Who You'd Be Today
Inspired by the song of the same name, sung by Kenny Chesney.
The lyrics (incorporated into the prologue) follow at the end of the story.
This story, set for the most part during the American Revolution, is a part of the continuing AU that presumes that Jim and Blair have lived many lives over the course of time. While I've inserted significant roles for the characters, I've also made an effort to present the actual events and the thoughts and actions of real historical personages in accordance with historical records.
Story Consultants: Annie and Nansi
I have to give a very special thank you to Annie (Trislindsay) and Nansi (emrinalexander) who gave me
invaluable and incredibly generous support in providing detailed information and source material on the American Revolution.
Any mistakes, inaccuracies or misrepresentation of the personages or historical events are entirely my own.
And, Annie, thank you as well for your wonderful scenario ideas as this story was beginning to be written - many of them have found their way into the text.
Thanks, StarWatcher! A long story like this one is a lot to ask of anyone but you not only did your usual great job, you worked magic with the beginning so that it flows much better and conveys the haunting quality I was seeking.
Cover Art by Suzanne
Thanks, sweetie. I know this story was hard for you.
Warning: This is the only kind of death story I can ever bring myself to write ... but, try to trust me.
Leaning heavily on the sturdy support of his stout, walnut walking stick, James Ellison limped slowly through the long, waving grass of the jutting headland. The sweet scent of clover and the pungency of the peat moss mingled with the fresh brine carried by the brisk breeze blowing in from the Atlantic. Above, the sky was a deep cerulean of such incredible clarity it was wondrous, and was softened only by the high white cumulous clouds, pure and pristine, as they scudded swiftly to the northeast. A perfect summer day, warm but not hot; a peaceful day, one to gladden the heart and raise a smile of gratitude to simply be alive.
But Ellison wasn't smiling; the haggard lines etched in his pallid face, the sadness in the depths of his light blue eyes suggested that he smiled rarely, if ever. He was garbed simply in a faded, homespun cotton shirt and trousers, and his moccasins were scuffed and worn, revealing a man who preferred comfort to style. His bowed back and stiff, awkward gait spoke of injuries badly healed, and of burdens that he'd never learned to set down; though not yet forty, he looked and felt as old as the hills. Panting with effort, he drew in shallow, open-mouth breaths as if starved for oxygen but afraid of inhaling too deeply.
Doggedly, though every limping step pained him, he continued on until he reached the point where the land fell away, dropping dizzily in a steep, rugged cliff to the sea. Below, the heaving waves roared as they surged up against the land's face in their eternal battle to wear away the rock, spewing white water in rhythmic, dazzling fountains of crystalline drops that refracted the light like thousands, maybe millions of tiny rainbows.
Jim winced and shielded his eyes against the bright, glittering glare of sun on the water, and searched the distant horizon, endlessly seeking what would never again be found in this life. His hand dropped and he took a breath; stealing himself as if for a blow, he turned away from the ocean's majesty to look down upon the plain stone marker at his feet. "Sunny days seem to hurt the most, kid," he murmured hoarsely, rolling his shoulders to ease the pain he wore like a heavy coat. Glancing back across the meadow he'd traversed, he sighed. "I swear, Chief, I see you everywhere I go."
Shaking his head wearily, he stepped around the grave to ease his weight onto a boulder that had been rolled next to it for just that purpose. Over the past four years, he'd spent every moment he could, though they'd been few and far between, out here on the edge of the world, remembering, regretting ... and talking to his lost friend. The man he couldn't seem to let go, and didn't want to ever forget. However foggy his mind became with irrelevant details of daily life that held no interest for him and the illness that weakened him more each day, the memories he carried in his heart were as clear as if the events had happened only moments before.
Memories of Blair.
"I see your smile," he whispered huskily, frowning as he studied the grave marker, as if it couldn't be real.
As if it was all still just a terrible nightmare and, someday, he'd wake up to a new morning where ... where Blair would still be with him.
"I see your face."
Like it was yesterday, not four long years since he'd last seen those sparkling eyes, the exact colour of the sky overhead - only Blair's eyes had been brighter than the sky, as if bits of starlight had been captured in their depths to add the sparkle of effervescent life. Four very long years, almost to the day, since he'd looked into those eyes. Cocking his head, he listened, his eyes closed so that he could concentrate better, and then a wistful smile played over his lips. "I hear you laughing in the rain." Such a rich, rollicking laugh, full of exuberant joy even as Blair bitched and groused about how wet and cold his world too often seemed to be - as it had been on the day he'd died. Swallowing heavily, feeling salt sting his eyes, he blinked and sniffed. "I still can't believe you're gone."
Sorrow welled in his chest as it always did, rising with a futile anger undiminished despite the passing of those infinitely lonely years. Looking away from the gravestone and back toward the sea, he railed into the wind. "It's not fair! You died too young!" His voice cracked and broke as he muttered, "Remember? You told me once that I was your favourite book?" Sniffing, he swiped his hand over his face and whispered huskily, "Well, kid, I never told you that you were my favourite book, too, but your story had only just begun." His throat thickened and his voice cracked as he went on, "I ... I'd looked forward, you know? To seeing your story unfold ... to watching you grow old."
Desperate, impotent rage flared. Lifting his gaze to glare at the sky, his tone a curse against a too cruel God, he rasped bitterly, "But Death ripped all your pages away." Sighing, achingly weary, he bowed his head to gaze at the grave and said hollowly, "God knows how I miss you; and all the hell that I've been through just knowing no one can take your place." But he grimaced, disgusted with his own whining. He was alive, dammit, much as he resented that fact every damned day. He had little enough reason to complain. Reaching out to caress the warm, worn stone, he husked with wistful poignancy, his voice again cracking with guilt and grief, "It's just that - sometimes, I wonder ... who you'd be today."
Looking out to sea, he went on musingly, "Would you be out there somewhere, seeing the world? Chasing your dreams?" A slight, fond smile drifted over his lips. "Or would you have settled down with a family?" But the smile faltered and died as his eyes again misted, and he whispered brokenly, "I wonder, what would you have named your babies?"
He waited, as if half-expecting answers to his questions, and then lifted his gaze to the vast, endless sky, squinting against its searing brilliance. "Some days the sky's so blue," he sighed, "I feel like I can talk to you." The drawn expression eased, the lines of anguish melting away, and he smiled ruefully as he shook his head. Shrugging negligently, not really caring, he admitted, "I know it might sound crazy."
Missing his friend with an ache so deep he knew there'd be no easing it until death claimed him, too, he rubbed at his chest. The endless, unremitting, inconsolable grief of a loss so profound - of a friend, a soul so unique and dear to him - had ripped him apart, shattered him, and his heart had never been able to heal. Old, old guilt that he'd failed, that it was his fault, rose up to clog his throat. His lips trembled and he leaned forward to cover his face with his hands. No longer cursing God but himself, wishing fervently that his friend was still there, beside him, he moaned, "It's just not fair, you died too young." Struggling with his pain, he rasped, "Your story had barely begun before Death tore the pages all away."
Over the years, the same helpless words and thoughts had gone round and round, haunting him and wearing deep grooves of guilt and regret in his soul, like the wheel-ruts on a muddy road, so that he stumbled over them again and again. He hadn't allowed himself to weep in the all the years since, afraid if he lost his tightly held control he'd never regain it. But it didn't matter anymore; his work was done and he could finally let loose the reins on his grief. Tears leaked from his tightly closed eyes to slip down his weathered cheeks. A sob rose and broke, bearing all the pain he'd held bottled up inside day in, day out, as the weeks, months, and finally years passed with no healing, no peace and no acceptance that they'd lost one another forever. His heart knew that it couldn't be over; it had barely begun. Fate couldn't be that cruel. But his mind, his memories, knew that Fate was, indeed, that cruel, that heartless, that uncaring about the trivial matter of one man's death and another man's loss; hell, he'd carried the ashes here himself, buried them under that damned stone.
For all his heart railed and denied the truth, this was all he had left. This place and his memories.
"God knows how I miss you, and all the hell I've been through, just knowing no one can take your place," he whispered again hopelessly. The words, muffled by his hands and raw with sorrow, were caught by the wind and blown away. "Sometimes I wonder ... who you'd be today," he said again, repeating words he'd spoken a hundred times over the years, as if by imagining Blair's future he could somehow make it be, somehow call his friend back to him. Alone on the heights, with no one to see or hear, he could finally let his grief ride him, let the hot tears fall, and the sobs wrack his gaunt frame.
"Today," he whispered over and over, needing to imagine his partner as if he were alive, yet whipping himself with the reality that there were no more todays for his best friend. All of Blair's todays had ended years before.
The wild storm of grief passed, leaving him empty, exhausted, and breathless. A violent fit of coughing assailed him, cramping the muscles of his chest, and he gasped for ever more elusive breath until his breathing settled, as much as it ever did these days. Sniffing, he scrubbed the wet trails of hot tears from his face with calloused hands, carelessly wiped the smear of blood from his mouth, and then straightened his back. Lifting his head to again look out again across the rolling indigo sea to where it met the bright blue sky, squinting against the glaring sunlight that felt as if it could blister his eyes, he chafed under the soft shirt that nevertheless badly irritated his skin. The rhythmic roar of the waves battering the rocks filled his ears like claps of thunder, and the pungent, sweet and salty scents were so strong that he could taste them. Desperate for relief, he slid off the boulder and bent his stiff knees to slowly drop down beside the grave.
Gripping the stone, he tried to remember the way Blair had grounded him with his gentle but firm touch. He struggled to recall the rich, warm voice that had taught him so much, in so very short a time, about how to manage the senses that seemed his cross to bear ... or, as Blair had always said, his gifts to use. Blair had told him that he had to choose, had insisted that he could manage them, but not if he continually resented them and fought them. And while Blair had been with him, it had all worked and he'd been able to manage and use his senses, could harness them so that they didn't torment him; but only while Blair had been with him. Blair had held a kind of magic within him that made everything work, made the mystical and mysterious make sense.
