What do a Black American soldier, invalided out at Yorktown, and a British officer who deserted his post have in common? Quite a bit, actually.
- They attempted to kill each other the first time they met.
- They're liable to try again at some point in the five-hundred mile journey that they're inexplicably sharing.
- They are not falling in love with each other.
- They are not falling in love with each other.
- They are… Oh, no.
The Pursuit of… is a love affair between two men and the Declaration of Independence.
This novella was originally released in the collection, Hamilton’s Battalion. You can still get it there.
“Strong, appealing protagonists, witty dialogue, and well-researched history make these three stories shine.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Taking a page from the musical Hamilton’s diverse cast of characters, these stories tackle issues of race, sexual orientation, religion, and class while still managing to be heartwarming and humorous. Highly recommended.”
—Library Journal, starred review
“Hamilton’s Battalion is poignant and clear-sighted, but somehow joyous too; a wonderful collection of stories about the unquashed and unquashable potential of our country and its people. (And love, obviously.)”
—Reading the End
All my books have code names. This one gets a line from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
This may be the first time in my writing life in which a code name has ended up (partially) in the book’s title!
About this Book...
A while back, I mentioned that the Worth Saga was a story about the Worth Family and an organization. The organization shows up for the first time in After the Wedding. But The Pursuit Of… is something of an origin story so you know where that organization comes from.
It is also a book about the country I am a citizen of, a country that has values of hope and fairness and equality woven into its very founding. Its founding also contains the exact opposite. For centuries, America has been locked in a struggle with itself, trying to decide if it will live up to the best of its ideals or live down to the worst of its history. This country has been through some dark times, but no matter how bad things get, I refuse to give up on the radical notion that all of us are created equal. It is my most fervent wish that someday equality will truly belong to everyone, the way it was originally promised. I don’t know if this is the book anyone needs to read, but it is the one I needed to write at this particular moment.
In the heat of battle, Corporal John Hunter could never differentiate between silence and absolute noise. Years had passed since his first engagement, but every time, the sheer discord of sound blended together. The cry of bugles sounding orders, the clash of bayonets, the rat-tat-tat of firearms somewhere in the distance, the hollow concussion of the cannons—each one of those things heralded someone’s doom. To take heed to any of it was to fall into fear. To fear was to make mistakes; to err was to die. No matter the odds, the sounds of battle were so overwhelming that they were no different than silence.
Yorktown was just like any other engagement.
Oh, the strategists might have begged to differ. There were more clouds, more night. Less frost than some of the battles he’d taken part in. Someone had talked prettily at them about how the freedom of this nascent nation was at stake and some other things John had listened to with his hands curling into fists. The colonies didn’t care about John’s freedom, so he returned the favor by not caring about theirs.
In the end, all battles were smoke and shit and death, and John’s only goal was to see the other side of this war without being forcibly acquainted with the Grim Reaper. Fight. Survive. Go home to his family. The most basic of needs.
The night was dark around him and his fellow infantrymen. The spiked branches of the abatis had left scratches on his arm; the charge up the scarp had John’s heart pounding.
They’d crept through the ditch and were approaching the final defenses of Redoubt Ten—a wall of sharp stakes, somewhat battered. A group of fools ahead of him was negotiating how best to storm the parapet. John held back. Apparently, the idiot in command of this maneuver wanted to lead the charge. Sutton, one of the other black men assigned to storm the redoubt, was hoisting him up.
Nothing to do but join them and hope for the best. Nothing to do but survive, fight, and return to his family before anything ill happened to them. Fight, survive—
John stilled, the chant in his head dying down.
There was a reason he let the background noise of battle fade to nothingness in his mind. It left room for wariness and suspicion. There. Behind them, back toward the abatis—there was a shadow.
It moved, man-shaped.
The person behind them was large and almost invisible, and he lay in wait. John’s comrades hadn’t noticed him. In their haste to get in, they’d all left themselves vulnerable.
All of them but him.
Damn it all to hell.
Silence and noise mingled in John’s head. Perhaps the gunfire from the feint on Fusiliers Redoubt a ways off was loud; perhaps it was nothing. Perhaps the man he saw screamed in defiance as John turned toward him; perhaps he was silent.
Fight. Survive… Damn it.
