He was a young man. His face was clean-shaven and pale with perfect teeth and his hair was long enough to reach his shoulders.
He was a recruit in the army, and he might have sat his horse with the careless grace of his youth had he not been so catlike and tense.
His brown, maroon eyes were roving everywhere around him, catching the movements of the tree branches in the distance. The black fur of his cloak had been oiled against the chill, and it gleamed as though he wore armour. The boom of heavy guns had been sounding monotonously in his ears for hours, and only its cessation could have aroused his notice.
So tensely was he strung, that a sudden unfamiliar noise startled him to such an extent that automatically, instantly, he had reined in and fetched the carbine halfway to his shoulder.
The young man was no coward, but his courage was only that of the average civilized man, and he was looking to live, not die, at all hazards. He did not know this country; the noises and smells were strange, and his heartbeat like a drum in his chest.
He was moving always to the north for the last couple of days. When his path swung around to the west, he abandoned it and headed to the north again. That way lay safety, or so he thought until the sounds of the guns ceased abruptly. And then he knew nothing, save that something had happened.
As he came down into the valley, his progress was more rapid, and after half an hour, he stopped at an ancient rail fence on the edge of a clearing. Despite the openness, his path crossed the fringe of trees that marked the banks of the stream. Despite the fact that it was only a quarter of a mile across that vast open field, the thought of venturing out in it repulsed him. This fringe by the stream might be a hideout for rifles, scores of them, or even a thousand of them.
There was naught but silence, himself, and possible death-dealing bullets from a myriad of ambushes. And yet his task was to find what he feared to find. In the process of searching, he must go on, and on, until somewhere, he encountered another man, or other men, from the other side, scouting, as he was scouting, to report what he had found.
He saw a small farmhouse with no signs of life, no smoke curled from the chimney, nor any shadows moving through the windows. He kept going north. It seemed that he was not being pursued, for he did not see the twinkle of an eye, nor hear the whisper of a footstep.
A few minutes later, he reached the main road that ran along the base of the ridge. He stopped and looked back up the valley. Here, the fields were planted with crops, and here were cattle grazing, and in the distance, he caught sight of a wagon train.
Tethering his horse, he continued a hundred meters on foot until he reached a stream. As he drank, he heard a faint sound from the south, then farther away, the booming of artillery.
He thought about going into the woods but decided against it. On the one hand, there was safety, and on the other, he could be lost in the dark without food or water. He needed both to survive; he did not want to risk losing either. So he went ahead toward the stream, where he intended to rest until daybreak.
From the high ground above him, he saw the glow of fires burning in the town below. They were too distant for him to make out any details, except that they were probably barns or sheds, and no houses. Many people would be sleeping in their beds, with no idea that war was raging on the far side of the mountains.
Suddenly, a movement among the opposite bushes caught his eye. Birds might be to blame. He waited, however. There was again an agitation of the bushes, and he heard the rustle of a person.
At last, a face peered out. It was a face covered with a dirty brown beard. One side of the head was shaved, revealing a round skull. The eyes were blue and wide open.
He lifted his carbine to his shoulder as he gazed into the man's eyes.
From a very short distance, the man before him was as good as dead. But he didn't shoot. Slowly, he lowered his weapon.
The man in the bush extended his hand slowly to the stream to fill a bottle of water.
Seconds later, the man's face disappeared once again in the bush. After waiting a minute, the young man resumed his mission.
Days went by, and the air grew colder. Rains fell intermittently, soaking the earth but making it difficult to travel over the rough terrain. Once, when a cold drizzle began just as he was crossing a narrow stretch of river, he took shelter under a small clump of trees, and watched the rain run off the leaves in droplets, sparkle like diamonds, and disappear. He was wet to his knees, and his face glistened with moisture. His clothing clung to his body and made him feel like a mummy, preserved in time.
As he trudged on, he became aware that the steady rainfall was slowing his pace. The mud and muck sucked at his boots, forcing him to take longer strides to move forward. He dared not stop, for if he did, he would get stuck in the mud, and lose the trail. A sense of urgency filled him, and he hurried on.
It was a miserable feeling, knowing that he could not turn back and that he had no choice but to continue walking to wherever fate led.
And yet, as he walked, his heart was full of a certain curious contentment. He had come to an understanding—something that had eluded him since he had left home.
He was a soldier, and soldiers fought to kill the enemy. But how many died? How many never returned home to their families, wives, children, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, friends?
Only a handful, he realized. Out of a thousand soldiers, perhaps two dozen might return alive. Yet soldiers still volunteered to serve in the army because they believed their duty was important enough to pay the price.
And now he was one of those soldiers, paying the price. If he survived, he would be a hero, the talk of the town. People would speak of him, tell tales about him, and draw pictures of him, and write songs about him...
No, he would be dead, and his name would not be remembered. No one would remember. Just as he had forgotten the names of the brave men who had gone before him.
Reaching a fork in the trail, he paused to look north and south before taking the right-hand branch. His decision was based on a hunch, not hard evidence. It did not matter which way he went for the moment, but he wanted to avoid meeting others from the other side.
His path turned eastward, and he followed it for several miles. Then, just as his spirits rose when he discovered signs of habitation, he suddenly heard the crackling of gunfire. His horse pricked up its ears. Realizing that there was someone else in the area, he urged the animal forward. He was almost to a new settlement when he heard the sound of a stampede of horses approaching.
He looked up to see a company of mounted men galloping toward him with weapons drawn. He cursed, turned, and broke into a run, hoping to escape to the west.
The enemy soldiers were gaining on him. He tried to break into a trot, but his horse was hampered by his own weight, and he felt himself slipping backward, closer to the pursuing men. He knew that he couldn't outrun them, so he changed tactics. He reached down, grabbed his horse's reins, and shoved his heels into its flanks, sending it running in the opposite direction. The horse stumbled and skidded, throwing him to the ground. He rolled over onto his back. With hands that were numb with cold, he struggled to free his carbine from its holster.
He decided to abandon his horse and run for the hills behind him. Surely, there would be cover, and there he would be safe until the cavalry rode past.
With his legs aching, he scrambled up over some rocks, slipped and fell again. The pain of his fall caused tears to spring from his eyes. He got up again and ran.
For a while, he was able to maintain a fast pace, but then fatigue began to set in. In spite of the effort, his breathing was laboured, and he felt lightheaded.
Ahead of him, the cavalry was closing in. He could hear their voices, cursing as they rode. Ahead of him, in the distance, was a ridge he hadn't seen before. He could go around it, he thought, or climb up on top of it. Fearing that he might collapse and be captured, he pushed himself harder, nearly tumbling over the ridge. By the time he reached the summit, he was gasping for breath.
He looked behind him and saw the cavalry coming up on him. He sighed in despair thinking of how close he was to the end...
Just as they were about to reach the top of the ridge, the young man was suddenly pulled inside a bush. He let out a cry of surprise and looked at the hand that grasped his arm.
The man, with the dirty brown beard, that he encountered days ago, was the one who pulled him to safety.