This was the only place in recent months - out here on the headland beside his friend's grave - where he could sometimes find that peace again. Not that he believed Blair's blithe and lively spirit was buried in the earth or tied to the stone marker; he didn't. But ... out here, with only the wind and the water and the sky, he felt that if he listened hard enough, looked closely enough, he could reach out and touch his friend one more time. Though he knew it was crazy, sometimes ... well, many times in the past years, he'd felt as if he was actually hearing Blair's voice on the wind and imagined he could feel his friend's touch on his arm or on his back, steadying him, helping him focus in moments of danger and crisis, and assuring him that everything would be alright. There were even times, strange, inexplicable moments, when he'd been knocked right off his feet just in time to miss being hit by a bullet, just like Blair had often pushed him out of harm's way; only there'd been no one there, and he knew he must've just stumbled. But those moments of clarity, those illusions, only ever happened when he was in battle, and the battles were now all over. So he came out here and strove to recall the timber and cadence of the low, strong, compassionate voice that had anchored him and given him hope; hope and the strength to endure. If he could hear that voice again, feel that touch, see that bright, smiling face, and rejoice in the musical lilt of that laughter; if only ... ah, God, he ached with the need of Blair. It had been too long, too damned long.
He'd done his best in the years since, gone on fighting the good fight, doing all he could to help win the war, as Blair had wanted him do, had even been convinced he was born to do. Staring out over the long grass bent under the wind, he marveled that he'd lived to see the end of it, for he'd given no thought to his own survival after ... after Blair had died. Coldly, he'd buried his grief and, feeling little but helpless rage, he'd fought like a berserker, heedless of the risks because he hadn't cared a damn about living. Inside, he'd died on a stormy afternoon and, now, his body was as sick as his heart and soul had been for years. Recent wounds weren't healing properly; they said he was too weak, too ill to heal. Consumption filled his lungs and stole his breath, and he was glad to know that he was dying, that he could finally let go. He was tired, so unspeakably tired. All that was left these days was to come out here to the headland, to grieve and remember.
The breath tight in his heavy chest, Jim wrapped his arms around the stone and leaned sideways to rest his cheek upon it. Much as he wanted to indulge his imagination and pretend it was Blair's sturdy shoulders he embraced and Blair's chest that he rested his head upon, the stone was too hard, too still to play its part in such an illusion. Once again, his darkening eyes sought the sky. "Sunny days hurt the most," he rasped breathily. "Warm, bright, sunny days that you loved so much ... days like this when you should be here, laughing with that simple joy you had in just being alive. God, Chief, the pain of missing you ... the pain of these damned senses without you ... s'like a heavy coat I don't know how to take off, you know? Wears me down. I'm sorry to whine like this, kid, but I'm tired, Blair. I'm so tired." Drawing in a slow breath, steadying himself, he went on more strongly, "The only thing that gives me hope is I know I'll see you again someday."
'Someday ...' echoed in his mind, over and over, and then, 'Soon,' he thought with poignant hope. 'Please, Chief, soon.' Weary, so very weary, more than ready to be done with the business of life, he smiled wistfully and with gratitude to his long-mourned partner. Even this single, final comfort of his life, this unshakeable belief that they would meet again someday, had been a gift from Blair; for it had been Blair, not him, who had believed in forever and the ultimate mercy and joy of the universe. Blair had never shied from the mysteries, the unexplainable, and he had believed fervently that life wasn't about beginning and ending, but about learning more and more, to be of more use the next time around. Blair had told him with utter conviction that the soul was eternal and didn't die, but could choose to come back again and again. His last, very last words had been a promise ... "I'll see you again some day."
So Jim had clung to those words all through the empty, lonely years, and he clung to them still. They had to be true. It was all that had sustained him, all that had kept him even marginally sane. He longed with all his heart for the day when he'd finally see Blair again.
Closing his eyes, enjoying the cool, fresh breath of wind on his face, he remembered Long Island in the late summer of 1776. He remembered meeting young Blair Sandburg just before the devastating battle with the British had nearly ended the Revolution before it had hardly begun....
Late Monday evening, August 26, 1776
Staying well clear of the open fields of barley, keeping under the thick canopy of the primeval forest of maple, oak, ash, birch and sycamore, filthy and disheveled, long strands of hair escaping the frayed ribbon at the nape of his neck, Jim stumbled through the dark, moonless night toward the encampment. He'd been following the course of the river, knowing that, even if he could barely see through the narrow slits of his swollen eyelids, the soft gurgle of rushing water would guide him back to the camp. He picked up the scent of burning wood and cooked meat, and hastened his step, only to stumble over the uneven ground, crashing to his knees. Cocking his head, he could hear the low murmur of voices, the occasional burst of low, masculine laughter, a voice raised in drunken song; almost there. He fought the profound ache of his muscles, resisting the urge to stop and rest, even if only for a few breaths of time. Up ahead, through the trees, he could see the flickering splash of firelight against the stygian darkness.
Close, he was close now. Nearly there.
Reduced to feeling his way forward, stumbling and crawling one painful foot at a time, he gritted his jaw against the need to curse with frustration and the maddening, relentless itch on his face, hands and arms from the poisoned ivy that he'd tumbled into just before the previous dawn, a rash that seemed to cover his whole body and that was exacerbated by countless aggravating mosquito bites.
It had taken him too damned long to get back from his provisioning mission to his brother, Steven's, farm, where he'd negotiated for the harvest on behalf of the General. He should have reported back days ago, but he'd been cut off by the sudden, unexpected arrival of a massive contingent of the British Army. He'd needed nearly a day to scout the opposing force, and had been shocked, even frightened, by their number; far too many for the much smaller American force to successfully meet in battle. Never had he seen so many redcoats; there were thousands of them. Though it was urgent that he report as soon as he could, he'd had to circle around the huge force that was making its way across the marshes from where they'd landed at Jamaica Bay. Wary of their guards and scouts, for two days he spent the daylight hours perched high in trees, or scrunched into a moldy log and, later, the trunk of a dying oak, trying to evade detection by the enemy, and moved only at night. Even traveling under cover of darkness had been hazardous with so many enemy patrols roaming the countryside. The night before, he'd had to take refuge in a swamp, all but his face under the surface of the malodorous muck as a foot patrol passed close by. Now, covered with the dried mud of the bog, he stank so badly his own stench nauseated him with every shallow breath. He craved being clean as he never had before, and was so tired that he could barely stay awake. Unable to risk hunting or a fire, on the move or stealthily still and alert for enemy patrols, he hadn't slept or eaten more than bark and berries for days.
But the very size of the opposing force had made it ungainly and slow, giving him time once he was around them to make it back with critical information - and none too soon if the redcoats kept moving this way.
"Oh my God," an unknown voice, as rich and warm as hot cocoa, cried out softly from the darkness. All Jim could make out was a vague impression of wild hair, and he smelled leather and fur. Briefly, he wondered if he'd encountered a hunter. "Captain Ellison! Are you wounded? Here, let me help you, sir."
Hands touched him, his arms, his back, and he had to bite back a moan. The words surprised him, scattering his confused belief of having encountered some hermit of the woodland, for this stranger recognized him and addressed him like a soldier. He could have wept with the profound relief of knowing he'd finally made it back to the camp. Floundering in his weakness, he grabbed hold of the other man, feeling soft leather garments under his hands, not the rough homespun apparel of the usual enlisted man, and he wondered again who the other man was. But satisfying his curiousity wasn't important; his mission was all that mattered. He had to pass on the terrible information he carried only in his head, or they'd all be lost before their battle for independence had scarcely begun.
"Need to see the General," he grated breathlessly. "Take me to him. Hurry."
"Sure - whatever you need," the man assured him, and then he asked hesitantly, "Can you ... can you lean on me? I don't want to hurt you."
"Yeah," Jim sighed, looping his arm around sturdy shoulders and, though the touch played hell with his skin, he was grateful for the strong arm that wrapped around his waist. The sentry was shorter than he was by several inches, but sturdy, and he willingly took Jim's weight as he supported Ellison through the camp.
The guard posted outside the General's tent started to challenge them, but then he hesitated. "Captain Ellison?" he asked uncertainly, and Jim got the impression the soldier was trying to see past the grit and swamp mud that coated him.
"Yeah," he muttered.
"Thank God," the guard exclaimed. "We'd 'bout given you up, sir! The General will be some pleased to see you."
Jim heard the slap of canvas on canvas as the tent flap was flipped back, and the sentry holding him helped him inside.
"Jim!" General Washington gasped, relief mixed with anxious concern clear in his tones. "What on earth happened to you?"
"L-long story, sir," Ellison stuttered, his words slurring as he fought off unconsciousness, his struggle to stay awake sorely challenged by the simple relief of having reached his goal. "The British Army ... only about a day's march from here, moving out of the flatlands toward Jamaica Pass. Took me awhile to get around them. Looks like as many as twenty thousand men, maybe more. Headed this way."
A moment of shocked silence greeted his words, and he could imagine the General's frown of concentration, but the pale, flickering light of the lantern burned his eyes and made them water, robbing him of what little sight he'd had. "Good work, Captain," Washington approved with a solemn, measured tone. "You've given us time to prepare. Corporal - see to the Captain's needs. If we have to fall back quickly, your first responsibility is to him - whatever he requires. Understood?"
"Yes, sir!" the deep, unaccountably soothing voice replied with alacrity. Wearily grinning to himself, Jim could almost hear the salute and he wondered just how young this kid was. Groggily, he shook his head. The General had called him, 'corporal', so he couldn't be all that wet behind the ears, not just a buck private who barely knew how to hold his weapon.
As they stumbled and staggered away from the command tent, Jim heard the orders go out for all the campfires to be doused, and all senior officers to report to the General immediately. Would they make a stand or fade off into the forest to fight another day? There was no doubt that the British were better armed and there were more of them but, God, he got tired of being on the run, of harrying rather than confronting. It wasn't in his nature to constantly slip into the shadows and hide.
Not that he was in any condition to fight at the moment. Hell, he was beyond standing up on his own.
It seemed to take a long time to get to wherever the Corporal was taking him. They must've made their way back through almost the whole of the camp, once again drawing close to the river bank where the kid had found him. Though feeling dazed, and knowing he wasn't thinking clearly, Jim nevertheless thought it odd that he'd not been simply assisted to the tent he was assigned. And he was also disturbed by some of the grumbled insults and suspicious or antagonistic, drunken shouts he hazily heard as they passed, realizing belatedly that they were being made about them - or at least about the soldier who was leading him somewhere. He wondered if the kid was hearing the unflattering commentary as well - he could scarcely miss it - or if he'd heard it all before. The only sound the Corporal made beyond low and encouraging murmurs that it wasn't much farther, was to call out with surprisingly fierce authority to a passing private to bring fresh clothing from the Captain's tent ... and to make damned sure he brought cotton or soft linen, not wool.
Finally, they drew to a stop and Jim dimly realized they were once again close to the river, for he could hear it burbling not far away.