There was no hope for it. John couldn’t wait to see what would happen. He lowered his weapon, said a prayer for his sister, should his soul become irreparably detached from his body, and sprinted back toward the shadowed branches of the abatis.
The man’s head tilted. John braced himself, waiting for the man to fire a weapon or raise a blade, but instead the fellow just waited in silence. One second. Two.
John crashed into him at full speed, driving his shoulder into the man’s chest. God, the other man was huge. The impact traveled bruisingly through his body. Still, John wasn’t exactly tiny himself. They fell together, hitting the ground. It took one moment to get his bayonet into position, another to drive it forward, blade seeking the other man’s belly.
It didn’t make contact. Instead, the fellow hit John on the head with the butt of his musket. John’s head rang; he shook it, pushed the echoing pain aside, and rolled out of the way of the next bayonet strike.
There was no time to think, no time to come up with any plan except to survive the next instant, then the next. No room for fine blade work, either; John swung his musket like a staff.
The other man blocked the strike, and the force of gun barrel meeting gun barrel traveled up John’s arm. The battle had all but disappeared into a pinprick, into this moment between two men.
“God,” the other fellow said. “You’re strong.”
John refused to hear his words.
John had neither energy nor emotion to waste on conversation. Fight. Survive the war. Go back to Lizzie and Noah and his mother. He’d promised them he would—stupid promise, that—but he’d break the entire British Army before he broke that promise. Men who let their attention slip perished, and he had no intention of perishing. He gritted his teeth and tried to smash the other man’s head.
The other man ducked out of the way. “Nice weather for a siege, isn’t it?”
John’s almost perfect concentration slipped. What the devil was that supposed to mean? Nice weather for a siege? Did that mean the weather was good—it wasn’t—or that bad weather was preferable during a siege? And what did preferable even mean between the two of them? Siegers and the besieged had different preferences.
Ah, damn it.
This was why John couldn’t let himself listen to battle. Anything—everything—could be a distraction. He shook his head instead and threw his entire weight behind his next strike.
It wasn’t enough; the other man was taller and heavier, and their bayonets crossed once more. He was close enough to see features—stubble on cheeks, sharp nose, the glint of some distant bombardment reflected in the man’s eyes. They held their places for a moment, shoulders braced together, their heaving breaths temporarily synchronized.
“It’s your turn,” the man said with an unholy degree of cheer. “I remarked on the weather. Etiquette demands that you say something in return.”
For a moment, John stared at the fellow in utter confusion. “I’m bloody trying to kill you. This is a battle, not a ball.”
He pivoted on one foot, putting his entire back into whirling his weapon. This time he managed to whack the other man’s stomach. A blow—not a hard one, he hadn’t the space to gather momentum—but enough that the fellow grunted and staggered back a pace.
“Yes,” the man said, recovering his balance all too quickly, “true, completely true, we are trying to commit murder upon each other. That doesn’t mean that we need to be impolite about it.”
Fucking British. Would he call a halt to take tea, too?
“If you prefer,” the man continued, sidestepping another blow, “you could try, ‘Die, imperialist scum.’ The moniker is somewhat lacking in friendly appeal, but it has the benefit of being true. I own it; we are imperialist scum.”
What the hell?
“But aren’t we both?” The conversation, like the battle, seemed interminable. “You colonials are displacing natives as well. I will give you this point. You’d be quite right not to use that particular insult. It would be rather hypocritical.”
Not for John, it wouldn’t. His presence in this land could not be put down to any volition on the part of his black mother, who was the only ancestor the colonials counted. But now was not a time for the fine nuances of that particular discussion. It was not, in fact, the time for any discussion at all.
He swung his musket again, heard the crack of the weapon against the barrel of the other man’s musket.
“It just goes to show. Politics is obviously not a good choice of conversation among strangers, I suppose. My father always did say that, and damn his soul, he is occasionally right. What of books? Have you read anything recently?”
There were still a few soldiers making their way through the abatis, streaming past them. One went by now, glancing in their direction.
“Can’t we try to kill each other in silence?” John snuck out a foot, attempting to trip the other man. His enemy danced away.
“Ah, is that it?” The man brightened. “I see. You can’t fight and talk at the same time? My friend, Lieutenant Radley, was exactly the same way. I drove him mad, he used to say.”
