Loss and Trust

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FOUR MEN DRESSED WITH the faces of courageous soldiers gather around the repose of a fire. A musket accompanies each of their sides or leans against something nearby. Liam has already briefed them on the attack at River Springs. None of them are shocked, as if it is a daily affair.
    Now he turns and gestures to me.
    "Men, this is Maddie Holt. Miss Holt, your father's bravest and most valiant soldiers from this side of North Carolina." Humor drips from Liam's voice, though my shoulders still shudder with fear.
    "Now, O'Dally, I believe you mean all of North Carolina. Pleased to meet you Miss Holt." The soldier nearest to me flashes a grin, one foot resting on a large rock, elbow on his bent knee and chin resting on a folded fist.
    Liam's low chuckle resonates in the quiet night. "My mistake." He looks to me, then throws a nod at the soldier. "This is Woods."
    I cock my head the soldier's way, rubbing my arm. "Woods? Is that your real name?"
    He reveals nearly straight teeth, the corners of his mouth curling up into his dark scruff. "Maybe."
    I pause. Then the furrow of my brow disappears, and my lips give in to a fond smile before I can resist. Liam gestures to the man on my other side,who is unmistakably Indian. "That's Tomah." My eyes widen, previous thoughts of panic shoved to the side.
A real Indian?
    His shoulders are broad and he's easily the tallest of the group. Red skinned and dark hair at the nape of his neck. Not only a musket stands at his side, but a long blade rests in a sheath attached to his hip, an animal hide wrapped around its handle. Undoubtedly a weapon of his people.
    The Indian nods, something mysterious yet welcoming in his eyes catching mine.
    "Dawson Kelly next to him." Liam looks at me and smiles. "We call him Kel." The third soldier is red headed with piercing blue eyes that flash in the firelight. "Ma'am," he says, as if it's a whole sentence.
    "And this old man," Liam tilts his head up, relaxing into his easy posture, and I find the fourth man's eyes, "well, that's Jackson. Grandpa Fields."
    I raise a brow. "Fields?"
    "That'd be my last name, Miss. Honored to meet the daughter of the greatest colonel in the Continental Army." The man winks, voice rough like sand paper. Brows bushy and dark, his eyes crinkle with a hidden glean.
    I glance from man to man, their scruffy faces illuminated by the dim glow of the burning fire. Of course I've seen soldiers in my lifetime. But there's something different about the way these men are so carefree, even in the midst of a war, as if everything comes naturally to them. They look about the tiny camp with a confidence in their eyes. It gives me a queer feeling, making me curious to know how they came to be so.
    Liam is saying something again, but I hardly even notice anymore. The atmosphere of the small, makeshift camp demands my attention. There isn't much to it. Each man seems to have his own space around the fire, logs or large rocks upon which to sit, weapons and satchels close by. Everything seems to be organized in a compact way, ready to be packed in minutes. But for the moment, these unusual soldiers seem relaxed, even knowing how close danger might be.
    Almost immediately, the stories come to life. Finally. I see a part of them with my own eyes. It's Papa's world, where he sleeps and spends every night, with the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers. I scan the men again, realizing something else. My eyes linger past the glare of the fire and I squint. Red and blue color the men's garments, white sashes across the front.
    I snap my eyes up, excitement flicking both my brows towards the sky. "You are Continental soldiers?"
    The men pause, all four sharing glances. They erupt in chuckles simultaneously. One of them rubs at the beard under his jaw. "Now, Missy, that would seem quite obvious, as we are wearing the required apparel, and have you noticed how gentlemanly we are?" The redhead, Dawson, nods my way and reveals a contagious grin. "Militia men aren't as gentlemanly."
     I return the smile, looking to the others and turning to Liam. "Why didn't you tell me?"
    His voice quiets, eyes holding mine with a spark inside them. "I figured you'd have known."
    I look to each of the men quickly. "Most of my Papa's stories have come from his times with the militia. I guess I assumed, when Liam mentioned we'd be meeting with my father's men," I glance at Liam for emphasis, "that you'd all be with the militia." I look the men up and down, hiding a small smile, biting the corner of my lip. "I should have known."
    The men smile in response to my innocent shrug. One of them, Woods, stands a little straighter and cocks his head. "Are you suggesting we would have been more commendable as militia men, Miss Holt?"
    A quick breeze sends my arms around my waist as I stifle a short laugh. I tilt my chin to show him the resolve in my eyes. "Not at all."