"Easy, Captain," the kid's voice murmured. "We're here." Jim could hear the hesitation before the Corporal said quietly, with as much conviction as he could put into his voice, "Look, I know you're just about out on your feet, but I really think we need to get you cleaned up, so you can rest properly. So, uh, let's get your clothes off and I'll help you bathe in the river. It's got a bit of a chill, but not too bad. And I've got some mild soap that'll help with those bites; take the sting and itch out of them."
Jim was torn. On the one hand, he just wanted to fall on his face and sleep for a week. And it wasn't exactly decent to strip to the buff just to get clean. But ... the itch was driving him wild and his own stink sickened him. Besides, it was as dark as Hades, so who would even see? Not like there was a ladies' tea party going on anywhere nearby, and he didn't have anything the camp followers hadn't already seen. But, while he was dithering, the decision was taken out of his hands. Nimble fingers undid the buttons of his garments, and slid them and his boots off his body, while still holding him steady; the filthy ribbon tying back his shoulder-length hair was loosened. Briefly, he found himself leaned against the papery bark of a birch tree, with the hurried explanation, "Just give me a minute to get what I need, and I'll help you into the water."
The minute, maybe a little more, left him reeling, more asleep than awake, and then the strong arm was around him again, leading him down to the riverbank. He was aware of naked skin pressed against him, but was too tired to give a damn. Under his arm, Jim could feel the leather strap of a kit bag over the Corporal's shoulder, and he heard the dull thump when the kid dropped it to the ground.
The rush of cold water over his bare feet was a shock, and he hissed, but the gentle, firm coaxing continued, and the lure of being clean proved irresistible. He was soon immersed almost to his shoulders in the fast-flowing stream, and then eased back to float. The Corporal used his own body to brace him and cupped one hand under his chin to hold his face above the water, so he wasn't carried along by the current, and then strong fingers were massaging soap into his scalp, washing his hair until it squeaked with cleanliness. The sensation of the firm massage was incredibly soothing and he found himself going with it, drifting almost into sleep. A hand with a soft cloth began gently washing the grime from his face and then the slow flow of cool water from a cupped hand over his burning eyelids felt wonderful. He didn't know for sure what had caused the swelling, but figured he must've touched his eyes after he'd stumbled into poisoned oak or ivy in his last, desperate scramble to find cover before the dawn broke that morning. His body was lathered with whatever the soap was; gradually the itch diminished, and he sighed with simple gratitude.
He lost track of how much time they'd been in the river before he was being helped back onto the bank, to sit on a low rock. The caress of the night breeze made him shiver miserably, but then warm water was being slowly poured over him, like gentle rain upon his head and body, driving off the chill. Then he was being toweled dry, very carefully and gently, so as to not aggravate the abrasions, bites and pervasive rash.
"Just a few more minutes and you can get some clothes on and lie down, Captain," the soft voice assured him. His nose twitched, picking up various scents. One was sharp, astringent and it seemed to go with a balm that the kid was dabbing on his bruises and bites. Then an herbal scent filled the air, softer, sweeter than the pine and spruce of the trees around them, and a different, slightly stickier but more soothing lotion was being rubbed all over his body. "For the rash," the kid murmured, his hands moving in long, sure, firm strokes that relaxed stiff and sore muscles until Jim slumped against the other man's body, nearly dozing off. A light shirt made of homespun cotton was slid over his arms and back. Loose and soft, it rested lightly on his skin, and then he was helped into breeches of the same material. A tin cup of cool water was pressed to his lips and he drank thirstily. The Corporal eased him to his feet and guided him into a small nearby shelter, to lie upon a soft, clover-scented bedroll.
"I just want to do something for your eyes, so you'll be able to see out of them tomorrow," the kid said gently, soothingly. He made an inarticulate sound of agreement, feeling as if he was floating, the comfort of being clean and the relief of no longer itching leaving him in a state very near euphoria. Two small sacks, slightly damp, were rested over his closed eyes and he thought he caught the scent of herbal tea just before he slipped into sleep.
The low, urgent voices of uncertain men, soft nickering of horses, rasp of canvas, the clink of battered cooking pots and mugs being quickly packed away, and the creak of wagon wheels woke Jim in the early, pre-dawn hours of the next morning. Swallowing to moisten his dry throat and rubbing at still puffy eyes, he sniffed the scents of bread, meat and ale, and realized he was ravenous. More fully awake, he understood that the distinctive sounds that had called him from sleep meant their force was breaking camp, preparing to move out ... and doing so both swiftly and quietly. With a passing grimace, he idly scratched at the lingering rash that troubled him - profoundly glad that the fire of it was muted - and figured the General had decided to choose different ground for the coming, inevitable, confrontation with the British. Finally opening his eyes, he was confused to find that he wasn't in a tent but in a lean-to woven of pine boughs.
Frowning, he flipped away the blanket that covered him and crawled through the low portal to find the young man he assumed was the Corporal sitting outside on a log, waiting for him. Early dawn light burnished long curls and lit the wide, startlingly vivid blue eyes that met his. The suggestion of a smile, hesitant, uncertain, played over the generous mouth. And he'd been right the night before that this man seemed no ordinary soldier, garbed as he was in a soft buckskin sleeveless vest loosely laced over his hirsute chest, fringed leather leggings, and durable moccasins rather than the more crudely made boots or shoes of the regular foot soldier. A curious tiny wolf carving dangled from a hoop in his ear; and then Jim's eye was caught by the war club dangling from his belt. Just over a foot long, shaped from a single piece of carved, smooth wood, a bird's head and beak at one end for a solid grip, gradually widening to a sweeping curve topped with a deadly, fist-sized rounded ball, it was an impressive weapon. Altogether, except for the bright blue eyes, the kid looked a lot more like an Indian scout than a colonist, but his fine features and his skin, though a rich golden tan, were clearly those of a white man who'd spent endless hours under the sun.
"Good mornin' Captain. Bet you're hungry," he said cheerfully, and handed him a bread roll stuffed with meat and cheese. "Sorry, no fires this morning, so no hot food. And no tea or coffee, either, but the ale and the water will slake your thirst. And, I've got more of the same when you've finished this." Pausing, he gaze dipping away briefly, he shrugged and said, "You were shaky last night, like you hadn't eaten or slept for a fair bit of time, so I figured you'd want double rations today."
"Thanks," he replied as he took the proffered food to break his long and involuntary fast and had to restrain himself from wolfing it down. God, it tasted good, the cheese sharp and the wild turkey tender and fresh. After a long pull on the canteen, he accepted the second stuffed bread roll and settled on a rock to eat it at a more leisurely pace.
"What's your name, Corporal?" he asked between swallows.
"Sandburg, Captain. Blair Sandburg."
Nodding, thinking the name tallied with some of the comments he'd dimly heard the night before, he wondered what a Jew was doing dressed like an Indian. Idly, as he pondered the small mystery, he scratched his stubbled cheek - and realized neither the bites nor the rash tormented him. The maddening itch was nearly gone.
"What'd you put on my skin last night?" he asked curiously. "Whatever it was, worked like a charm."
Sandburg shifted as if he was nervous or uncomfortable, and his jaw tightened. "I used no witchcraft," he asserted with stiff, nearly reflexive defensiveness but, as if by a force of will, he visibly relaxed again. "Just some herbal mixtures that I learned from the Cherokee." Rising from the log, he secured their sleeping rolls, neatly wrapping and tying the canvas strips around the blankets.
"Really?" Jim rejoined, one brow arching as he shifted his gaze to the river, idly watching the sunlight's reflections dance on the water. "That why some of 'em call you the Medicine Man?"
Startled, Sandburg looked up from tying up the roll, gaping at him, and then nodded. "Yeah. I guess maybe you heard some comments last night when we crossed through the camp," he replied with a low, grim edge to his voice. "Lot of people mock or fear what they don't understand," he added, now sounding slightly defiant as he slung the tightly bound canvas roll over his shoulder. Swiftly, he packed the rest of his gear and some of what Jim recognized as his own into a sturdy canvas bag, which was also slung over his shoulder. The kid must have gone to his tent while he slept, to gather what he'd need in the days ahead: an extra pair of socks and linens, two cotton shirts, and a pair of cotton twill breeches.
"True enough," Jim agreed mildly. Looking back over his shoulder at the main camp, he asked, "What're the orders?"
"As you can see, we're moving out," the Corporal replied earnestly, with no tone of mockery about stating the obvious. "From what you told the General last night, it's clear the British outnumber us badly, so we're choosing the better part of valour and most of our forces are falling back toward Brooklyn Heights. General Alexander - Lord Stirling - has taken two regiments to try to hold the Gowanus Road. Word is, the five men guarding the Jamaica Pass have fallen to the enemy."
Nodding to himself, Jim reflected that Washington had little choice but to return to the safety of the batteries he'd established on the heights over the East River. But he frowned, thinking about the threat of the British Navy. Had the British General William Howe landed his full force or were there more back in New York? Was Howe's brother, Richard, the Admiral, lurking in the East River, ready to bombard them into submission while they fought off the redcoats? They needed information about the enemy's deployments, and they needed it urgently. Standing, he took a long pull of ale, emptying the mug, and then said briskly, "Thanks for the, uh, help last night, and the grub. But I guess it's time I earned my keep and set off ahead to scout our path of retreat."
"It'll take most of the day to get our men and supplies back to the Heights," Sandburg told him as he stuffed a coonskin cap into his pack and bent to pick up his musket, seemingly unfazed by the idea of an officer undertaking a duty more usually assigned to noncoms. "I think the General hopes the forest will slow down the British and make it harder to follow us. Not easy to move thousands of men through virgin growth." But his mouth twisted with the wordless acknowledgement that their own army faced the same challenge. Both men knew Washington would be hard-pressed to get his men to relative safety before the British were upon them.
Nodding wordlessly, Jim attached his powder horn to his belt and slipped his own musket over his shoulder before turning away. But he'd not taken many steps when he realized Sandburg was following him. Slowing, he looked over his shoulder and asked, "Where do you think you're going?"
"With you," the Corporal replied calmly with easy assurance. "The General's orders last night were very clear, sir. I'm to stick with you and give you whatever support you need - and," he carried on determinedly, "your eyes and skin are still irritated. You'll need more of my ointments before the sun goes down."
"Kid, er, Corporal, I work alone," Jim replied repressively. "I'm grateful for your help last night, but I'll be fine."
"You really want to bother the General right now? To get new orders?" Sandburg pushed.
His lips thinning, Jim snorted. "Just go back to your squad."