Used to? Ha. As if anyone could ever become accustomed to this jibber-jabber.
“He died in battle,” the other man continued, “so possibly he was right. You probably shouldn’t listen to my advice on this score. I don’t have the best record.”
Their weapons crossed again.
“Except”—unbelievably, he was still talking—“I obviously should not have told you that. I’ve given away an important advantage. Damn it. My father was right again. ‘Think before you speak,’ he always used to say. I hate when my father is right.”
John didn’t want to think of this man as someone with family, with friends. War was hell enough when you were just killing nameless, faceless individuals.
There was nothing to do but get it over with as quickly as possible, before he started thinking of his enemy as a person.
He threw himself forward, caught the other man’s shoulder with his, and managed to send him off balance. A moment, just a moment; enough for John to clip his hand smartly with the butt of his musket. The weapon the man had been holding went flying. John hooked one foot around the man’s ankle; his opponent landed flat on his back. John pushed the tip of his blade into the man’s throat.
The man’s hands immediately shot above his head. “I surrender the redoubt!”
John froze in place. “Have you the authority to do that?”
“No,” the other man answered, “but let’s be honest, it’s only a matter of time, don’t you think? Excellent tactics on your part. I almost didn’t see you coming. Somebody ought to surrender it eventually. Why not me?”
“Sorry,” John said, and it was quite possibly the first time he’d ever apologized to an enemy on the battlefield. “I’m going to have to kill you.”
“Ah, well,” the other man said. “You know your duty. Be quick about it, if you must. Better me than you, don’t you think?”
Literally no other person had ever said that to John on the battlefield. John frowned down at the man in front of him, and…
And, oh Christ. He suddenly realized that he’d heard of this man. His friend Marcelo had mentioned something about encountering him before. British officer. Tall. Meaty. Blond. He’d chalked the tale up to campfire boasting. When he’d heard there was a madman who couldn’t stop talking, John had imagined something along the lines of a berserker, frothing at the mouth. He hadn’t expected a mere prattle-basket.
“I think it’s better me than you,” John said, frowning down at the man. “You can’t possibly agree.”
A flare from the battle reflected in the other man’s eyes, temporarily illuminating him. John didn’t want to see his face. He didn’t want to see the haunted expression in his eyes. He didn’t want to remember him as a person. He should never have let the clamor of battle give way to the sound of conversation, because he suspected that the tone of this man’s voice—all gravel and regret—would stay with him all the rest of his days.
“Don’t make me go back,” the man said, so at odds with his cheery conversation on politics. “I can’t go back to England. Dying is not my preferred form of non-return, but for the past months it’s the only one I’ve been able to think of.”
John tightened his grip on the musket. He couldn’t listen. He couldn’t think. In battle, he could only allow himself to be a husk, an automaton. Fight. Survive. Killing was a necessary part of war. He’d learned not to look too hard at his enemies, not to ask too many questions. He’d learned not to let himself dwell too much on the men who perished at the other end of his musket.
It was always a mistake to listen during battle. Here he was, hesitating, when it was either John or the man who’d asked him about books and the weather. He could make it painless—as painless as death by bayonet ever was.
The man gave him a sad smile. “It’s nice weather for dying, isn’t it?”
He was lying. He had to be lying. This was the sort of thing for a lying officer to do—to converse politely, as if manners meant a damned thing on the battlefield. John pushed his bayonet down a quarter inch.
“Go on,” the man said.
His permission made it even harder. John didn’t want to do it, but it was John or the prattle-basket, John or the prattle-basket, and John had come too far to perish now.
A bugle sounded.
John looked up into chaos. He could hear cheers, could see the lieutenant colonel in charge of this attack—Hamilton, was it not?—clapping one of the soldiers on the back. Ah, the idiot in command had survived storming the parapet after all. While John had been fighting, his fellow soldiers had stormed the redoubt and taken it.
It was done. They’d won.
He eased up on the bayonet. “It’s your lucky day. You’re a prisoner now, instead of a dead man.”
“No.” The man’s hand clasped around the musket barrel, holding the bayonet in place. “No. You have to do it.”
“What?” John stared at him.
