Young Johnny Warrenton attempts to carry out a dying man’s last wish while struggling with the horrors of war during the American Revolution.
The bullets screamed over Johnny’s head, lodging in the sparse trees and the writhing bodies around him with a forceful finality. Shrieks of pain met him at every turn as he crawled towards camp. He had been sent up to the front lines with a message for Brigadier Simon Fraser from General Burgoyne. He wasn’t able to locate Fraser amidst all the confusion of exploding gunpowder and wailing men. When he turned back to report to General Burgoyne, more rebels had come from nowhere, firing ruthlessly.
The stench of blood cooking in the sun wafted all around him, but he forced his stomach under control lest he be heard heaving. Spent gunpowder accosted his nostrils when he dared to lift his nose above the dry grass of the field. Crawling over his fellow British soldiers on that cursed day of Sept. 18, 1777, Johnny Warrenton very much wanted to go home to his mother.
His father, on the other hand, was a different story. Johnny did not care if he never saw him again. His father had somehow seen some sense in sending his thirteen-year-old son off to war. Johnny’s father had paid to insure that he was placed under the tutelage of the finest Generals and Lieutenants in the British Army. Six months aboard a stinking ship only to be met by sweltering heat, minute food rations and the bloody entrails of his dead comrades.
Sweat dripped from his face and down his neck, staining his uniform. As he crawled over a man lying on his back, a wet hand grabbed hold of him and pulled him to his face. The soldier’s stale breath nearly overpowered Johnny’s nauseous stomach.
“Help me, please,” the man said. His chest wheezed as he seemed to draw breath through several small holes in his coat. Johnny jumped back, trying to free his hand, but it seemed to be cemented in the sticky blood.
“I’m Brigadier General Lewis,” the man said. “I need you to take the note out of my pocket and deliver it to my wife in Boston.”
“I, uh, can’t do that Sir,” Johnny said. Despite the heat, chills ran down his spine as he peered into the man’s watery eyes. “I’m just an ensign, Sir. It is my duty to stay by General Burgoyne’s side during this entire campaign. My father has commissioned me to become a General in the King’s army.”
“Yes, boy, I’m sure you’ll make a fine, brave General. But I desperately need for my wife to know where I have hidden my gold.” He sucked in a short breath. Blood flowed from a wide bayonet slice in his stomach.
“Why didn’t you tell her before you left home?”
The General lifted his free hand in an attempt to shield his eyes from the glaring sun. Johnny removed his own hat and used it to shade the General’s eyes. The General thanked Johnny with a barely discernable movement of his lips.
“Because I didn’t think these rebels would ever be able to hold their own. Now look at me. Please, boy, take the note from my breast pocket. All the information you need is there.”
The hold on Johnny’s hand became slack and General Lewis’ head sank into the blood-soaked ground. He labored for breath no more.
Johnny could not hear any more gunfire, so he peered over the top of the grass. He could see the rebel soldiers marching away. Covering his face with his shaking hands, he began to weep.
Why did his father have to send him away from home? Away from all that was safe? He wished terribly that his dog, Sadie, were here to keep him company. What of his mare, Star, had she foaled yet? What of his mother? How was she getting on with all the rough chores of the house without him to help? She was a frail, petite woman, why didn’t his father keep him home to guard her health?
The sun inched westward and a soft breeze kicked up, but the air was hot and the wind only spread the stench of death. His eyes burned as he sat among the dead in the grassy field. From where he sat, looking south, he could see the farmer’s field that had caused this death march. An abandoned field of potatoes. The British had gone down to dig potatoes to fill their empty bellies when right out of nowhere the rebels had struck.
He knelt there on his knees, pleading to God for strength and courage. Hoping he was doing the right thing, he forced a deep breath. Holding it in, he gingerly lifted the flap of the General’s jacket and pulled out a pale yellow envelope. He put the envelope in his own breast pocket and ran back to camp.
In his tent, Johnny scrubbed the blood off his face and hands. He carefully cleaned his uniform as well as he could and checked his face in his small mirror to make sure that he had cleaned off all the blood. He had seen General Burgoyne’s maps and knew of a trail heading east. If he could manage to stay on that trail for about two days, he would run right into the road to Boston. He folded the envelope carefully and slid it down inside of his boot.
Abandoning his duty was not wise, but Johnny could not forget the dying man’s pleading eyes.
His father would give him ten lashings for stealing a horse from the King’s Army, but Johnny knew that General Lewis’ wife really needed the information. He also knew that he would probably never see his family again, anyway. They lived in London and he couldn’t go back there after tonight, he would probably be hanged for what he was about to do. If his father was going to throw him into such a disgusting, inhumane situation, he didn’t want anything to do with him.