"I report directly to the General, sir," Sandburg retorted, holding his ground stubbornly. "My usual job is to fetch and carry, and write the occasional dispatch before delivering it - clearly, last night General Washington reassigned me to fetch and carry for you." Holding his arms wide and grinning impishly, he drawled, "I'm all yours, Captain."
Jim frowned, his gaze flickering away. He vaguely remembered having seen the Corporal on the fringes of the General's personal staff, and his gaze narrowed at the memory - he'd discounted the kid, thinking him an odd blue-eyed, lightly bronzed half-breed in camp to barter information for supplies, or perhaps a slave who saw to the General's personal needs. Clearly, he'd been wrong. Idly, he wondered where the kid had learned to read and write well enough to transcribe dispatches, as they weren't particularly common skills among the enlisted men. Rolling his eyes, Jim gave up the debate, and muttered, "Just see that you keep up - and try not to give our position away to any enemy scouts."
"I'll do my best, sir," the kid agreed cheerfully but, when Jim cast him a sharp look, he added with exaggerated solemnity, "to not attract unwanted or undue attention from the enemy."
"Uh huh," Ellison grunted; then turned away in a brisk lope to the northeast.
Skirting cleared acreage that had been turned into farmland, they kept to the trees. Occasionally, the Captain tossed a quick, evaluative glance at him, and a slight smile or nod of approval seemed to indicate he was pleased that Blair was able to shadow his steps with tireless, silent ease, revealing no strain in his steady pace that kept up with Ellison's longer and equally effortless strides. From time to time, Jim held up a hand for them to stop. Each time, and he cocked his head unconsciously as he listened to the sounds of the forest, and his gaze penetrated the murky depths. At regular intervals, he carved slashes in the trunks of trees, signals for those behind to follow, indicating the way ahead was clear. Though the thick foliage above them blocked most of the sunlight, dust motes danced in shafts of light that found the ground and, in places, the shadowed layers of leaves that carpeted the forest floor were dappled by the sun. But, despite being shaded by the ancient trees, the heat in the forest and the heavy humidity grew stifling as the sun climbed higher. Runnels of sweat streaked their faces and dampened their clothing, dehydrating them, so that they drank gratefully each time they happened upon a fast running, crystal clear brook, and took care to keep their canteens full.
A half step behind him and a bit to the side, Sandburg kept a close eye on his charge. He noted Ellison's behaviours when they stopped, the intense listening and the minute scrutiny of the forest. Chewing on his lip, he reflected on occasional, admiring comments the General had made about Captain Ellison: that he could 'see like an eagle' and 'hear like a fox'. That the man was 'uncanny' in following a trail, as if he could sniff out those he was following better than any bloodhound. But the General also harbored concerns for this man and, when he'd failed to return as anticipated days before, he'd fretted that 'Jim', as he called him, had fallen into one of his fits of stillness, in which he seemed totally unaware of his surroundings, and as unresponsive as a statue. Blair had thought these observations intriguing and was secretly delighted that he'd been assigned to Ellison, at least for now.
He found Captain Ellison to be a man of contradictions. He spoke like an educated, wealthy man, his accent of the north, perhaps Manhattan, but with tones of the Appalachian highlands like those acquired by explorers. His clothing was well made but plainer than that of most gentlemen, as if he had no interest in being a fashionable fop. He was direct, verging on arrogant in his manner and his way of giving orders, but he was also sensible, not bucking higher orders or insisting on his own way, so he wasn't particularly competitive or overbearing in petty ways. He'd been half dead when he'd arrived at the camp the night before and Blair had some sense of how much he'd been suffering from the rash that had gotten so bad that little pustules had erupted and been rubbed raw all over the man's body, yet he'd not complained. So, fiercely dedicated to his task, and to the General, and inclined to put his own needs behind those of his mission and larger priorities; a disciplined man, and a dedicated one. A man to be trusted, who was driven by commitment and integrity.
He was obviously a gentleman, as opposed to a warrior by nature and upbringing yet, in his way, a humble one - but he donned the warrior's role and manner as if it were a second skin, as if it were all he'd ever been. He wasn't an ordinary warrior, who fought by the side of comrades, drawing comfort and confidence from their collective numbers, but one who ranged out on his own, a scout checking the way forward, ensuring the safety of those who followed. Ellison looked to be in his late twenties, thirty maybe, whereas most of the recruits were only fifteen or sixteen ... or were well into their middle years. Blair suspected that, if his Captain were willing to take on a larger command responsibility, Washington would promote him to a much higher rank. But ... the Captain seemed happiest to be out on his own; so he wasn't a man, like some of their senior officers, who wanted power, privilege and influence as much, it sometimes seemed to Blair, as they wanted to win the war.
As the hours passed, Blair felt excitement build, a sense of anticipation and wonder growing in his chest and mind. Could it be? Could one such as he'd heard about with the Cherokee have grown to manhood within the embrace of a city? If so, how had he managed alone without the traditional support of a companion - or did he manage perfectly well? Those 'fits' the General described gave Blair pause and left him with a sense of anxiety about the Captain's vulnerability. Clearly, the General had no idea of what was happening in those long minutes, considering it an affliction like those that fell to the earth, convulsing and foaming at the mouth, confused once the fit had passed. But, apparently, while Ellison could be brought to his knees, as if in pain, by sudden sharp thunder, or the roar of cannon fire, he always shrugged off concern in minutes and seemed able to resume his normal peak level of functioning quickly. If Blair was right in his speculations - which were fast becoming certain conclusions - such episodes were far from being any kind of illness or mental aberration. Indeed, they were the hallmark of the guardians he'd heard tales about - guardians who needed companions to help them avoid such periods of still oblivion, bring them back when they occurred, and protect them while they were insensible.
He needed an opportunity to talk quietly with the Captain, to share his knowledge and his beliefs. But Ellison seemed a reticent man and, besides, they were fully occupied in seeking a route of retreat from the annihilation such a massive British force threatened. Quiet conversation in the near future seemed unlikely, even inappropriate. There simply wasn't time, given the greater need of the Continental Army to escape disaster. Still, when Ellison stopped to undertake what Blair was certain was a sensory scan of the world around them, he contrived to step closer and place a light hand on the other man's arm, to ground him with his sense of touch - a protective practice that he'd heard could stave off that odd tendency toward unnatural stillness. The first time he'd done so, Ellison had looked at him oddly, impatiently, but he'd explained that he was simply taking their brief respite from travel to examine the Captain's skin, to ensure he was healing well, and not in need of further ministrations. Jim's gaze had narrowed, but then he'd shrugged and turned his attention back to scanning their environment for threat.
When Blair judged from the direction of the shafts of light and the burden of heat upon them that the sun was reaching its zenith, his voice was nearly inaudible when he suggested a halt at the next stream they came to. He dug food from his pack - chunks of bread and cheese, and a small portion of what remained of his supply of wild turkey - and handed half to the Captain. "We need to keep our strength up," he remarked very quietly. Again Jim gave him that penetrating look of assessment, but he accepted the food with a nod and wolfed it down, so that they could continue on their way with little delay.
They couldn't have traveled for more than another hand-span of the sun's trip across the sky - the way most people without cumbersome clocks or expensive pocket watches gauged an hour of time - when Jim stopped dead, grabbed his arm and hauled him down into a tight crouch behind a hedge of thick wild blueberry bushes. Ellison lifted his index finger to his lips, a warning for absolute silence, and then his gaze slipped sideways as his head tilted. Gripping his arm, Blair could feel how tensely the man was concentrating to focus his ability to hear clearly. Then, again with a gesture to maintain absolute silence, Jim led him in a crouching lope to the west before again hunkering low to peer through the foliage and thickly growing tree trunks.
"The British," he whispered tightly into Blair's ear, and then motioned him to follow back the way they'd come. They ran a mile before Jim called a halt. "Thousands of British; must've circled around from behind us," he rasped, his expression harried. "They're creating a pincher movement, to trap our Army between them. There're too many. We'll be decimated, utterly destroyed."
Blair swallowed heavily, forcing away the fear the words spawned in his belly. "There must be something we can do," he whispered back. "The Army can't hold out forever even if they make it to Brooklyn Heights. We need to find a way off the island - and fast."
Jim stared at him, and then nodded soberly. "There may be a way," he grated urgently, pulling a ring that would have paid a King's ransom from his finger. "I want you to take this to the ferry dock west of here - there's a fishing village of maybe ten houses. Find a black man named Simon Banks. Tell him we need Colonel John Glover and his Marblehead Mariners to organize fishing boats, barges and rafts to urgently ferry the whole Army - men, horses, cannon - across the river. He'll need to send a messenger to Washington's Headquarters on Manhattan as quickly as possible. You'll find Simon on the dock loading barges for the farmers sending market goods into the city; he's a mountain of man, a few years older than I and he may be with another, older, black man, nearly as big, named Joel. Show Simon this ring and tell him I sent you, and that he's to get it to Colonel Glover - John will recognize it." Looking back the way they'd come, and then ahead where the Continental Army followed more slowly, miles back along the trail they'd forged, he shook his head. "I have to warn the General. We'll have to hold off the British for the rest of today and tomorrow - hopefully, John will organize our transport across the East River before the redcoats overrun us."
Turning his steely blue gaze upon Sandburg, he asked harshly, "Do you understand what you need to do? The importance of your task? The urgency?"
"Yes, sir, I do," he replied staunchly, slipping the ring into a leather pouch that hung from his belt.
"Then go; go as fast as you can. Whether or not the Continental Army survives is now in your hands."
Painfully conscious of the Captain's sense of urgency and impatience, Sandburg rummaged hurriedly in his backpack, drawing out two small, waxed-sealed ceramic bowls. Handing them to Jim, he instructed firmly, "The blue one is for your eyes - if the itch re-appears, rub a small amount on your eyelids. The plain one is for your skin - same thing. Use it when you notice the itch returning." Slipping his pack over his shoulder he said with solemn, solid, even reassuring confidence, "I'll meet you on the Heights later, sir, after dark - to confirm the completion of my mission." Blair hesitated a moment longer, his gaze searching the Captain's face, and then he blurted quickly, "And, uh, don't concentrate too long on just your hearing or ... or in looking at anything; or, if you do, do both at the same time."
With no more ado, he flipped the Captain a swift, brisk salute and then hared off to the west with a nimble, silent speed that impressed Ellison, his dark hair and leather clothing quickly merging with the shadows of the primordial forest. Briefly, his gaze narrowed in acute surprise at the last fast words, Jim watched him go, and then he set off in a steady run back toward his General and the ten thousand rag-tag town and countrymen who made up the core of the recently constituted Continental Army.
