His father’s last words rang in his mind as he saw them drag his elder brother’s corpse to join the burning pile. The body was tossed into the blaze, the black pit dug around it harsh against the sun-lit, verdant field. His gaze filtered through a watery haze as he looked up to the handful of remaining redcoats milling about near the cypress forest’s edge. They maintained two small cannons and tended to a spooked horse, the ears flickering with fear visible even from the second floor of the abandoned plantation house.
He looked back to the blaze, to see his brother for the last time before the fires consumed him. He memorized every detail, the world narrowing around the mass pyre, until a glint of red out of the corner of his eye snapped his attention away.
One of the redcoats was peering into the window.
The boy gasped and tucked away into the corner, his shoulder brushing the mirror hanging next to it. As his heart drummed loudly in his chest, the blood rushed to his ears and joined in with a chorus of ringing, and the seconds ticked away like years on the dusty grandfather clock in the opposite corner of the room.
His beating heart plunged as the sound of the downstairs door opening broke through the cacophony within him. Hard boot steps on the wooden floor followed. The door shut—there was only one of them. A pause, and then the intruder stalked further into the house.
The boy clenched his musket, sucked in a few breaths and willed away the paralyzing fear and overwhelming adrenaline. His knees trembled and his hands went cold as the boots thumped up the stairway.
As the deliberate marching below paused again, a flash of vengeful rage took him, and he turned and hustled out of the corner and into the adjacent room, thinking of the wolf traps he set as a lad with his father and brother. He minded his steps on the burgundy rug lining the hallway and pressed himself against the wall, away from the banister. As he settled into the next room, the pressure on his chest lifted. The redcoat would pass by, head to where he had spotted the boy, and he would take him from behind. He checked his loaded musket and held the barrel upright so as not to give away his position to passing eyes. His vision bored into the dim bedroom he had fled, the perfect snare.
Sunlight streamed in through the window, casting a misty haze through the unsettled dust of his escape, flecks swirling in and out of the rays. The steps did not resume. Had the redcoat spotted him from the stairs? The stairway led to the far end of the unlit hall, but he had not dared to look. Had he been too hasty in setting his trap?
The steps resumed and reached the second floor. He held the hatred in his heart and kept the sight of his brother’s burning body in his mind. He had never killed a man, and a few months ago he hadn’t even contemplated the possibility of doing so. The first pull of his trigger with a man in his sights might cause him to freeze, or so he’d been warned. That could not happen—he would have bare moments before his quarry would realize its predicament, and a wolf sensing it had fallen into a trap was the most dangerous of all.
The steps stopped once more. He held his breath until his lungs nearly betrayed him, and he exhaled as carefully as he could, his knees trembling. The house creaked and groaned, the heat of the nearby bonfire stressing its bones. He stared into the corner where his trap would be sprung, fixating on the wrought iron lamp stand, gnarled and twisted, hung over the window. Gloom surrounded the light cast through the window, as if framing where his prey needed to go.
“Boy. Come out. I am not here to hurt you.” The redcoat’s voice echoed through the house, a shock in the silence.
His lack of breath mixed with the pulses of adrenaline shooting through him momentarily made him agreeable to the suggestion. He almost took a step forward before his wits pulled him back. They showed no mercy to any of the men here, even the ones who surrendered. He had seen enough hidden in the crawlspace his brother shoved him into seconds before the redcoats burst into the estate, their hatchets and bayonets painting the already crimson wallpaper with the blood of his comrades. Though the redcoat’s words were kind and his voice pleasant, he could still sense the low, hungry growl underneath.
Patience. Wolves often smelled a trap. They were cautious, and would approach mindfully. Outwaiting them was the key. As he listened for anything to break the silence, the pressure in his chest mounted again, and the sharp cry of a startled bird outside the window nearly broke his hunter’s perseverance. Only a lifetime of firm tutelage held him from leaping, and he took another slow, shallow breath.
“Very well, little rabbit. I know you moved. I heard you move. I will just have to sniff you out one room at a time.” The boots marched a few paces, and he heard the door of the furthest room down the hall open, the steps muffled as they entered.
He silently cursed as his eyes squeezed shut. There was no springing a trap on this wolf now. Down the hall, the door shut, and the steps moved to the next room. Two more and the redcoat would be upon him.
He scanned around. Evidently, this was where the lady of the house mended and sewed clothing. Save for a small table, a tattered cloak still in need of repair hung on the wall, and a dress form, there was nothing. Another door closed. “Rabbit, little rabbit,” the voice sang out soothingly. “Come out. There is no need to fear. You have my word, I will not harm you.” The next door opened, and after that there would be only one more room between them.
He slipped out and moved back towards the bedroom where he had been initially spotted. As he reached the doorway he glanced back and saw a black, fur-coated head poke out into the hallway. He froze, unable to even point his musket; but his stalker’s eyes were away and back down the hall, and the boy forced himself through the doorway before the head turned.
The steps resumed, then paused again. “I know you are frightened. I was frightened, too, once, in the service of His Majesty. I sympathize with your plight. Please come out and let us speak.”
Silence filled the house. The redcoat huffed. “Then our game must continue, my rabbit.” The steps resumed and entered into the next room.
Even if the redcoat had heard him move from here earlier, he would still check once he found the other rooms vacant. There were plenty of places to hide in here, including a closet across the room, a perfect angle to attack someone entering through the door. He sprinted towards the closet, mindful of the dresser. Years of stalking prey on dry leaves served him well, but his nerves betrayed him nonetheless. He bumped into an open drawer, and one of the lamps on the dresser’s corners crashed onto the floor.
The steps rushed into the hallway. “Clever rabbit!” The young man spun and aimed his musket at the door, tears nearly blinding him. He opened his eyes as far as he physically could, willing them to dry and give him a clear sight. Be a man—his father’s last words. It was the least he could do for the memory of his slain brother.
But the steps did not come closer. “My boy. You should not be my victim. I know what you’ve seen and I understand what you are afraid of. But you are not armed, and therefore we will not give you the same treatment. And if you are armed, discard of your weapon before you present yourself to me, and we need not speak of it.”
The silence was broken only by dim murmuring from outside in the fields. The young man crept further towards the closet as the boot steps resumed their march towards the room. “So be it, little rabbit,” the voice sighed, almost sadly. The young man stepped into the frame of the closet and leaned against the furthest post of its archway, his musket trained on the doorway.
The redcoat burst into the room, slamming the door fully open with his shoulder. As he did so, the young man saw another figure in the room; in shock, he spun to aim his musket at it. His finger clenched the trigger but could not pull, the hesitation he had been warned about taking over. He stared, and saw himself in the mirror knocked askance by the redcoat’s brute entry.
The redcoat spun and fired at the mirror, the angle making it appear as if the young man were across from him. As it shattered, the silvered glass crackling to the floor, the young man moved without daring to think, reset his aim at the redcoat in the doorway, and fired.
His enemy was thrown back against the door, gasping. His chest was shattered open but blood barely showed against his coat. His rabbit fur cap fell from his head as blonde locks collapsed over his boyish face, his jaw slack, his childish blue eyes staring at the colonial as life slowly drained out of them and his small frame slumped to the floor.
The young man barely had a chance to comprehend that he had accomplished something he could never take back when an anguished scream rang out from the field below. Grapeshot shattered through the windows and walls, agonizing shrapnel piercing him as the world spun and shook, and the last thing he saw was the body of his foe before he too fell with him.
For more about the author, including other stories, visit www.jjsegwis.com.
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