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Leonardo Noto (leonardonoto) | 10 comments The Life of a Colonial Fugitive

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A Warrior’s Reminiscence

June 1783: The blazing orange, tropical sun creeps above the rattan-studded horizon to announce the dawn of another sweltering day in the island paradise of Phuket, Siam. The gentle ocean breeze wafts the smell of decaying flesh into my nares as I survey the carnage of the past days’ fight from behind the cover of a thick palm. Less than a yard away, the dark skin of a dying enemy soldier is covered with vicious red ants, slowly eating him alive as he bellows out in pain-laden death throes. I climb out from my jungle concealment and walk across the sandy beach to ask the dying man in the Siamese tongue if he would like for me to speed the end of his life. The dying soldier is too feeble for speech, barely managing a slight affirmative nod of head. I unsheathe my sword and run the man thru his jugular, stepping back respectfully as the blood gushes from the jagged wound that I have inflicted upon his neck. As I watch the life drain from the young man’s sad face, I find myself reminiscing on the first time I gazed into a pair of youthful eyes prematurely aged by the horrors of war.

September 1778 (Five Years Prior): An otherwise dull Tuesday suddenly transformed itself into a frenzy of excitement as my older brother, Henry Lee III, arrived unexpectedly in Leesylvania1 for the first time since the beginning of the colonial revolution. Mother and I had been taking our tea under the shade of our estate’s great wrap-around porch while observing our slaves working the adjacent cotton fields when Henry’s silhouette had appeared over the horizon. Mother jumped up excitedly, spilling her tea and leaving a stain on the white-washed railing, which she quite uncharacteristically ignored as she cantered down the steps to meet him.

I waved half-heartedly at my brother but remained seated for we had not parted on favorable terms and I was, frankly, not excited at the prospect of his return. Henry clambered down from his raggedly thin horse, gave Mother a hug, and then walked towards me with a pronounced limp of the right leg. I shall never forget
the look of my brother’s gaze that day; gone was the shine of boyish innocence from his icy-blue eyes, replaced now with the penetrating stare of a man who had witnessed the animalistic brutality of combat. Henry’s body was transformed too, skinny now, his two-year-old uniform that had been so painstakingly sown by my mother hanging from his bones like beggar’s rags. Quite ashamed of my initial indifference, I rose from my rocking chair and hurried to assist Henry as he clumsily scaled our porch stairs.

1. ”Leesylvania”: The unofficial name of the region of Northern Virginia that lies adjacent to the Potomac River, near the present site of Washington City, where the Lee Family settled after emigrating from the British Isles.

“This leg of mine, it’s never been the same since my horse fell atop me at Brandywine Creek. Anytime I ride for more n’ an hour it cramps up somethin’ awful.” Henry mumbled as his face twisted into a grimace of agony.

“Where are you ridin’ in from, General Washington’s camp at West Point?” I inquired, eager to make conversation to disguise the expression of shock that was plastered about my face, shock at the haggardness of my brother’s appearance.

“Yes, and a fine improvement over last season’s accommodations at Valley Forge, that’s for sure. Many a good patriot froze to death in that snowy hell.” Henry muttered bitterly. “Enough with all this talk of the damned war, let us speak on somethin’ more pleasant. How are the plans for your grand tour of Europe progressin’, Jonathan?”

“Tell us about this General Washington, Henry! Is he the hero the papers make him out to be?” Mother interjected loudly and to Henry’s great annoyance.

“I asked a polite and simple question about my brother, mama!” Henry shouted, his voice hard and calloused. “Why all this subterfuge?”

“The trip’s cancelled; it’s too dangerous to cross the Atlantic anyhow now that France has entered the war.” I stated matter-of-factly as I pulled my shoulders back and puffed out my chest. I’ve decided to join the Continental Army; I leave in three days to join my regiment.”

“And Father has given consent for this tomfoolery!” Henry demanded, his voice filled with bitter disdain.

“Father has his reservations, the same reservations he had when you were commissioned, as I recall.”