Blair slowed as he came to the small fishing village of a dozen or so clapboard cottages about ten miles north of Brooklyn Heights. Some of the buildings were meticulously maintained, gleaming with fresh white-wash, and made cheerful with flowers around their borders, while others were ramshackle and well-weathered, dreary-looking places. Four of the cottages stood separate from the others, and he assumed that Simon and others like him lived slightly apart from the white inhabitants. Moving onto the path that wound past the domiciles to the ferry landing beyond, he kept a watch for a large Negro and shortly spotted two such men laboring shirtless, their sweaty skin glistening like ebony in the heavy heat, loading bags of grain and baskets of produce bound for the city's markets onto a barge. Bearing Jim's instructions in mind, he approached the taller of the two big men and called out, "Simon Banks?"
The man straightened from the huge burlap sack he'd been about to lift to his shoulder. The gaze he fastened on Blair was astute and curious. Nodding, he asked, his voice a deep rumble, "And who might you be?"
"Corporal Blair Sandburg. Captain Ellison sent me to engage your help in mounting an evacuation of the Continental Army to the mainland. There are upwards of twenty-five thousand British redcoats and Hessians closing in on our forces, and we need to ensure the means of retreat tonight, or we'll be wiped out. Captain Ellison told me you'd help get word to Colonel John Glover, Commander of the Fourteenth Massachusetts Infantry, at the Army Headquarters on Manhattan," Blair reported in a fast flow of words that made the older man blink. Cautiously, with a glance over his shoulder to ensure no one else could see, he drew the ring from the small pouch on his belt. "Captain Ellison gave me this to confirm the urgency to the Colonel. He's gone to alert General Washington. The Army is falling back to Brooklyn Heights, where they'll hold off the enemy while they wait for relief."
Simon's eyes widened in astonishment, but he quickly straightened his shoulders and demanded, "How many men need to be moved across the river?"
"As many as ten thousand, not including the camp followers, along with supply wagons, horses and cannon," Blair told him. "Can you help us, sir?"
Amused by the honorific he'd never heard directed his way before, Banks smiled and nodded. "I'll do my best, young'un, er, Corporal." Raising his voice, he called sharply, "Joel - over here!"
Less than two minutes later, Simon and Joel took two skiffs, rowing them out toward the fishing boats on the river. Anxiously, Blair watched as they talked with the fishermen, and then the small boats hoisted their single sails and, catching the wind, moved off in different directions, one heading across the river, and the other moving with the current to the north. Simon and Joel then rowed to other little boats, and others still, until all had dispersed, moving up and down or across the mile-wide waterway. Only then did they return to shore.
Climbing out into water up to his knees, Simon hoisted the skiff well up onto the slanting, stony ground and then strode to where Blair waited. "Captain Ellison's message is on its way to Army Headquarters. Glover and his men might be playing at being infantry but his Marblehead Mariners are seamen through and through - and are the only ones who have a hope of pulling off this retreat. But even they can't do it alone. I've sent word up and down the river to fishermen who either support the revolution or just plain don't care much for the King an' all the men he sends over here needin' to be billeted and fed when there's scarce enough as it is; they'll soon report to Glover that they're able and ready to lend their boats and their skill to the effort."
Blair looked toward the Heights and tried to imagine the magnitude of the task before them. His gaze then raked the river. "Have you seen or heard anything about Admiral Howe and his warships?"
Grimly, the big man nodded. "I've heard tell that a mess of British gunboats, a hundred and thirty or more, are anchored at the mouth of the river." Shaking his head in begrudging awe at the size of an armada the like of which the world had never seen before, he added quietly, "Not sure why the Admiral is holding his forces back, but there're rumours that he's sympathetic to the colonists." Looking off upriver, he muttered, "Guess we'll soon know if the gossip has truth in it - but he can't risk being thought a traitor to his King. Nor will he abandon his brother to the fates."
Thunder rumbled in the distance and both men turned, listening intently as their gaze raked the sky, wondering if they'd heard an approaching storm or the deep-throated roar of cannon.
Glancing sideways at the older man, Sandburg asked tentatively, "You mind me asking how you know the Captain?"
"No, I don't mind you askin'," Simon replied with jovial irony, his expression enigmatic and his gaze distant as he studied the horizon, but a faint smile twitched the corners of his mouth. Blair wasn't sure if he was remembering the past fondly, or simply enjoying the right to keep his own counsel, of not having to reply simply because a white man had posed him a question. "Hope you don't mind if I don't say. Not right away, anyhow. Not 'til I know you a whole lot better'n I do now."
Blair's brows quirked with surprise, and then his eyes narrowed in thought. Nodding slowly, figuring the story maybe had something to do with slavery and aiding and abetting runaways - illegal to be a runaway, illegal to help one - he decided it was probably better if he didn't know the details. None of his business, really. Another distant rumble of thunder drew his gaze to the south and he scanned the clear sky with misgiving. Though the air was heavy and so hotly humid that his skin was slick with sweat and he could feel a storm, a big one, was coming, the far-off rumble had to be the sound of artillery.
Battle had been engaged.
"I need to make my way back to the Army," Blair stated solemnly, his steady voice masking the flutter of anxious fear he felt in his belly and the sudden dryness of his mouth as he contemplated running flat-out into the fiery, deadly maw of war. A sensible man would be running in the opposite direction. But, then, rarely had he ever been accused of being sensible. Besides, Captain Ellison would be waiting to hear that the message was being carried to Colonel Glover. Looking up at the man who loomed over him, he held out his hand. Banks quirked a brow but then grasped it, man to man. "Thank you for your help," Sandburg said simply as they briefly shook hands.
"I'll be along behind you, as soon as I've gotten word back from the Colonel, to tell the Captain the plan," Simon told him, warmth in his rich tones. "Keep your head down, son. I'll see you on the Heights."
Determined to hide his fear, Sandburg flashed a cocky grin as he turned away. Calling over his shoulder with a confidence he hoped would be prophetic, "I'll be there!" he broke into a ground-eating jog that swiftly took him back into the shadows of the forest, toward the thunder of the distant guns.
Flinching at the ear-shattering roar of artillery that belched flame and smoke with each blasted iron ball or mangle of deadly grape and chain, and the higher pitched cough and whine of bullets and shot from rifles and musketry, Jim crouched low to circle around the warring armies, intent upon reaching the flag that denoted the General's position on the field of battle. The Continental Army had turned to fight their enemy, and the formal battle lines were drawn up close together. The trained and experienced royals were pushing them back and back, and the patriots' only advantage was that they knew the land and could scramble for hollows or stands of timber as temporary, if inadequate, shields against the onslaught. The Patriots knew all too well that they were fighting a losing battle; they'd moved with all possible speed under fire, edging back toward the only safety that remained to them, high on the cliffs over the East River, behind fortified walls and their limited cannonry. The field was swirling with smoke, guttural screams of the wounded added to the chaos, and the air was thick with the smell of blood, gunpowder and the stench of fear. Overhead, unnoticed in the heat of battle, thick black clouds were gathering, and soon the crack and crash of real thunder rivaled the full-throated roar of the cannon.
Panting more from tension than exertion, Jim finally reached his commanding officer and called out over the chaotic noise that surrounded them. "General!" he cried urgently to get the older man's attention. When Washington whirled around at the sound of his voice, he hastened closer, reflexively ducking and pulling the General down as a cannon ball whined through the air, cutting dangerously close before exploding into the ground behind them, sending shrapnel flying in a deadly mist. Gripping Washington's shoulder, helping the man to stand, Jim reported bluntly, "There's a second column of at least eight to ten thousand redcoats moving toward us from the north. Howe's trying to catch us in a pincer, hoping to cut us off from retreat to the fortifications at Brooklyn Heights. They're not far behind me, sir."
"Damnation," Washington grunted, swallowing hard. No warrior, he felt nearly overwhelmed by the responsibility he carried on his shoulders. Why, he had half of the Continental Army with him on Long Island. If they were taken here, defeated, the revolution would be over before it had hardly begun. Though there was little choice left to him, he hesitated. He had to get as many of his men as he could to the relative security of the Heights, but running left a sour taste in his mouth. He'd waited weeks for this confrontation. His gaze narrowing against the heavy burn of smoke in the air, he looked over the field of battle and felt sick at how very many men were counting upon him to lead them to victory. He'd been a fool to lead them here, where they could be so easily surrounded and trapped. Closing his eyes briefly, he fervently hoped Divine Providence would smile upon them, or at least show mercy in sparing the lives of the gallant souls who followed him so bravely.
"I've sent word to Colonel Glover, sir," Jim told him, his voice tight with tension, as they retreated with the rest. "But John will need time to muster enough boats for an evacuation."
Washington turned to study him, his expression slipping from surprise to approval. "Good man," he said with warm approbation as he clapped Jim soundly on the shoulder. "If anyone can pull us out of the mouth of the British Lion, it's John Glover." His gaze again returning to the battlefield, he added, "But even his Mariners will need time to prepare. It's up to us to survive this day and night - and all of tomorrow as well, at least, as best we can."
"Yes, sir," Jim replied staunchly, though he swallowed hard at the prospect of holding off tens of thousands of skilled, well armed, well-supplied troops with men more used to plowing land, hunting for their tables or clerking in shops and offices in the city. They'd be lucky to not be massacred before the sun set on this desperate day.
Another cannonball whistled close overhead and again Jim tackled the General, pulling him out the line of fire and covering the older man's body with his own. The blast of the explosion shook the earth, and Jim felt molten fire sizzle through the flesh high on his left arm. His gut revolted and darkness swirled as the agony flashed scarlet behind his eyes. Desperately, gritting his teeth, locking his jaw, he fought off unconsciousness and shakily rolled off the General, onto his knees. Damnation, it hurt, hurt bad. Panting for breath, he fumbled for a handkerchief and worked it around his arm over the growing crimson stain. Washington, seeing he'd been injured, hastened to help him tie off the improvised dressing.
"I'll have someone help you to the surgeon's tent on the Heights," the General told him, his voice deep with concern.
But Jim thought of that bloody arena, more like an abattoir to his mind, than any kind of place of healing. "No," he rasped, shaking his head. "It's nothing. I'll be fine." He eased his left hand into his jacket above the last button to support his injured arm and focused on slowing his breathing. He'd just have to abide the pain.
