It was the first time any of us had laughed since the morning began .
The rider from Concord was as good as his word .
He came spurring and whooping down the road , his horse kicking up clouds of dust , shouting :
`` They're a-coming ! !
By God , they're a-coming , they are '' ! !
We heard him before he ever showed , and we heard him yelling after he was out of sight .
Solomon Chandler hadn't misjudged the strength of his lungs , not at all .
I think you could have heard him a mile away , and he was bursting at every seam with importance .
I have observed that being up on a horse changes the whole character of a man , and when a very small man is up on a saddle , he'd like as not prefer to eat his meals there .
That's understandable , and I appreciate the sentiment .
As for this rider , I never saw him before or afterwards and never saw him dismounted , so whether he stood tall or short in his shoes , I can't say ; ;
but I do know that he gave the day tone and distinction .
The last thing in the world that resembled a war was our line of farmers and storekeepers and mechanics perched on top of a stone wall , and this dashing rider made us feel a good deal sharper and more alert to the situation .
We came down off the wall as if he had toppled all of us , and we crouched behind it .
I have heard people talk with contempt about the British regulars , but that only proves that a lot of people talk about things of which they are deplorably ignorant .
Whatever we felt about the redcoats , we respected them in terms of their trade , which was killing ; ;
and I know that I , myself , was nauseated with apprehension and fear and that my hands were soaking wet where they held my gun .
I wanted to wipe my flint , but I didn't dare to , the state my hands were in , just as I didn't dare to do anything about the priming .
The gun would fire or not , just as chance willed .
I put a lot more trust in my two legs than in the gun , because the most important thing I had learned about war was that you could run away and survive to talk about it .
The gunfire , which was so near that it seemed just a piece up the road now , stopped for long enough to count to twenty ; ;
and in that brief interval , a redcoat officer came tearing down the road , whipping his horse fit to kill .
I don't know whether he was after our rider , who had gone by a minute before , or whether he was simply scouting conditions ; ;
but when he passed us by , a musket roared , and he reared his horse , swung it around , and began to whip it back in the direction from which he had come .
He was a fine and showy rider , but his skill was wasted on us .
From above me and somewhere behind me , a rifle cracked .
The redcoat officer collapsed like a punctured bolster , and the horse reared and threw him from the saddle , except that one booted foot caught in the stirrup .
Half crazed by the weight dragging , the dust , and the heat , the horse leaped our wall , dashing out the rider's brains against it , and leaving him lying there among us -- while the horse crashed away through the brush .
It was my initiation to war and the insane symphony war plays ; ;
for what had happened on the common was only terror and flight ; ;
but this grinning , broken head , not ten feet away from me , was the sharp definition of what my reality had become .
And now the redcoats were coming , and the gunfire was a part of the dust cloud on the road to the west of us .
I must state that the faster things happened , the slower they happened ; ;
the passage and rhythm of time changed , and when I remember back to what happened then , each event is a separate and frozen incident .
In my recollection , there was a long interval between the death of the officer and the appearance of the first of the retreating redcoats , and in that interval the dust cloud over the road seems to hover indefinitely .
Yet it could not have been more than a matter of seconds , and then the front of the British army came into view .
It was only hours since I had last seen them , but they had changed and I had changed .
In the very front rank , two men were wounded and staggered along , trailing blood behind them .
No drummers here , no pipers , and the red coats were covered with a fine film of dust .
They marched with bayonets fixed , and as fixed on their faces was anger , fear , and torment .
Rank after rank of them came down the road , and the faces were all the same , and they walked in a sea of dust .
`` Committeemen , hold your fire ! !
Hold your fire '' ! !
A voice called , and what made it even more terrible and unreal was that the redcoat ranks never paused for an instant , only some of them glancing toward the stone wall , from behind which the voice came .
The front of their column had already passed us , when another officer came riding down the side of the road , not five paces from where we were .
My Cousin Simmons carried a musket , but he had loaded it with bird shot , and as the officer came opposite him , he rose up behind the wall and fired .
One moment there was a man in the saddle ; ;
the next a headless horror on a horse that bolted through the redcoat ranks , and during the next second or two , we all of us fired into the suddenly disorganized column of soldiers .
One moment , the road was filled with disciplined troops , marching four by four with a purpose as implacable as death ; ;
the next , a cloud of gun smoke covered a screaming fury of sound , out of which the redcoat soldiers emerged with their bayonets and their cursing fury .