    My gaze wanders with my mind to the fire as the men converse. Talks of the war, other nearby camps, and how training for the Army is progressing. Their voices never raise much above a whisper as we all watch the misty smoke from the fire rise into the night sky. My questions resurface, refusing to be ignored, begging to be put to rest. I furrow my brow, the slight breeze clinging to my skin, more chilling as the night grows heavier. The details of the attack seem so vague that I don't know what to make of them.
    The letter, rough in my hand. I can still feel its parchment and strong smell. Papa had said they were suspicious . . . they were so close. So close to finding out in time. I pause, my eyes narrowing at the ground, and more than the questions resurface. This time they're accompanied by a feeling, one suspicious and disturbing. It creeped into my mind during the attack, sending a tremble to my limbs. Black feathers, green vests. Men that I know, and yet don't. Does Liam know?
    " . . . don't be shy, Miss. Just make yourself at home."
    My head snaps away from the fire, realizing the statement was aimed at me. The men have begun laying down in their own spaces around the fire, using their satchels as pillows. I give Dawson a grateful nod before turning to Liam. "We're not moving tonight?"
    He sighs, raising a hand to rub under his jaw. "We'll be safe here. Tomorrow will be a long day, we won't reach the main camp until dusk, so tonight's sleep will be vital."
    They begin making room for Liam and me to each have our own space around the fire. The older one, Fields, pulls a thin blanket from his bag and spreads it out for me. Woods offers his own small leather bag to me. "It's the closest thing to a pillow you'll have tonight."
    I nod. A nervous swallow comes from deep in my throat as I decide, making my choice, forgetting the disagreement from earlier in the woods. I lean in a bit closer to Liam and force my breath to steady. "Could we talk?" I glance at the other men and lower my voice. "Please?"
    He seems to pause in surprise, then rises and offers me a hand, helping me up.
    We turn to walk, and my eyes wander as we approach a barren area still close enough to the firelight, but where I feel I can talk without the others overhearing.
    I will myself to put the right words together.
Say something.
    I attempt to open my lips.
    They stay sealed, Liam looking to me expectantly, and the questions about the daunting British men disappearing at his lingering gaze. Heat rushes to my skin like a wild fire.
    Say something!
    My shifty eyes bounce to the ground and back up, my cheeks flushing even as I say the words. "Uh—this camp is cozy. The fire's pleasant."
    His head tilts, and a small smile spreads at the corners of his lips. "Mhhm."
    My hands fold behind the small of my back.
    Mercy. A soldier. Amused at me.
    I focus on the ground, ashamed at being so flustered. Why am I fumbling with my words? Never have I acted so . . . so . . . oh, so!
    "You don't always have to be so tough." He snaps my attention from the ground. "You know that, right?"
    I let out a whisper that comes out more like a rasp, the words I actually planned on saying slip forever away into oblivion. "Pardon?"
    "You haven't seen your father in over three months," he remarks, gently.
     "And?"
    "I can imagine it's been hard, that's all."
    I suddenly realize that I'm holding my breath. I let it out. "I—well—yes. It's hard." It aches a little to give a smile, but I do.
    Already the snores around the fire make their way to us and we both let out a light chuckle. We grow silent, and another thought occurs to me. I shuffle, straining to see him more clearly in the moonlight, voice lowering. "How did you know how long it's been since I've seen Papa?"
    He pauses, seeming surprised by the question. "You're father, he and I talk."
    "Talk?"
    "Yes." He runs his hand through tawny yellow hair.
    I press my lips together, flushing at the growing silence. Liam quickly gestures to the side, taking a step. I follow his lead, turning to head back for the comfort of the campfire, amazed the others are asleep so quickly.
    "So, what do the two of you talk about?"
    He walks with an easiness, carefree and light in his strides. "I don't want to bore you. You know, muskets and strategies and all."
    My eyes grow big, stomach fluttering. "Oh, I would give anything to fire one of those muskets in an actual battle. I practice shooting every time Papa's home, but to have the grit to shoot and reload in the face of a real fight? It must be exhilarating."
    "Really?" He turns, arms crossing as we approach our places by the fire.
    "Really what?"
    "You sound like you've actually thought of being a soldier?" He lowers to the ground with a furrowed brow, and shrugs. "I guess I thought girls had no interest of the sort."
    I hesitate, finding my own place on the tattered blanket given by Grandpa Fields. "Well, maybe most girls—"
    "And firing weapons," his voice deepens, as though he's analyzing something. "I mean, for a girl, isn't that not very . . . safe?"