Calling his aides close, Washington sent out immediate orders to retreat with all dispatch back to the fortified town. But, as he knew all too well, it was only a stopgap measure that would buy them little time. He didn't have the armament to last out a long siege. But, just then, the second British onslaught roared onto the field from the side, attacking with stunning, shocking surprise. It was too much for the untrained, ragtag army of volunteers and their lines broke as they panicked and ran. The aborted battle was a devastating introduction to the business of war, an experience that showed all on the field how unequal the colonials were to the challenge of facing the full might of the most powerful military force on the face of the earth.
Later, when they were safe behind the barricades, panting with exertion and terror, most of the men were heartily ashamed to have given way with pathetic cowardice rather than having waged a fighting retreat; disgusted that they had turned tail to run for their lives back to the fortified walls of Brooklyn Heights. Despair mingled with their still quaking fear as word drifted across the questionable safe ground beyond the pickets and fortifications, whispered despondently by some, shouted in rage by others. Rumours spread that Lord Stirling and two hundred and fifty of his top Maryland troops - who had staged a noble, if doomed, effort to hold back the British tide to give the remainder of his regiments time to escape through the swamp - had all been lost.
More than nine thousand men crowded into the town behind the walls. The civilians scurried for cover, the Loyalists amongst them cursing Patriot stupidity in bringing the threat of British reprisal upon them all. The soldiers hunkered down, expecting to have to fight the redcoats in the fields around the town and in the streets, certain their limited cannon could never stop a concerted attack by so many thousands of men ... for another ten thousand at least had appeared from the north. The ground below the Heights was thickly blanketed as far as the eye could see with red serge of the British troops, and the blue of the mercenaries who sported tall bronze helmets, and looked both foreign and frightening.
As Washington stared out over the ramparts at the massive army below, he shook his head. His men had broken and run, had lost faith in themselves. They had no hope now of triumphing over the British Army and the terrifyingly violent Hessian mercenaries that were intent upon suppressing them - even annihilating them, if necessary. When he thought of the British armada at his back, he had to repress a shudder. Was it all to end so soon? So ingloriously? Was this all a folly of pride that could not be sustained?
Expecting his force to be swiftly annihilated, Washington could scarcely believe his adversary paused to draw up cannon and to set his men to digging trenches. Apparently, Howe planned to lay siege rather than fight a costly battle through narrow, winding streets where the advantage of his numbers would be lost. His lips thinning, Washington nodded thoughtfully to himself. Made sense of a sort; Howe was no doubt hoping he would waste what little ammunition he had in his supplies, so that his force could be easily over-run on the morrow or, at the latest, the day after. Rubbing his mouth, he considered his options, none of which left him feeling hopeful, especially when he wondered where the British fleet was and when the massive gunboats would be at his back. Still, they needed to conserve their ammunition and supplies. The war was just beginning; if he and his men could survive this siege and somehow escape, he'd need ammunition to keep fighting. So, he sent out orders to hold fire until the enemy showed signs of attacking in force, and he posted snipers on the walls, to watch for any sneak attacks as the day darkened under the gathering storm.
Lightning flickered within the high bank of clouds overhead, setting off distant, threatening rumbles, and the wind was picking up, though the air remained scorchingly hot. Sandburg threaded through the forest, increasingly cautious and wary as the sounds of battle grew louder, fiercer. When he finally reached the end of the wild growth, his heart plummeted when he saw the British digging trenches between him and the fortified heights. He'd never make it across the open land. Retreating back into the shadows, he made his way to the cliffs and gingerly climbed down to follow narrow ledges, often little more than hand- or toe-holds, as he edged his way to the city walls over the river. He trembled, nearly paralyzed more than once by his abiding fear of heights but, whenever his gorge rose in his throat and he closed his eyes against treacherous dizziness, he imagined Captain Ellison waiting for him, watching, wondering what was taking him so long to report back, and he forced himself to seek another handhold, to keep moving precariously along the rock-face. Finally, finally, breathing hard, his heart pounding, he reached the tar-coated lane that ramped steeply up from the ferry dock below and scrambled quickly to the gate. Pounding on it, demanding entry, for the first time he was glad of the disparaging attention he'd received from the troops. He heard a lookout call mockingly that it was only the Medicine Man, the General's favourite, and to let him inside.
Nodding at the guard as he slipped past, he demanded to know the whereabouts of the General and was directed to the house where Washington had set up temporary headquarters. The privates on guard duty outside the entrance to the sturdy, two-story stone house also recognized him. Grudgingly, they stood aside to allow him entry, their lips thinning with aversion, whether for his Jewishness or his Indian garb he neither knew nor much cared. Inside, he followed the sound of voices to the parlor, where Washington was grimly receiving reports on the day's losses. Standing quietly in the entryway, he scanned the room and was relieved to see Captain Ellison in one corner, his face a flat, somber mask, though lines around his eyes and mouth betrayed him. To Sandburg, the older man looked as if he were in pain. Worried, he scanned the Captain's body, and quickly noted the bloodstained bandage binding a wound on his left tricep. Not wanting to intrude on the briefings taking place, eager to test one of his theories, he whispered very softly, "Captain Ellison?"
Immediately, Ellison's head lifted and steely blue eyes found his own. He jerked his head back at the hallway behind him and, nodding his understanding, the Captain quickly made his way around the periphery of the large room to join him in the corridor.
"What are our losses?" Blair asked, trepidation dark in his eyes.
Jim's voice was dry and harsh as he replied bitterly, "Dead, wounded, and captured? At least two thousand men - ten percent of our entire army."
Closing his eyes, Blair bowed his head. "Oh no," he murmured with genuine sorrow for those who had fallen and for the plight of the captured. Destined for British prison ships, their lot would be grim, if they even survived. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he lifted his gaze to Jim's. "Word has gone to Colonel Glover. And urgent requests for assistance have been sent up and down the river to fishermen and merchant men who may be inclined to render assistance."
Relieved, Jim leaned wearily against the wall behind him. "Good. John and his Mariners are our only hope," he rasped.
Eying the bloodied bandage, Sandburg asked, "How bad's your wound?"
Jim shrugged and looked away, but the slight movement brought a grimace of pain that spasmed and was quickly repressed. "It's fine," he muttered, then pushed away from the wall. "We have to advise the General that we need to develop plans for a swift, silent retreat." Pausing, he demanded, "What of the gunboats?"
"Last I heard, Admiral Howe was holding in the mouth of the river," Blair reported.
Jim frowned at that. It didn't make sense that the British hadn't pressed their advantage to crush them decisively and quickly. Earlier in the day, another British leader, Major General James Grant, had been slow to press his advantage, a hesitation that proved a godsend in terms of allowing the vast majority of the Patriot forces to reach the sanctuary of their fortifications. Even Howe was fighting cautiously, traditionally, out there digging trenches rather than simply sweeping over them. The timid use of overwhelming power was ... puzzling, as was the clear reliance on mercenaries, Hessians from Europe, when the British forces alone would have been more than sufficient to quell such a pathetically poorly armed and trained mob of rebels.
Pondering the odd, apparent reluctance to simply smash them into submission, Jim found himself reflecting on the British perspective on this war for independence. But he shrugged off his ruminations. There was no time at the moment for such luxury of philosophical meanderings. Resolutely, he strode back into the improvised war room and, when he caught the General's attention, he reported that Colonel Glover would, by now, be aware of their situation and be plotting a means to retrieve them.
An austere smile flickered over Washington's lips at the receipt of the first positive news of an otherwise devastating day. "Then we must make ready for him," he said stoutly. "But we must do it quietly, so that the British do not suspect our intent to slip out of their grasp, nor do we want to alert any Loyalists who might betray our plan. And we must still fend the enemy off if they decide to charge on the morrow."
A booming clap of thunder rattled the china on the buffet against the back wall, and Jim flinched, biting back a groan at the searing, sharp pain that drove like daggers through his ears into his skull. He swayed dizzily and Blair hastily reached out to steady him. "Permission to see to the Captain's wound," he said to the General and, receiving a nod and a wave of dismissal, he half-hauled a reluctant Ellison from the room.
"With all due respect, sir," he muttered fiercely, "there's a time and place to play hero - and this isn't it. You don't want to risk that wound festering."
Jim stiffened with instinctive ire at the rough, dictatorial tone, but the fierce glow in the dark blue eyes that were leveled at him stayed his tongue. The Corporal was right and he was being foolishly stubborn. In war, one needed to take advantage of unexpected respites to renew strength - to be able to fight again when the demand arose. Resistance bled from his muscles and he allowed Sandburg to pull him along the hallway and up the narrow, wooden staircase to the upper level. In one of the bedrooms, Blair found a pitcher filled with tepid water and a basin. Sandburg gave him a light push toward an elegantly brocaded chair, then dug in his knapsack for the supplies he needed, drawing out a handful of clean linen rags and several pouches of herbs.
Quickly, Blair soaked off the dirty bandage, minimizing the pull of cloth stuck by dried blood upon torn flesh. As he worked, he was pleased to see that all the puffiness was gone from Ellison's eyes, and the rash was so muted, it had all but disappeared. Noting the Captain's taut muscles and the rigid line of his jaw as he fought the pain of having his wounded arm handled, however gently, Sandburg frowned as he quickly but carefully cleaned the flesh wounds. Ugly deep gashes made by flying shrapnel cut through skin and muscle on the outside of his upper arm, but at least none had lodged in the wounds. "Do wounds or injuries normally pain you this much?" he asked softly, his gaze hooded as he concentrated on powdering the injury with herbs that would fight off infection before wrapping it again tightly with a clean rag.
The silence stretched between them until Blair wondered if he was going to get an answer. But, finally, Jim sighed heavily and then grated through gritted teeth. "No. But sometimes, it's like liquid fire. I can't explain why some are worse than others."
Hunkered down beside him, Blair finished tying off the fresh dressing before looking up. "I think I may have an idea about that, if you're interested," he offered carefully, uncertain of the Captain's reaction to ideas foreign to his culture.
"Do you now?" Jim grunted skeptically as he delicately fingered the bandage.
"Yes," Blair affirmed as he stood and washed his hands in the basin and dried them on a towel before returning his unused supplies to his pack. Avoiding Jim's eyes, he continued, "The Cherokee have legends about guardians, sometimes called sentinels, who had enhanced senses." In the silence that met his comment, he rolled up his clean rags and stuffed them into his bag and then carefully pulled the leather thongs on the pouches of his herbs before slipping them inside. "These guardians or sentinels could see farther, hear more clearly, smell and taste and touch with greater sensitivity than ordinary men or women. They watched for the approach of enemies, sought out game trails, were aware of changes in weather patterns before anyone else." Flicking a glance at Ellison, encouraged by the perplexed, thoughtful look on the older man's face, he said, "I watched you last night and today. And I've heard what the General and others say about you, that you can see like an eagle and hear like a fox - track like a wolfhound. I think ... I think you have senses that are more finely developed than the rest of us. And ... and," he continued, quickly now, "and I think sometimes you get lost or something in one sense or another, so that you're unaware of what's happening around you. I mean, I've heard that you have 'episodes' ...."