He road along the silent trail with his mind reeling a mile a minute. What if the rebels captured him? What would he say to them? How would he explain that all he really wanted was a meal, a bed, and his family? With these thoughts tormenting him, he shed his bright red British coat and tossed it among the trees. By the light of his low-lit lantern, he followed the trail all night.
Johnny stopped to rest at a small stream early in the morning. While he bent to get a drink, the sharp sound of a snapping twig assaulted his ears. He grabbed his musket and poured gunpowder down the barrel, then listened. He stood perfectly still, his heart racing and hands trembling. He could hear the blood rushing in his ears. Maybe it’s Cherokees, he thought, or rebels. He listened intently for a while, but heard nothing more. Getting back on his horse, he continued down the trail.
About midday, the sun began its torturous routine of stealing Johnny’s energy. He had ridden all night after running for General Bourgoyne all day. He lead the gleaming horse into the deep brush off the trail and bedded down for a rest on some low brush. From where he lay, he could see the trail, but was hidden from sight by the forest’s cover. Sleep greeted him before his head touched the ground.
Johnny was awakened by the sound of horses’ hooves beating the hard ground. Opening his eyes, he saw Brigadier General Simon Fraser standing over him with a wry smile, chewing on hard tack.
“How did you manage to get so lost last night, son?” He said. “And on the General’s own horse, too.”
Johnny didn’t know how to answer. He could see at least ten British soldiers filing up the trail. The sun above the high tree line was reaching westward, giving off long shadows of dusk, its fingers of darkness startling his young imagination.
“I don’t really know, Sir.” Johnny said, as he stood up.
“Well, we got a message for you all the way from England last night. When we couldn’t find you, we set out early this morning.”
“A message from England?” Johnny said. “Please, Sir, what does it say?”
“It appears that your mother has taken sick. Your father needs you home to care for your mother and the farm.”
Though it grieved Johnny to hear of his Mother’s ailing, relief came over him like a refreshing bath in a cool spring. “I’m going home, Sir?”
“First you must return the Generals horse and work things out with him.”
“I have a message to deliver in Boston. It is of the utmost importance.”
“Let me take a look at it,” replied Fraser as he placed the last bit of his hard tack on his tongue.
Johnny nervously dug the envelope from his boot and handed it over to Fraser. “You see, Sir, a man was dying in the field and I felt bound by honor to deliver his last wish.” Johnny didn’t tell Fraser of the loneliness he felt, or of his desire to leave the awful fighting behind him. Fraser was a man of the king’s army and didn’t have time to listen to the whining of an ensign. Fraser was only out to retrieve the General’s horse.
The General perused the contents of the letter. “I see. I’ll send some of my men to Boston with this letter. You’ll come back with me and set things straight with General Burgoyne.”
“Yes, Sir,” Johnny replied.
Johnny waited outside of General Burgoyne’s tent while Fraser went inside and explained everything to him.
A soldier joined Johnny’s side.
“Are you the boy who took the General’s horse?”
“I bet you’re pretty scared right now. I know I would be. I once saw a soldier get lashed till he was nearly dead.”
“Yep. He stole a General’s horse.” The man bit his lip, nodded his head and slowly walked away.
When Johnny was called inside, he stood at attention, waiting for the sentence the General would impose on him. He thought he would be flogged. He wondered if he would be strong enough to survive a severe lashing.
“You’ve heard me called ‘Gentleman Johnny’ haven’t you, son?” the General said.
“Yes, sir.” Johnny had heard the men around the camp telling story after story of the way the General treated his men with good will and respect.
“I’ll tell you something, Johnny. I like you, and not just because we have the same first name. I like the way you carry out my orders with efficiency.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Brigadier General Fraser tells me that you were carrying information about some hidden gold.”
“It was a dying General’s last wish, sir. I was carrying a message to the man’s wife.”
“You weren’t thinking of keeping the gold for yourself, were you?”
General Burgoyne towered over Johnny. “I think you’re an honest person, Johnny. I’m going to believe that you had nothing but good intentions. Let’s forget about this whole incident and you can go back to your father with an untarnished record.”
Johnny could not believe his good fortune. Instead of getting hanged or lashed, this General of the King’s Army was setting him free. “Thank you, sir,” were the only words he could get passed his trembling lips.
General Burgoyne reached out and took Johnny’s hand in his own, giving it a firm shake. “Anytime you want to come back, I’m saving a place for you right here. I always have need of an honest man.”
“Yes sir. Thank you.” He turned and ran to his tent to pack his things and prepare for his journey home. Home to his sweet, refreshing England. No gunfire, no blood. Just his family, his dog and his horse. Home.