“I didn’t realize I was kin to such a fool, throwin’ away an opportunity to travel and study in Europe with full expenses
paid no less! Don’t you see my gimp leg, boy, and how ragged I look ‘cause of this endless fight. Are you really that blind or are you just plain stupid!” Henry exclaimed, his tone condescending and full of rage.

“Let us speak no more on this!” Mother begged as she fought back heartbroken tears.

“Speakin’ isn’t what I had in mind for him!” I blared across the patio, loud enough to distract the field slaves in the distance, my fists gripped white-knuckled in anger.

“I said enough!” Scolded Mother as if we were both still young boys rather than fully grown men. “This is my home and y’all will respect it!”

My brother and I glared at one another, our eyes full of hatred, fists tightly clinched. Mother moved between us, and with the greatest reluctance, for hot tempers run thick in my family’s blood, Henry and I backed down, unclenched our fists and entered my mother’s home, giving one another a wide berth as we dusted off our boots and stepped through the doorway. The three of us found Father reading the local news pamphlet in his trusty, old hickory rocking chair, oblivious to the commotion that we had caused outside due to an affliction with pronounced deafness due to his time spent fighting in the French and Indian War. Henry strolled over to him and they embraced warmly, a broad toothless and somewhat unnatural smile shone across my father’s old, wrinkled, perpetually frowning face. I stormed off to my room, ignoring Father’s thunderous calls behind me as I slammed the door shut and then fixated my gaze out of my bedroom window, lost in thought. Later that evening the family gathered for a grand feast prepared by our house servants in my brother’s honor, a feast that I begrudgingly attended after incessant nagging by Mother.

“Mother tells me you’ve just returned from Georgia, Father. How do you find our brethren in the Deep South are holdin’ up amidst all this chaos?” Henry inquired between generously-sized and eagerly partaken bites of roasted pheasant.

“They’re holdin’ up better than we are, that’s for certain, though I expect the British will attempt to change that soon enough. The British generals have no choice but to take the war to the south, as important a port as Charleston has become now and is becoming more so every day. Find yourself any new musket in the hands of a Continental and I can guarantee you that it was smuggled in through Charleston or Savannah on a blockade runner. Yes, the British will strike in the Deep South before this time next year, mark my word.” Father stated as he peered over his reading spectacles, his news pamphlet lying in its customary location, unfolded open upon his lap.

“And what of the cotton trade, Pa? Rumor has it that the Georgians are growin’ strains that produce twice, even thrice, the usual bounty.” Henry asked as he shook his head in disgust.

“Indeed they are, and growin’ it in the fertile soils of the Mississippi Territories in flagrant violation of their treaty with the Cherokee. They float the cotton on down the river to Mobile and New Orleans where the British blockade remains porous; the cost of shippin’ by barge down the rivers is less than what we pay to travel our cotton by wagon over less than an eighth of the distance.” Father said dryly with a wizened look of despair creeping across his brow. “I fear Leesylvania may only be suitable for growin’ soybeans and vegetables in the years to come. It is a thought that I have been losin’ much sleep over since my return, almost as much sleep as I have been losin’ worryin’ on you, Henry. Now, tell us of the Revolution; in what shape is the Continental Army to be found presently? It’s hard to find information in the pamphlets these days that is worth the paper it’s printed on.”

“The war’s not a subject for the ears of women and children, Pa.” Henry said coldly, staring deep into my eyes and as he articulated the word ‘children,’ making it clear to all present to whom he was referring.

My brother and I spoke little over the next three days, save for common courtesies that were uttered without eye contact and in guttural tones. When Henry saddled his horse to return to his regiment at West Point, I could not find it in my heart to bid him farewell. I watched enviously as my brother’s war mount lazily meandered down our plantation’s dusty path, little knowing that it might well be the last time I laid eyes upon my brother in this life. This was knowledge that would have pleased me at the time, for in my youth I could not have imagined how much I would long for the company of my family, my brother included, in the dark years to come.

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