His voice trailed off when Ellison glared at him. "I'm not an Indian," he stated flatly.
"That's not the point," Blair countered. "In my own culture, there are similar stories of watchmen descended from the Gods, or God, I guess - angels, maybe, who mated with mortals, so their greater powers were, uh, passed along in their bloodlines." He shrugged and then asked pointedly, "You got a better explanation?"
Jim's lips thinned and he looked away. But he shook his head. "No," he muttered, sounding angry. "I don't."
Encouraged, marginally, as Ellison seemed only barely interested, Blair carried on determinedly. "I, uh, I was really interested in the stories and I kinda hounded the shaman to tell me more. Anyway, he said that these senses could be controlled, but the sentinel needed help - a ... a companion or comrade who watched his back, especially when he, well, or she, for that matter, as sometimes women were also born with these greater senses - anyway, when the sentinel was focusing on one sense in particular, to ensure they didn't get lost in it, or ambushed while vulnerable."
Frowning heavily, his tone reluctant, Jim echoed, "Controlled? How were the senses controlled? Mine ..." his voice faded, as if he found the confession difficult, but he rallied and went on, "mine are unpredictable. And ... and sometimes they're ... sometimes I hate them."
Blair rubbed his mouth and then moved across the room to again hunker down by Jim's side. "Maybe I could help you," he offered. "For example, you say the wound sears like fire, right?" When Jim nodded, he was encouraged to go on. "Okay, well, then, close your eyes and imagine pouring cold water on the flames, dousing them."
Ellison snorted and rolled his eyes.
"Hey, what can it hurt to try?" Sandburg cajoled. "C'mon. Lean back and close your eyes. Take a few deep slow breaths and then imagine drawing a cup of water from an icy river." Jim grimaced but complied, his shoulders and head leaning into the support of the high-backed padded chair. After a moment of quiet breathing, Blair touched his hand lightly and asked softly, "Can you picture the cup, the river? Filling it with icy cold water?"
"Yeah," Jim rasped with a bare nod.
"Good, that's good," Blair encouraged. "Now, imagine pouring a cupful of water over the fire in your arm, slowly, feeling the cold relief of it, feeling the heat of the fire lessen ...."
Only moments later, Jim's mouth gaped open as he blinked and stared disbelievingly at Blair. "It worked," he said, as if he wasn't sure he could trust what had just happened. "Why? How?"
"The mind is very powerful, Captain," Blair replied with a small smile. "We underestimate it, I think. Don't understand it very well. And we tend to ignore what isn't solid, concrete, what we can't see or touch. But I've seen shaman do some incredible things with the force of their minds. If you're, uh, willing to let me try, I think I can help with your other senses, too. Help you focus them, learn how to use them, instead of being used by them."
"What are you?" Ellison challenged then, drawing away instinctively. "Some kind of savage witchdoctor?"
Sandburg's expression flattened as he abruptly stood to cross the room and lean his back on the closed door. Crossing his arms defensively, he said hoarsely, "Now 'savage' isn't exactly polite, is it, sir? Especially when I'm doing my best to help you. And the word 'witch' has a bad connotation in our society. I'd really prefer if you didn't use it. This isn't black magic or anything evil. Just a ... a different form of logic." When Ellison continued to stare at him warily, he held out his hands. "C'mon, Captain. Your senses are natural, right? You were born with them. They're not some curse! So, if they're natural, it only makes sense that you can find ways to control them, use them effectively. You, uh, you already do that a lot as it is - going out to scout because you know you can see and hear better than most everyone else!"
When Jim's gaze dropped away and he seemed to tighten up, Sandburg asked with a note of understanding incredulity, "You don't think you're some kind of warlock, do you? Or that this really is a curse?" When Jim flinched, Blair strode across the room to drop to one knee beside him, instinctively reaching out to grip his wrist reassuringly. "Trust me, Captain. You're not cursed and you're not a witch. Your senses are natural, a gift." More forcefully, he added compellingly, "And we need your gift right now. We need every advantage we've got to try to win our freedom from the British. You give us an edge, Jim, er, Captain. A unique, incredibly valuable edge. Without you, the British would have overrun us and this rebellion would already be over. You know that's true!"
A muscle rippled along Jim's pale, stubbled jaw, and then he slowly lifted his gaze to meet Blair's eyes. "You really believe that, don't you? And you believe you can help me?"
"Yeah, I do, if you'll let me," he replied with naked solemnity.
Swallowing hard, Jim asked huskily, "How?"
Giving him a crooked smile, Sandburg stood and scratched his cheek. "Well, first, we need to get a handle on the strength of your senses, so we can figure out what your limits are. And then we need to figure out mental exercises, like the cup of icy water, to modify them, pull them back when the input is too much - like when you flinch at loud noises, like the crack of thunder. We need to muffle your hearing to protect your ears from too much or too sudden loud noise."
"Like tying a blanket over my head," Jim muttered disgustedly.
"Not literally, but, yeah, symbolically, maybe," Blair agreed. "I know it sounds weird, but I think we can work this out, if we try."
Jim rubbed a hand over his mouth and then sighed heavily before nodding reluctantly. "Alright," he allowed, in the tones of man who feels cornered and has little choice. "Let's try."
"Thank you," Blair replied with earnest humility. "I'll do my best, you know? To help you. To not let you down."
Studying him thoughtfully, Jim asked, "Why? Why are you so keen to help me?"
Sitting back on his haunches, his expression utterly candid, Blair replied, "Because you're special, sir. Because it's an honour to help you as much as I can." He hesitated and then added soberly, "And because your skills might make a serious, invaluable difference between winning and losing this war."
Quirking a brow, Jim chewed on his lip as his gaze shifted away, and he looked profoundly unconvinced. Blair couldn't help but read the bleak expression of uncertainty, even doubt. "We'll take it a day at a time," he encouraged. "Every minute we have free to work on this, we will. I think you'll be surprised at how fast you'll learn to use your senses so that you can rely on them and not just be plagued by them."
"I hope so, Corporal," Jim replied distantly. "I really hope you're right."
Eying him, Blair shook his head. "You're exhausted. You had hardly any sleep last night and just about none for several nights before that. And your rash is starting to look angry again." Taking the liberty of rifling in the pouch on Ellison's belt, he ignored the other man's instinctive tendency to pull away, and drew out the small pots of medicine he'd given the Captain earlier that afternoon. Opening them, he dabbed lotion on his fingertips and reached to matter-of-factly lightly coat Jim's eyelids. And then he said, "Let's get your shirt and breeches off so I can treat your skin."
Ellison began to object, but Blair overrode him. "We have the time now - there's a lull in the fighting. We need to take advantage of it."
Huffing a sigh, Jim nodded and began to undo the fastenings of his vest, and then of his shirt. Blair eased off his jacket and then the other layers, and helped him shuck his breeches. His touch as impersonal as a surgeon's, he quickly dabbed the herbal unguent on areas of inflamed skin, and then assisted Jim back into his clothing. Glancing at the bed, he suggested, "You might want to get a bit of sleep while you can. I'll go back downstairs to see what's happening, and I'll come get you if the General needs you."
Too weary to pretend he wasn't aching with exhaustion to a man who wasn't shy about calling him on his stubbornness, beginning to realize that Sandburg seemed, somehow, to see past all his defences, he succumbed to the encouragement and allowed the Corporal to help him to the bed, and to ease down on it.
"Make sure you come for me immediately, if the need arises," he muttered with the ill humour of a man who resented his own weakness.
"I promise," Blair vowed. "Rest, Captain," he urged, his voice seeming to fade into the distance. "Sleep if you can."
Jim grunted a final protest of resistance, but he closed his eyes - and was asleep before he drew another breath.
Blair watched him briefly, a fond smile gracing his lips as he lifted the blanket from the far side of the bed and tenderly draped it over his guardian, his sentinel. And then he quietly padded out of the room, drawing the door closed behind him. Hurrying down the steps, he wondered if he'd have to encourage the General to also take some much-needed rest. Shaking his head bemusedly, he reflected on the fact that the very strength of these extraordinary men was also their weakness. They never seemed to know when to let go, if only momentarily, to replenish their strength for the battles to come. But then he thought that it was probably because, as wealthy gentlemen of the colonies, they'd not fought many real battles before, life and death battles, and didn't know how to shepherd their energy. Well, he sighed, to himself as he crossed the hall and slipped into the war room, they'd learn. They'd have to learn or they wouldn't survive.
The wind picked up after sunset and, though the stone house was sturdy, the shutters rattled and slammed and the rush of air howled eerily like a chorus of banshees, but still the rain did not come. The townspeople huddled in their homes, fearful of what the dawn would bring when the armed might of the British rushed the fortifications and wreaked their wrath upon the upstart colonials. Some, loyal to the King, cursed the foolhardiness of the Continental Congress and despised the insurgents; others, sympathetic to the revolution prayed that their boys would somehow be saved to fight for their collective freedom and futures. Tents were pitched on every available spot of land and in the common; soldiers huddled against buildings along the streets and alleys, nervously gripping their weapons with white-knuckled anxiety, only able to dowse fitfully, if they were able to sleep at all. Sentries patrolled the walls, staring past the pickets and the men crouched behind as the first line of defence, into the darkness, frightened that the heavy clouds that blocked all light from moon and stars would shield the approach of the enemy. Blinking against the grit flung into their eyes by the wild, hot wind, they muttered curses and imagined that they understood what it was like to be blind. And the howl of the damned wind left them deaf as well, leaving them with no hope of hearing the scrape of boots on stone or the jangle of chain, or the stamp of horses' hooves.