    I snap my eyes to meet his, jaw set tight. "Not if you know what you're doing."
    For a girl?
    He raises both eyebrows. "So, you do know how to handle a musket?"
    I nod as he leans back, his palms landing on small patches of grass on the dry ground. "I'm sure you'd know what to do if one of those guns were in your possession. It's just, I've never heard of a girl with a thing for dirt and grime, let alone the horrors of war."
    I raise a brow, teasing in an almost pathetic way, as if just trying to forget all that's happened in the past few hours. "Well, I never said dirt and grime. I wouldn't dare ruin my dress."
    He looks my way. "You just get more prestigious by the minute, don't you Miss Holt?"
    I look away, hiding a smile. As I glance back to him, I soften my tone. "I do wish you would just call me Maddie."
    He flickers a glance to my chin, back to my eyes. "Okay. If you insist."
    "I do."
    I shift my attention to the stars, to the way they shine perfectly bright during these first nights of summer, and slide until my back is flat against the ground. The twinkling in the dark sky calms me at least a little, keeping my mind off what I can't control. I tilt my head to face Liam more, but my eyes stay ahead. "What are all of you? I mean—if not a militia?"
    He clears his throat before responding and shifts closer. "We were—chosen—I think is the right word, by your father."
    I furrow my brow. "Based on what?"
    "On what he's looking for in a soldier for this unit. Gumption and expertise. Unique skills. Stuff like that."
    I turn to him, playfulness in my tone. "And you have enough stuff like that?"
    He glances at my eyes and smiles. "Impressed?"
    I shift my head on the satchel, a soft wind cooling my ankles stretched out below my dress. "You seem to greatly enjoy humoring me." I hide a grin and fold my hands against my stomach. "So then, what does that make your little band of skilled soldiers?"
    He sighs aloud. "I'm not sure what you'd call it. We are just his men, ready to be wherever he needs us."
    "Sounds a bit like minutemen to me," I suggest in thoughtful tone, raising my gaze to his.
    He sits up slightly, leaning on his side and his elbow. "You could say that. Your father was looking for something different. He is different himself." Excitement fills his voice. "Like the great men. Generals Washington and Henry Knox. They believe this army doesn't just need soldiers, but patriots of the most spirited kind."
    I nod. "And you agree?"
    He pauses for a moment, then turns to lay back down, eyes lifting to the sky. I study his features intensely with a thirst to hear him speak more of my Papa. "I do. I believe we won't win this war without men like your father." He turns again to face me. "But because of what I've learned from your father, I believe we can do all things with God. Including winning this war."
    Now it's my turn to turn away and gaze upward. "I always thought that too. Until tonight."
    "And now you don't?" He seems to genuinely wonder.
    "Well, no, I guess I still do. It's just, some things, they just," I feel his gaze but remain focused on the stars, "some things require more than just trust." My voice barely raises above a whisper. "And some things shake your trust."
    The fire crackles as he waits a moment before responding. "Without trust, we won't make it through anything at all. Trust is what keeps us going, it gives us the ability to hope." A ring of kindness joins the words he seems to strongly believe, sounding so much like Papa. "Take away every comfort, every other ability or strength, but give me the faith to trust in God, and it will be all I'll ever need."
    I start, pausing, and starting again. "You've been talking a lot with my father. That sounds exactly like him." I turn to him, frowning. "And I do still believe that. But the thought of Michael being taken away, the destruction I saw tonight, I, well—" I frown, deciding to be vulnerable. "I don't understand how God could let that happen."
    "And that, Maddie, is where the trust comes in." He sounds understanding, like he's on the other side of the mountain I'm climbing. "It's easy to trust God when everything is going right. But when you see what I've seen in this war, well, let's just say some people stop trusting at all and others begin trusting all the more."
    Slowly I peer at him, studying his features in deep thought.
    "At first I was one that stopped trusting." He pauses, swallowing. "The more I lost to this war, the more I lost trust. But then I met your father." He locks eyes with mine. I raise a brow, smiling slightly. His confident tone draws me to hear and listen. "It's not just things he says, it's what he does, how he lives, how he responds to things that happen. His courage gave me courage. His faith built my faith. And his trust," Liam nods firmly, head against his blanket, "his steadfast trust built my trust in God as well. Even in situations where things just seemed to get worse." I keep his gaze for a moment, and he grows quiet. Lowering my eyes, I know he's only saying what's true. I know that I must trust. If not, what else can I do?