In the course of this , they had fired on us ; ;
but I have no memory of that .
I had squeezed the trigger of my own gun , and to my amazement , it had fired and kicked back into my shoulder with the force of an angry mule ; ;
and then I was adding my own voice to the crescendo of sound , hurling more vile language than I ever thought I knew , sobbing and shouting , and aware that if I had passed water before , it was not enough , for my pants were soaking wet .
I would have stood there and died there if left to myself , but Cousin Simmons grabbed my arm in his viselike grip and fairly plucked me out of there ; ;
and then I came to some sanity and plunged away with such extraordinary speed that I outdistanced Cousin Simmons by far .
Everyone else was running .
Later we realized that the redcoats had stopped their charge at the wall .
Their only hope of survival was to hold to the road and keep marching .
We tumbled to a stop in Deacon Gordon's cow hole , a low-lying bit of pasture with a muddy pool of water in its middle .
A dozen cows mooed sadly and regarded us as if we were insane , as perhaps we were at that moment , with the crazy excitement of our first encounter , the yelling and shooting still continuing up at the road , and the thirst of some of the men , which was so great that they waded into the muddy water and scooped up handfuls of it .
Isaac Pitt , one of the men from Lincoln , had taken a musket ball in his belly ; ;
and though he had found the strength to run with us , now he collapsed and lay on the ground , dying , the Reverend holding his head and wiping his hot brow .
It may appear that we were cruel and callous , but no one had time to spend sympathizing with poor Isaac -- except the Reverend .
I know that I myself felt that it was a mortal shame for a man to be torn open by a British musket ball , as Isaac had been , yet I also felt relieved and lucky that it had been him and not myself .
I was drunk with excitement and the smell of gunpowder that came floating down from the road , and the fact that I was not afraid now , but only waiting to know what to do next .
Meanwhile , I reloaded my gun , as the other men were doing .
We were less than a quarter of a mile from the road , and we could trace its shape from the ribbon of powder smoke and dust that hung over it .
Wherever you looked , you saw Committeemen running across the meadows , some away from the road , some toward it , some parallel to it ; ;
and about a mile to the west a cluster of at least fifty Militia were making their way in our direction .
Cousin Joshua and some others felt that we should march toward Lexington and take up new positions ahead of the slow-moving British column , but another group maintained that we should stick to this spot and this section of road .
I didn't offer any advice , but I certainly did not want to go back to where the officer lay with his brains dashed out .
Someone said that while we were standing here and arguing about it , the British would be gone ; ;
but Cousin Simmons said he had watched them marching west early in the morning , and moving at a much brisker pace it had still taken half an hour for their column to pass , what with the narrowness of the road and their baggage and ammunition carts .
While this was being discussed , we saw the militia to the west of us fanning out and breaking into little clusters of two and three men as they approached the road .
It was the opinion of some of us that these must be part of the Committeemen who had been in the Battle of the North Bridge , which entitled them to a sort of veteran status , and we felt that if they employed this tactic , it was likely enough the best one .
Mattathias Dover said :
`` It makes sense .
If we cluster together , the redcoats can make an advantage out of it , but there's not a blessed thing they can do with two or three of us except chase us , and we can outrun them '' .
That settled it , and we broke into parties of two and three .
Cousin Joshua Dover decided to remain with the Reverend and poor Isaac Pitt until life passed away -- and he was hurt so badly he did not seem for long in this world .
I went off with Cousin Simmons , who maintained that if he didn't see to me , he didn't know who would .
`` Good heavens , Adam '' , he said , `` I thought one thing you'd have no trouble learning is when to get out of a place '' .
`` I learned that now '' , I said .
We ran east for about half a mile before we turned back to the road , panting from the effort and soaked with sweat .
There was a clump of trees that appeared to provide cover right up to the road , and the shouting and gunfire never slackened .
Under the trees , there was a dead redcoat , a young boy with a pasty white skin and a face full of pimples , who had taken a rifle ball directly between the eyes .
Three men were around him .
They had stripped him of his musket and equipment , and now they were pulling his boots and jacket off .
Cousin Simmons grabbed one of them by the shoulder and flung him away .
`` God's name , what are you to rob the dead with the fight going on '' ! !
Cousin Simmons roared .
They tried to outface him , but Joseph Simmons was as wide as two average men , and it would have taken braver men than these were to outface him .