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This novella is also available as part of Hamilton’s Battalion, alongside linked stories by Courtney Milan and Alyssa Cole.
“…I can say that this is the most moving, inspiring, heartbreaking, hopeful book I’ve read all year.” —Heroes & Heartbreakers on Hamilton’s Battalion
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happily-ever-after…
Donning men’s clothing, Rachel left her life behind to fight the British as Corporal Ezra Jacobs—but life catches up with a vengeance at the siege of Yorktown, when she arrests an old love as a Loyalist spy.
At first she thinks Nathan Mendelson hasn’t changed one bit: he’s annoying, he talks too much, he sticks his handsome nose where it doesn’t belong, and he’s self-righteously indignant just because Rachel might have faked her own death a little. She’ll be lucky if he doesn’t spill her secret to the entire Continental Army.
Then Nathan shares a secret of his own, one that changes everything…
October 3, 1781
Outside Yorktown, Virginia
Rachel’s messmate Scipio was writing a letter by the faint light from the open tent flap. The light was growing stronger; the drummer would beat the reveille soon. Scipio frowned over his paper. “Last night I dreamed about Anna Maria, but I can’t decide if I should mention it to her or not.”
Rachel laughed as she combed the snags out of her thick brown hair. Even with pomade, it wasn’t easy to keep Jewish hair smooth and neat enough to suit their captain’s ideas of the example a noncommissioned officer should set for his men. “Why? Did you dream you were quarreling?”
“She was setting a hot johnnycake on the table, and I could smell the maple sugar,” Scipio said ruefully. “It’s not very romantic, is it?”
“A hot johnnycake sounds damned romantic to me.” Rations hadn’t exactly been plentiful the last month. To speak truth, rations hadn’t exactly been plentiful the last four years.
Bugger this knot. Rachel dug her fingers through her hair, finding the stubborn tangle and carefully dismantling it. A clump of strands had to be sacrificed, crusted with old pomade. She shook them off outside the tent with a grimace. “I think Anna Maria would want to know the truth,” she said decisively. “That you were thinking about her.”
In case she never sees you again, she didn’t say, but they both heard it in the distant boom of the enemy’s cannon, firing on the Allied camp. The British wouldn’t give up Yorktown without a fight.
Rachel felt a little hollow, and not just from hunger. Of the other three junior NCOs of the First New York light company, Corporal Scipio Coffin had Anna Maria waiting to marry him when he returned to Albany with his freedom; Corporal Tench Goodenough and his wife had already left the tent to sneak a few minutes alone; and while Sergeant Zvi Hirsch Philips had no mistress, he wrote his bosom friend Daniel twice a week and talked of him unceasingly the other five days.
If Rachel died in the assault on Yorktown’s defenses, who outside her regiment would mourn her?
Uniforms were scarce in the Continental Army, so soldiers were stripped before burial. Would everyone be angry when they realized she was a woman? Would they remember her fondly as a fallen comrade, as they would have remembered Ezra Jacobs, or would they only remember that strange creature who tricked us and was most likely a whore besides?
She thought often of the glorious future when there would be ballads written in her honor. The moment of discovery itself she shied away from.
Despite some teasing about her beardless face, no one had guessed the truth yet. Either she would be found out by accident or she would know when the moment was right to reveal herself. Neither could be prepared for, so why think of it?
“Will you plait my queue?” she asked.
Scipio obliged. He himself had given up trying to make his tight black curls meet regulations; his wig rested atop his knapsack in the corner.
Her queue neatly tied off, Rachel put on her hat and poked her head out of the tent. The reveille was beat when a sentry could clearly see a thousand yards distant, which was bound to be any minute now. She’d better make sure their drummer was awake.
Checking that the ribbon she wore around her neck was securely beneath her collar, Rachel shouldered her musket and stepped into the frigid morning air, wishing her uniform were less threadbare. She eyed with envy the warm, thick coat of a civilian making his way through the sleeping camp.
He wasn’t the only one stirring: picket guards patrolled the avenues between tents; a few soldiers shaved and cursed their gooseflesh; and a woman carried a kettle towards the smoke rising from the kitchens. But her eyes lingered on him. Was it only because of his coat? Or did she know him?
He glanced about him, head turning towards her. She saw half his face beneath his broad-brimmed hat.
Recognition shook Rachel to the soles of her boots. Her heart pounded.