    I steady my breathing and close my eyes.
God, I know what You say . . . that You know the plans You have for me, even though I don't. Plans for good and not for evil. With a future and a hope.
    The verse sounds in my head . . . Jeremiah 29:11. My comfort verse in times of uncertainty, words from God Himself, full of assurance.
    Help me to believe in it. Thank you for sending Liam to remind me of what Papa taught.
    Of course, Papa also always pointed out that those words of comfort from God were given to the children of Israel as they were being marched off to seventy years of captivity! Even through captivity, God's promise of good plans still stood.
    Can I still believe those words with Michael being captured? Does God have plans for Michael that are good, and not for evil?
    Silence grows, and my ears catch the sounds of crickets, the gentle breeze playing with branches, grass atop grass as the same breeze sends them swaying. I let my eyelids grow heavier.
    Liam's whisper—"You're like him, your father."
    My eyes snap open, shifting to him.
    "You have his same spirit and determination. You're perhaps more stubborn, but nonetheless . . ." He casts a crafty glance my direction, triggering the furrow of my brow.
    "I am not stubborn."
    His smile widens, sweet as honey. "I knew the moment I ran into you that you were more stubborn than most."
    I tighten my glare, stifling a laugh of my own and sighing. "I see some of him in you too, you know."
    He shifts in his position on the grass. "A good thing, I'd say."
    I nod in agreement. "I'd say so too."
    "It's a true honor, really, for him to befriend and mentor such an ordinary messenger." His voice is low and clear combined with the hushed sounds of nightfall. "You're father is a very generous man."
    Propping up on a elbow, I look back to see an almost guilty look in his eyes. "Liam. I know my father. If he chose you, I'd think you to be more than just a ordinary messenger." I want to say something more, so I give a slight smile. "But I think you're more than that anyways."
    His eyes stay on mine, his whisper smaller than the breeze around us. "Thank you."
    We settle back into silence, despite the questions running in my head, and I savor the stars. Hearing Liam's breath in rhythm with mine, I'm grateful for the presence of someone Papa sent himself.
    Does Michael have the security of another person by his side that he trusts and knows? I think about what he doesn't have, what he never will if I don't get back to him. Without a fire or blanket, he could be cold. Without the cricket's song, what if he is unable to find sleep? There's no me for him, no Papa, no comforting goodnight kiss.
    An anger resurfaces, not understanding how he could have been taken away, why this was allowed.
    How can good come out of this, God?
    I finally glance back to Liam. "How do you think Papa didn't know . . . what was coming, I mean?" My eyes lower from the stars, falling to the bits of flames shooting off the dying fire.
    "I'm sure your father did all that he could." His tone is gentle.
    I force my breathing to steady, briskly wiping a finger under my eye to catch the tear. "You're right. It just doesn't make sense."
    He eases up on his side, gaze locking with mine. More intense than before, pain flashes across his every feature. The blurring continues in my eyes before I can stop it.
    Liam swallows, glancing down. "Maddie . . ."
    I feel a lump form in my throat, keeping any words from making their way out. What is there to say?
    "I'm sorry." His voice breaks with the last words. "I've said everything else but that, and I should have already said it. I guess I've just been caught up in getting you to safety and haven't told you that I know this is hard for you. That's just it, I know exactly . . ." He trails off, looking down and shaking his head as he stops mid-sentence.
    How could he know exactly how I feel? Has he lost someone? I cringe at the thought.
    "I'm just sorry this is happening to you. It never—" His breath catches, eyes narrowing. "It's tragic. I guess I've seen so much of it over the last few years that I forget the brutality of the British is something you had not seen up close until today." He seems to wait, like he wants to say more. Then the lines in his face ease and he straightens. "Let's get some sleep, tomorrow is going to be a long day."
    "Liam, it's alright. I'm sorry too. I was completely out of line with the things I said earlier. About you not being able to do anything. You've already done so much. You saved me tonight. You did what Papa sent you to do and I'm thankful. I don't show it very well, but I am."
    I hear him gulp, seeing him close his eyes as he turns to lie flat on his back. "I didn't do what your father wished. I was suppose to get all of you back to him and I failed."
    My body turns cold as I think of Sarah and Irene escaping.
    "But I'm going to make it right." His whisper is calm, determined.
    I have no idea how to respond, so I say nothing. But the pain and the determination in his voice plays over in my mind. It's as if he wants to save me from an even greater pain than I feel now. A pain he clearly knows.
    The pain of loss.

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