have been surprised if he had been told it was actually a dried-out creek bed. The high embankments that surrounded both sides of the roadway would allow him to roll down, grab one redcoat and brush up against a passel more.
The first soldier was fifty feet away from Jessup’s line of movement. He crawled through the forest over tree roots and pinecones. Pieces of bark and pine needles stuck to his leaky hands. The pain was unbearable, but Jessup kept pushing forward. He only had a few more yards to go.
The troop was twenty feet away when Jessup arrived at the top of the embankment leading to the roadway. His heart pounded furiously. He sat up on one knee. The palpitations were faster than when he had shot his first redcoat in the back. He tried to suppress his conscience by remembering Hawkins’ advice, "If you grab a redcoat, make sure he don’t have a pitted face."
"Pitted face," Jessup muttered incessantly. "Pitted face."
His sleep had not been long enough. The fever had already returned.
"Pitted face… pitted face!" exclaimed Jessup as he lost consciousness and fell into the roadway five feet in front of the British troop.
"Halt."
The redcoats came to a stop. Jessup regained consciousness the minute he hit the ground. He hoped the soldiers would shoot him. A bayonet seemed too painful. One of the soldiers steadied his musket ready to grant Jessup’s wish.
"Stop!" screamed one of the British. "Can’t you see he’s got the pox?"
He walked within in a couple of feet of his diseased foe and studied him. Jessup assumed that he was an officer because of the silver epaulet on his shoulder. He had heard that the redcoats in charge wore ornaments. After turning back to look at the troop, the commander rubbed his hand along his porcelain face.
"You’re one of the militia, aren’t you?" he asked.
Jessup made no answer.
"Where are they going to?"
Jessup let out a deep sigh. The commander produced his own musket pistol and cocked it.
"This is your last chance."
Jessup closed his eyes, ready to be relieved of his misery. The field commander thought for a moment and then holstered his firearm. He turned and faced his troop.
"Have any amongst you ever had smallpox?" he asked.
No one in the troop answered.
"Not one of you!? Corporal Templeton, might I have a word with you?"
Templeton, a short, stubby man, broke away from the ranks of the soldiers and followed the commander as he walked a few feet away from the division.
"Yes, Lieutenant," said Templeton.
"I hate to say this, but considering the time constraints, I feel that we should pick two random soldiers and have them move him?" whispered the lieutenant. "What do you think?"
Templeton glanced off in an opposite direction before answering.
"Unless we leave them here to fend for themselves, we still run the risk of exposing the rest of the soldiers," he whispered. "Maybe we should turn around and take Macclesfield Road. It’s wider and we will avoid our chances of acquiring this disease."
"But we will lose a day," said the lieutenant. "Why can’t we just cut up around the embankment?"
"I could give you several reasons why not," said Templeton, "but the main one is there is no telling what he has touched. If one of us brushes up against the same tree that he did, then this all for nothing."
The lieutenant gave Templeton a wide-eyed look. The corporal diplomatically held up his hands.
"Sir," he said, "you asked my opinion and I have given it. I will support any decision that you make."
"Colonel Tarleton will be most displeased by our loss of time," said the lieutenant.
"Not as upset as he’d be if you lost a third of your men to smallpox," said Templeton.
The Lieutenant smiled and nodded at Templeton before motioning him back towards the line. The troop quickly turned around and marched at a much quicker pace.
Jessup listened to them disappear into the darkness and then closed his eyes. He decided that if he made it through the night, he would crawl out of the roadway. If not, at least he would die knowing that by stumbling into a roadway he had done more for the cause than he had his entire year with the Hickory Holler Boys.
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