The road leads into the deep shadow of a grove of trees and we continue slowly while I wait in vain for my eyes to adjust. When minutes pass with no relief to the darkness, I murmur to cheer her and keep my worries at bay. “I’ll make sure the soldiers give you a nice, soft bed of hay when we arrive. You’ve done all I could ask and more. What a good girl you are!” No sooner are the words out of my mouth than Nelly shies and rears. Launched from the saddle as though I’ve been shot out of a cannon, I land in a graceless sprawl in the road. She snorts and clatters off.
Everything hurts. Biting back tears, I sit up and press both hands over the torn knee of my breeches. Blood seeps into the fabric, but the cut doesn’t seem serious enough to bind. Rubbing my hands clean on the breeches, I feel around for the hat and put it back on over my tumbled hair. Staggering to my feet, I call out, “Nelly? Come back. Where are you?” As I take a tentative step, the toe of my boot catches on the rutted road, sending me headlong onto the frozen ground.
I might be steps from shelter or from some unseen hazard. Only one thing is certain: I cannot lie here in the road when every second counts. I want to, though. I want to kick my heels and curse the circumstances that brought me to this point. Over and over, I’ve been told the war with the British is none of women’s affairs. So why is it me and not some man, out in the cold night without my mount, desperate to deliver a message that could change the war’s outcome?
Oh, bloody hell. I would never utter such an oath aloud, but in my thoughts, perhaps it doesn’t count. I made this journey for Benjamin and our children—and their children’s children, down through the ages to come. Benjamin is willing to fight and die for the cause of liberty. My cause is keeping him alive to witness that freedom come to pass.
Nothing deters my first halting steps. Hoofbeats, punctuated by the sound of metal on metal, grow louder. The animal is not moving fast, but my disorientation is so profound I can’t seem to get out of the way. As it bears down on me, a muzzle and trailing reins brush across my upraised hand. “Nelly?” This time the horse’s nose bumps against my face, and I grab for the reins. Skittish, she rears again, and fear of her metal-shod hooves makes me stumble back.
Time slips past me. Has my pursuer come on the right road? I grit my teeth, compose myself, and speak in a crooning voice. “I will get to Valley Forge tonight and tend to my brothers. I will deliver that letter to the general, have a cup of coffee before the fire, and take a bath. Won’t it be—oh, honestly, Nelly!”
The mare tosses her head and refuses to be still. I’ve lost my riding crop somewhere in the dark, but I could never bear to beat my exhausted, frightened pet. With effort, I set aside my anxiety and frustration, put my hand behind my back as if I might produce a treat, and sink into a curtsey.
“Your Majesty.” Perhaps Nelly will respond to the trick she learned long ago. She paws the ground, and I visualize her as she kneels, bowing her head along her extended right leg.
“Good girl. Steady now.” My hand closes around the reins, a lifeline in the darkness, and I run my other hand down her side to find the stirrup. Then I sing out, “Charmed, I’m sure!” and Nelly rises. Knee shaking with fatigue as my weight leaves the ground, I feel all my fresh bumps and bruises as I land in the saddle.
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