“You have to do it,” the man instructed. “Do you understand? If you Americans take the redoubt, Yorktown falls. If Yorktown falls, the war is over. If you don’t kill me now, they’ll make me go back to Britain, and I can’t go back.”
“Can’t?” John swallowed and looked down.
“Can’t.” The man shut his eyes.
They’d called him a madman, and John had imagined a demon on the battlefield, not a man who talked of politics.
Perhaps it was mad to prefer death to a return to a place that could never be called home, but if that was madness, it was a madness John knew. He’d once been enslaved. He knew what it was like to yearn for freedom, to prefer death to a return to a state that robbed him of choice, of freedom, of humanity. The fellow was obviously given to dramatics. John doubted anything so horrid waited for him back in England. Still… He understood.
He didn’t want to have anything in common with a blond British officer…but he did.
He should take the man prisoner. Should call for reinforcements. Who knew what this man would do if John gave him the opportunity?
“I can’t go back,” the man said again.
John should never have listened. Damn it, damn it, damn it. He swore and threw down his weapon.
The man struggled, propping himself up on his elbows.
“Then don’t.” John took off his coat. “Here.” He held the garment out.
It wasn’t much—a bit tattered, and God knew what it smelled like; John couldn’t detect the stench any longer.
The man stared at it.
“It’s not red.” John shook the coat. “It’s a mess out there as it is. Get muddy enough and nobody will know who you are. If you don’t want to go back to Britain, turn into an American. You talk enough; I’m sure you can come up with a believable lie. Get out of here. Don’t go back.”
The man stared at him. “Why would you let me go? I’m the enemy.”
“Enemy?” John rolled his eyes. “Take a good look at me. I have little love for…what did you call them? The colonial brand of imperialist scum. I have no enemies, just people I fight on a battlefield.”
The officer sat up. Looked at John. John knew what he was seeing—not the broad shoulders, not the determination John knew flashed in his own eyes, nor the set of his square jaw. No, this blond prattler who talked of manners and politics would see only the brown of his skin.
John was an idiot to offer anything. But he knew too well what it was like to have no hope of help and to find it anyway.
Here, he thought to the woman at the well who had shaken her head, denying his existence to the man who sought John. John had crouched hidden behind the bushes until the threat had passed. She’d looked at him then. She hadn’t spoken; she’d only nodded and left, as if she hadn’t changed his life with that simple denial. Here. I’m paying you back for that after all.
“I don’t want to talk to you,” John said. “I don’t want to be your friend. I’ll kill you on the battlefield if I have to. But if you’re desperate enough to die, you’re desperate enough to abscond. If you don’t want to go back, get rid of your damned officer’s coat and take mine.”
The man stared up at him. He looked at the coat, at the musket that John had tossed aside.
Slowly, he took John’s coat. “I won’t forget this,” he said. “I’ll pay you back someday.”
John had heard that particular promise before. He’d heard it when he saved his father from being crushed by a falling mast. He’d heard it when he’d rescued another man in the Rhode Island First on the battlefield. Half the time, white men didn’t even bother with empty words to assuage their consciences—at least not to the likes of him. The other half? They never remembered their promises. They didn’t have to.
John shook his head. “Don’t bother.”
“John?” Elijah’s call came from further in. “John, is that you down there? Are you wounded?”
He turned, leaving the British officer alone with his coat. He was already faintly regretting his choice—the late-autumn night was cold enough that he’d want that coat before morning struck.
He would never see the man again.
In the dark of the night, the man had no idea what John even looked like. Even if it were day, he’d never be able to distinguish John from any other black man. White men rarely could.
“I’m Henry,” the officer called after him. “Henry Latham, at your service.”
Henry Latham no doubt thought he was an honorable fellow. He’d tell himself that one day he’d return the favor, just as he assiduously avoided contact with anyone who looked like John. There was little use puncturing his illusions.
John knew that the roll of his eyes was hidden by the night, so he took care to imbue an extra dose of sarcasm in his tone. “I’ll be sure to remember that.”
“John?” Elijah was coming closer. “John, are you well?”
“I’m alive,” John called in return. “Alive and unharmed.” His body was already protesting the unharmed designation, his shoulder twingeing, his head still hurting.
Ha. He had already forgotten the name. He’d never hear from the man again.
Content notes coming soon-ish