Less Than a Gentleman - Kerrelyn Sparks

Less Than a Gentleman - Kerrelyn Sparks

Chapter One

South Carolina

Friday, August 25, 1780

Captain Matthias Murray Thomas tugged at the ropes that bound his hands behind his back. The gradual lightening of the night sky, visible through the open window, warned him he was running out of time. With the coming of dawn, he and his companions would be marched to their death.

His movements caused a drop to trickle down his arm. Either blood from his shoulder wound or sweat, he could no longer tell, for the hot, humid air was thick with the scent of both. Mosquitoes hummed over them, enjoying the feast of defenseless men.

The call of a wood warbler claimed his attention and brought back memories of his youth. His family would spend the summer months in Charles Town, then return to the plantation in the fall, where the song of the wood warbler would greet him. Every year the birds rested for the autumn months in the South Carolina marshlands before continuing their migration south.

The warbler's song pierced the air, jolting him back to the present. He and the other captured soldiers were being held in an abandoned house just north of Nelson's Ferry on the Santee River. In August.

The first rays of dawn crept through the open window, giving shape and form to the huddled mass on the floor. His fellow prisoners lay sprawled around him, either snoring or moaning from untended wounds. As the ranking officer, he had stayed awake all night to watch over his doomed men.

The youngster beside him whimpered in his sleep. Fourteen years old, the boy had said. Too young for a soldier and far too young to hang as a traitor.

Matthias searched the blue uniforms to locate his cousin and winced at the sight of Richard's blood-crusted face. Two English guards, equipped with bayonet-tipped muskets, stood at the door, their red coats easy to spot in the dim light.

The boy beside him flinched.

Matthias nudged him with his boot. "Simon."

The boy awoke with a shout.

The sound drew the attention of the guards. They frowned at Matthias, apparently holding him accountable for the sudden noise.

"You'll hold your tongue if you know what's good for you," the taller guard warned him.

Matthias shrugged his uninjured shoulder. "It was a bad dream. I'm afraid of the dark."

The guard snorted. "Yankee cowards. I've seen how you turn tail and run."

A low rumble of curses grew as the prisoners sat up and responded to the insult.

"Dammit, Greville, don't get them riled up," the second guard warned his companion.

"Are you all right?" Matthias whispered, his voice masked by the grumbling of the prisoners.

Simon struggled to a sitting position. "I dreamed about the battle."

Matthias nodded. The battle at Camden had been one of the worst in his experience. "Was it your first?"

Simon's eyes filled with tears, and he blinked to keep them from falling. "I didn't turn tail and run."

"No, you fought bravely."

"You saw me?"

"Yes, I did," Matthias lied. "You held your ground."

A hint of a smile crossed Simon's face, then disappeared. "What will they do to us in Charles Town?"

Either kill us slowly in prison or quickly by the gallows. "We're not there yet." Matthias planted his feet on the floor, and bracing himself against the wall, he pushed to a standing position. He ambled toward the guards - the tall one named Greville and a shorter, freckle-faced one with carrot-colored hair.

"Halt," Greville ordered.

Matthias motioned with his head to the chamber pot in the corner. "I need to relieve myself."

The freckle-faced guard shrugged. "Then do it."

"Regrettably, in my current condition, I find myself unable to unfasten my breeches or . . . handle the equipment. If you would care to assist me?" Matthias arched a brow at him. "Seeing that you're English, you might enjoy it."

"The hell you say." Freckle-face pointed his bayonet at Matthias. "Greville, tie his hands in front."

Matthias watched calmly as Greville eased a long, gleaming knife from his leather scabbard. "Hmm, an Englishman with ten inches. Do I dare turn my back?"

"Shut your foul mouth, Yankee." Greville jerked at his arm to spin him around.

Matthias gritted his teeth as more blood oozed from his shoulder wound. He surveyed his fellow prisoners. Dried blood and dirt etched their weary expressions with shades of rust and brown, but the early sun caught the glimmer of hope in their eyes. They were counting on him. Better to die, providing their escape, than to march with them to the gallows like obedient sheep.

Greville sawed through his ropes. "Turn."

He pivoted and