He disappeared behind the next row of tents, evidently not having spotted her. What was he doing here?
But even as she thought it, she knew there was only one answer. Glad her musket was unloaded—for God’s sake, she couldn’t shoot Nathan—she ducked between two tents and ran after him.
And here it is, she thought. The moment of discovery. There was no hope Nathan wouldn’t reveal her sex. Maybe she should shoot him after all.
Quashing the thought, Rachel put on a fresh burst of speed. “Loyalist spy! Stop that man!”
Heads poked out of tents, and a few men stumbled forth in their stocking feet, blinking gamely about. She was already past them, gaining on him. “British spy!”
He glanced back, looking mildly curious. She was almost on him. Wasn’t he going to run? If he did, a picket guard might shoot him. Her breath came short and blood roared in her ears.
Nathan stepped politely aside to let her pass.
Abruptly furious, she changed course and barreled into him, bearing him to the ground. He landed flat on his back with Rachel sprawled on top of him.
This was the strangest moment of her life, yet it felt familiar—Nathan’s neat shoulders and narrow chest, their legs tangled together. His hat had landed a few feet off, and unruly curls fell across his face and straggled on the ground. He hadn’t bothered to pomade his hair.
He stared up at her, and for a second she thought, I’ve changed. He doesn’t recognize me.
He went white as one of the commander in chief’s fine bedsheets. His lips parted, his dark eyes widened, and his body trembled beneath her. The drummers began to beat the reveille; at first she thought it was her heart.
“Rachel?” he whispered. His mouth opened and closed, as if he was trying to think of something to say. “R—Rachel?”
She felt awful for a moment that she’d made him unhappy, and that was how she knew she hadn’t changed after all. Still the same weak Rachel. She should have shot him.
She wanted to scramble away. Instead, she checked that the sentries had arrived and were pointing their muskets at Nathan. Then she stood, brushing mud off her elbow as best she could. Just focus on the next thing, and the next, and wait for him to let the cat out of the bag.
She was so rattled that the adjutant’s name flew right out of her head. But she took a sharp breath, and it came back to her. “Privates, help me escort this man to Major Fish for questioning.”
They fixed their bayonets and stepped forward, a small glorious miracle that banished her nerves. Her deception hadn’t suddenly become obvious only because Nathan was here. She was yet a soldier, and she would act like one.
Squaring her shoulders, she met Nathan’s eyes. “Get up,” she said curtly, for he had stayed on the ground, gaping at her with stunned, accusing eyes.
He’d put his hat back on, though. A good Jew should never go bareheaded. Rachel fought the urge to dive for her own hat and clap it on her head like a scolded child.
Damn Nathan anyway. She kicked him, not as hard as she wanted to. “Stand up.” Backing away, she motioned her men back too.
Still staring, Nathan stumbled to his feet. There was a small pleasure in remembering she topped him by an inch or two.
“Keep your arms out of his reach. You, kindly search him for weapons. Be careful.” Despite the warning, she didn’t expect Nathan to have anything bigger than a pocketknife, and she was right.
It wasn’t the walnut penny knife she remembered; somehow that rankled. Rachel freed the blade from its cheap bone handle and tested the edge. Dull. What business did he have in an army camp?
Shutting the knife and dropping it in her pocket, she retrieved her hat with deliberate carelessness. “Follow me, Mr. Mendelson.” To the escort, she added, “If he runs, shoot him.”
She wheeled on her heel with precision, as she’d trained for hours to do, and marched off towards the regimental colors marking the adjutant’s tent.
As soon as Rachel’s name left his mouth, Nathan had felt like an idiot. Of course it wasn’t her. It was some Jewish boy from New York who happened to share her accent and the shape of her chin. He braced himself for a puzzled sneer.
But when the soldier sneered at him, there was nothing puzzled about it. She wasn’t surprised to be called “Rachel,” because it was her name. That was Rachel. Rachel’s angrily furrowed brow, the proud tilt of Rachel’s head and the curl of her mouth. The familiar curve of Rachel’s shoulders forced into a new military posture. It had been so long that he couldn’t even be sure her beautiful voice was pitched lower than it used to be.
Nathan followed her. Well, he had no choice, did he, if he didn’t want to be bayoneted. Honestly, at the moment, maybe he did want to be bayoneted, because at least then he wouldn’t be miserably realizing that…
No. No, he refused to be sad about this. She was alive, and not dead of yellow fever and buried in Philadelphia. That was a good thing.
He couldn’t make up a story for how she’d got from there to here. Had she…done it on purpose? How could she have managed that? Had she ever really been sick?
Was it a miracle direct from HaShem?
She knew perfectly well who Nathan was, though. She wasn’t born again. She hadn’t suffered a loss of memory and forgotten her old life. She’d chosen to let everyone go on thinking she was dead.
Actually, he didn’t care about “everyone.” She’d chosen to let him think it. That wasn’t such a good thing. It felt—he didn’t know what it felt like, other than Not Sadness. Like a sizzling ball of something eating away his guts.
It was almost nice to feel something this powerfully that wasn’t fear. He’d spent a lot of time being afraid since last he saw Rachel.
He was seeing Rachel.
In a three-cornered hat instead of a cap, with a severe wool-wrapped queue marching down the back of her neck—but it was the same sweet nape of her neck. Tanned and thinner, maybe, but he’d know it anywhere.
Given the choice, he’d follow it anywhere. And since she’d ordered him to do so, for once they were in agreement.
He’d always known in his heart that given the choice, she would pick the Revolution over him, this new country of goyim over her own people. But even in his moments of bitterest resentment, he’d never imagined this. How could he—Rachel, a soldier?
Rachel, a soldier. Ah yes, there was the fear after all, fresh and bright and new again. The British were desperate. They wouldn’t yield the town without a fight. How many of the men in this camp would be alive at the end of the week? He’d just found her! He couldn’t lose her again. He couldn’t. His body wasn’t strong enough to bear such a terrible strain twice over.
She was taking him to her superior officer right now. If he told the truth, that she was a woman, she’d be safe. Safe, and angry at him—angrier, anyway—and humiliated, and he couldn’t do it. He’d learned the value these last years of keeping dangerous secrets, and the peculiar depth of affection it took to watch someone you liked run a terrible risk and not stop them.
Drums started beating at one end of the camp and spread. Men poured out of their tents, making escape easier and harder at the same time. He tried to think, tried to do his job again. Better to brazen it out, he decided, than attempt to outrun an army of men in better condition than he was. Which meant he could keep following Rachel.
They reached a marquee tent with flags stuck in the ground before it. A slight, boyish figure in buff and blue, with a colonel’s sash across his breast, was just going in. Nathan winced as the young man took in the situation and came towards them.
“Who is this, Corporal Jacobs?”
Nathan winced again, this time at Rachel’s alias.
Stepping smartly forward, she stood at attention. “Colonel Hamilton, sir, I have reason to think this man a spy employed by the British.”
Nathan’s expression could probably have been described as a grimace by now. No—what was worse than a grimace? He cringed as Colonel Hamilton gave him a sharp glance.
“What reason is that, Corporal?”
Abruptly, Nathan straightened, eager to hear what she’d say.
She didn’t hesitate. “This man is Nathan Mendelson, known to me from before the war. We shared a faith and a synagogue, and many times I have heard him speak ill of the rebels. When the British occupied New York City and the Patriots among our congregation fled, he remained. As late as a year ago I had news of him working for a supplier to the British troops of that city.”
She’d been listening for news of him? Another fiery rush of unidentifiable feeling.
Hamilton nodded. “Bravely done, Corporal. Has he been searched for weapons?”
“Yes, sir. He carried a pocketknife only.”
“May I have it?”
To Nathan’s surprise, she paused before reaching in her pocket. But she laid the small knife in Hamilton’s palm.
The colonel examined it and then eyed Nathan. “I’d better check him again. If he knows anything, the general will want to hear it immediately.”
Nathan submitted to being searched a second time, wishing Rachel were doing it.
“I commend you for your swift action, Corporal. You may return to your company for parade. On your way, kindly alert the commander of the guard that I have borrowed his sentries.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” Again, Rachel paused. “Will you let me know if—I should want to—” She fumbled for words. “If he is to be executed, sir, I should wish to be present, and convey the news to his family.”
Hamilton’s face softened. “If it comes to that, Corporal, I will notify you. You’re dismissed.”
She saluted and marched off without a backward glance. Nathan watched her go, feeling a little panicked. How would he manage to see her again?
“Mr. Mendelson,” Colonel Hamilton said sharply. “If you would be so good.”
Flanked by sentries, Nathan followed the officer, only glancing back nine or ten times at Rachel’s retreating back.
Rachel’s battalion had been ordered to an early mess; they would spend the evening and most of the night providing cover for troops working on the fortifications. Rachel gulped down her food and took hasty leave. She couldn’t possibly leave camp for the night without knowing if Nathan would keep quiet. About her secret, anyway—really quiet would be like wishing for the moon.
She presented her permission to the guards. With a roll of his eyes, one of them unlocked the door to the tiny room serving as Nathan’s cell. “A friend of yours, eh? He hasn’t stopped making noise all day. Will he listen to you if you tell him to shut his mouth?”
Nathan looked up from the pencil drawing he was making on the wall, vibrating with nervous energy. He had a split lip and a reddish, swollen place on his left cheekbone.
“It looks like you boys shut it for him,” Rachel said grimly. “The fair treatment of our prisoners ought to be a shame and an example to our foes.” She plucked the pencil out of Nathan’s hand, trying not to let the heavy shackles on his ankles disturb her. “He’s a spy and you didn’t take his means of writing away? What’s your name, Private?”
The soldier stiffened in surprise.
“Coburn,” Nathan supplied helpfully.
Rachel didn’t look at him. “Is that correct?”
“Yes, Corporal,” Coburn said through gritted teeth.
“Would you like to tell me who struck the prisoner, Mr. Coburn, so I can include it in my report to Colonel Hamilton?”
In the very short time since his appointment to a field command in the Light Division, everyone had been made extremely aware of how the colonel felt about the just treatment of prisoners. Even ones who would probably be hanged. Even though the division was on edge and furious because Colonel Scammell—darling of the light infantry and the only man who could make George Washington laugh until he cried—lay dying at Williamsburg, shot in the back by the British after he surrendered to one of their patrols last week.
“It was him,” Nathan said with edgy cheerfulness.
Rachel couldn’t think about him being executed. He’d probably try to tell the hangman a joke. “I’m ready to hear your side of the story,” she told the sentry.
“He wouldn’t shut up, and he insulted Irish cooking.”
Rachel bit her lip hard to keep from smiling. “He goaded you past the limits of your endurance, I see. Don’t let it happen again. That will be all, private.”
Coburn went out and shut the door.
“Can I have my pencil back?” Nathan said in Yiddish.
“Of course not,” she snapped in the same language. “What is wrong with you? You spent all day antagonizing armed men while entirely unable to defend yourself because…?”
“Because I had nothing else to do. I can’t even pace in these things.” One of his legs began to vibrate; the shackles made an awful clanking noise. “I tried to buy a book, but the only one any of them knew of the existence of was Pilgrim’s Progress, and I haven’t yet grown that desperate.”
He’d picked the buttons off his cuff. Rachel’s hand went to the needle and thread she carried in her pocket—but she quashed the impulse. “Have you eaten?” Not much better.
He stared at her in disbelief, leg still bouncing. “Have I eaten? Rachel, who cares?” He’d lowered his voice to protect her secret. Did that mean he wasn’t planning to tell? Why not? “You’re alive?”
She shifted uncomfortably. “Obviously.”
“I sat shiva for you,” he said intently. “I said Kaddish for you. I’ve remembered your yahrzeit three times. How can you be alive?”
That startled her. She’d never thought about Nathan mourning her, past the first few weeks. He’d observed the anniversary of her death?
She remembered lighting a candle on her mother’s yahrzeit, tears blurring the flame. Every year at synagogue she’d sobbed brokenly in the women’s gallery, listening to the mourners’ Kaddish being recited below. Had Nathan cried for her?
Well, of course he had, he cried over everything. “I’m sorry, but—”
“Rachel,” he burst out, lurching to his feet, “what if I had remarried?”
These reviews are for the Hamilton’s Battalion anthology.
“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)
“Each novella is both a beautiful romance and also a moving exploration of what it means to be American. Please read Hamilton’s Battalion, for no review can do it justice.” —TBQ’s Book Palace
“I don’t remember the last time I read an anthology that I loved as much as I did Hamilton’s Battalion. If these three authors decided to write a new anthology every year, I would gladly throw my money at them.” —My Little Book Corner
“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
“It is rare when all the stories of an anthology please, but Hamilton’s Battalion is one such collection. It’s an inspiring book for our time and one of the most heartwarming and hopeful books I’ve read this year.” —All About Romance