Officers roamed the town and the heights, reassuring their men as best they could, doing their best to hide their own fear, alert, even jovial, in spare moments, to lighten the tension that consumed the soldiers, wearing at their morale, sapping their energy and hope. Men sweated in the relentless, thick heat of the night and scratched mosquito bites with absentminded irritation and gut-twisting anxiety. No one amongst them could be certain they'd still be breathing when the next night fell. But despite their fear, their near hopeless belief that they were trapped on the heights with no escape, their terrible certainty that they could not repulse the overwhelming numbers against them, none whined or bitched about their plight. Though many gripped a token from a wife or mother or sweetheart, a scrap of ribbon or a pewter heart, they didn't speak of the homes they'd left behind and might never again see. The clowns amongst them cracked jokes, albeit nervously. Some hummed or sang softly, scarcely more than a whisper of sound but comforting to those around them. Others felt fury at their own inadequacy to meet the challenge, and such rage they could barely speak, borne of fear for their comrades, brothers and friends, who had been overtaken by the British, not knowing if they were alive or dead, not sure which would be worse, for to be taken captive and sent to the prison ships was a fate to be feared more than death.
So they were committed, when the time came, to fight with all they had to the last breath, taking as many redcoats and savage Hessians as they could to hell with them.
The wind grew ever more frenzied as the dark hours wore on, their passing marked only by the low tolling of a church bell somewhere near the centre of town. Lightning flickered in the banked clouds above, the brightness blinding after the unrelenting dark. Thunder rumbled threateningly, and then - just after the twelve hollow clongs marking the midnight hour and the start of the twenty-eighth day of August - a massive streak of lightning split the sky and the air cracked with a heart-stopping bang as the storm finally broke. Rain fell upon them as if the rivers of heaven had opened to cascade in a solid wall of water upon the earth.
In an effort to keep dry, soldiers scrambled to stuff their powder horns into their shirts and to arrange makeshift canvas shelters with their bedrolls but, in seconds, they were drenched to the skin. The torrents of rain were bitterly icy after the stifling heat of the day and evening, so they huddled miserably, shivering and teeth chattering, bent over their muskets and rifles, wondering if their lot in life could ever get worse and desperately afraid it could. Cobblestones became slick and slippery underfoot and then the shallow ditches filled, becoming roiling, rushing streams around their feet and ankles. Earthen alleys turned into morasses of mud and refuse.
The citizenry that supported the Continental Army and the dream of freedom from the whims of King George and a distant Parliament, stoked their stoves and boiled water and herbs for tea, carrying mugs and blankets out to the men closest to their homes, bringing some measure of relief and comfort.
The bell tolled again and again as the hours dragged past, edging toward dawn. But the storm didn't let up. The pelting rain stung their faces, washing away sweat and the grime of living off the land, leaving them blue with cold. Lightning flared through the night and the thunder rolled almost continuously, deafening in its fury. They envied the British camped below, snug in their tents, sleeping with no worries about sodden gunpowder. Grimly, they awaited the morn and the battle to come; some smiled like wolves as they imagined the redcoats having to slog through the mud up to the Heights, exhausting themselves before they ever stormed the barricades. Cold and wet they might be, but they would be fighting on their home ground, battling for their families, for a better life, not simply for the monthly stipend of the professional soldier. They might die, but it would be for something they fiercely believed in. They wondered what the redcoats and their Hessian mercenary comrades believed in. Wondered why they'd come across the sea to fight and kill men who only wanted to be free.
Given leave by the General to retire hours before, Blair had scavenged bread, cold meat, cheese and ale from the kitchen before returning to the room he'd appropriated for Captain Ellison. He left the tray of food on the bureau and, exhausted, had shaken open his bedroll onto the floor next to the bed. Stretching out upon it, he was asleep almost immediately, and not even the wail of the wind or the banging of shutters had been enough to rouse either man in the first hours of darkness.
But a resounding sharp crack of thunder that sounded as if the house was splitting in two woke them both, shocking them into rising before they were even fully alert, each reaching for his weapon, thinking the battle had recommenced. But the flaring lightning, the rattle of rain on the roof and the next deep rumble of thunder released their tension; both shrugged to loosen shoulders, a bit embarrassed to have been off-balance and unaware when they'd first wakened.
Blair heard the tramp of feet in the hallway and on the stairs, and muffled voices. Another flash of lightning allowed him to see Ellison and he noted the other man had his head cocked, listening even as he flinched against the next explosive crash of thunder.
"Easy, sir," he cautioned softly. "You'll blow out your ears if you try to hear past this racket." Moving across the room, he drew flint from his pocket and struck a spark to light the lantern on the table under the window. "After I've checked your dressing, there's food, and ale, if you're hungry," he added, gesturing at the tray across the spacious chamber.
Jim scraped a hand over his face and nodded, but another clap of thunder directly overhead had him doubled over in obvious agony on the side of the bed, his hands pressed over his ears. Blair hastened to him, and dropped to one knee beside him. Instinctively, he reached out to lightly grip Ellison's arm reassuringly. "Dampen your hearing," he insisted urgently, though he kept his voice low and mellow, careful not to add to the man's torment.
His eyes pressed closed, humiliated by his weakness, angered by it, Jim grated harshly, "How, dammit!"
At a loss, Blair gaped at him, and then his gaze darted around the room in search of inspiration. "Like a lantern," he said, focusing on the flame he'd just lit. "Picture the lantern, the wick - imagine the noise is the flame, burning too high and too hot." He waited a beat, his eyes again upon Jim, and he frowned at the impatience on Ellison's face. "Trust me. Picture the flame, the lantern. You can do this. You can turn it down, until it's just barely glowing and ... and as you turn it down, your ... your hearing will be less sharp, will become muffled, so the noise doesn't hurt."
Another blast of thunder rumbled over the house and Jim flinched, curled tighter as if trying to crawl into himself. Desperate, he pictured the flame, the wick, imagined himself turning it down, lower and lower, and then he panted with relief. Blinking his eyes open, astonishment written on his features, he focused on Sandburg crouched by his side. "It worked," he murmured in amazement - having decided the earlier reduction of pain in his shoulder had been a fluke - and then he smiled with unconscious joy at what seemed to him to be a miracle of sorts. "It worked!"
Smiling in return, infinitely glad that his hastily conceived idea had proven effective, Blair patted his arm and then stood to move away a pace. "Good," he said simply. "You did real good, sir." Swiftly, he checked Jim's wounds and, satisfied that they appeared clean with no trace of infection, he re-bandaged the arm. Again, he gestured at the food he'd brought. "Now - you feel like having something to eat?"
"Yeah," Jim agreed, his gaze flickering over the younger man, an expression of gratitude lighting his eyes at the unexpected solicitude. "Yeah, I'm starving." He rose and broke open a roll, stuffing it with a slab of beef and cheese. "What about you? Aren't you hungry?" he asked, gesturing to the laden plate that held more sustenance than he needed.
"Yes, sir, thank you," Blair replied eagerly, as he moved to stand beside the Captain and helped himself to the simple meal. He poured the pitcher of ale into two mugs, and for the next few minutes they ate and drank in quiet contentment.
While they ate, Jim studied the younger man, his expression thoughtful, and Blair tried to pretend he didn't notice the scrutiny. But all the same, he was inordinately pleased to note that the distant wariness in the older man's eyes had given way to speculation and tentative warmth. And there was a slight, bemused smile on the Captain's lips that suggested the man wasn't entirely sure why Blair was thanking him for being offered food that Sandburg had provided, or giving him all the credit for having been able to gain some mastery over his mysterious and aggravating sense of hearing. For all his probable wealth, he seemed a humble man, unused and unwilling to take credit he'd not earned.
When the laden plate held little more than crumbs and the last of the ale was in their mugs, aware that Jim was only using his right arm, Blair asked solicitously, "How's the wound, sir?"
The warmth in Jim's eyes flattened as he turned away and grunted, "It's fine."
"Meaning it's hurting like the blazes again, right?" Sandburg challenged with a light, matter-of-fact tone.
Cool blue eyes flashed and the chiseled jaw tightened stubbornly, but then Jim relented and nodded. "Yeah, exactly," he admitted ruefully.
"Maybe you need to pour some cool water from that imaginary cup over your arm to ease the heat of the pain," Sandburg suggested with a slight, uncertain grin.
Nodding, Jim bowed his head and closed his eyes - and Blair could see his taut shoulders visibly relax as the pain of the wound eased. His grin widened and he murmured with undisguised admiration, "You're a wonder, sir. How quickly you've gotten the hang of it. You'll be marshalling your senses to your will in no time at all!"
Again Ellison swept him with an enigmatic look, but simply shrugged and moved to the window to look out at the sheets of rain that lashed the thick glass. "I need to get out there," he muttered. "Walk the walls; make sure the men are managing in this muck."
Sandburg straightened the counterpane of the bed and gathered up their gear while Jim drew on his vest, coat and tri-cornered hat. He handed the Captain his weapon and slung his own musket over his shoulder after he stacked the bedrolls in the corner. Jim noted his swift economy of motion and evident readiness to go along and seemed about to protest that his attendance wasn't required, but then he just nodded to himself and led the way out of the room.
They clomped down the stairs and Jim advised the guard outside the war room that he was going to do a circuit of the town, in case the General wondered where he was, and they'd be back in an hour or so. The soldier nodded, and they strode across the foyer and out the solid door into the full blast of wind and rain. Their shoulders hunched reflexively and their heads bowed under the onslaught as they turned toward the fortified walls. But they'd only gone a few steps when they were hailed from behind.
"Captain Ellison, sir!" a soldier called as he jogged through puddles and nearly slipped on the cobblestones in his haste to reach them. "There's a big Negro asking for you at the gate to the ferry road. Says his name is Simon, and that you're expecting him and the other one with him, sir."
"As I surely am, private," Jim called back. "Thank you." With a slap of approval on the man's shoulder, he broke into a fast jog, Blair dogging his heels, along the lane and around the corner into the wider street that led down to the river.
In minutes, they'd reached the double-sided, wide wooden gate that was barred for the night. A smaller door was cut into the wall, and Jim hailed the sentry standing watch. "Let Simon and his companion inside!"
"Aye, sir," the man acknowledged with a sketchy salute before shoving the door open against the muddy track beyond, and two large men as black as the night hurried past him into the fortified town.
"Simon, Joel, I am glad to see you," Jim welcomed his old friends. "The two of you look like very large drowned rats!"
Smiling crookedly, Banks chuckled. "Can't say as you and the young'un look a long sight drier," he rumbled as he swept rain from his face.
"You've heard from Colonel Glover?" Jim pressed, eager for some good news.
"Uh huh," Simon grunted in reply, sobering as he straightened.
Jim gestured them away from the gate, and led them some distance away so that they could talk without being overheard. "He's coming?" he asked but, sure of the answer, demanded, "When?"
"He'll have his forces in order, including the volunteer fishermen who are lending their boats, and the bargemen, by midday on the twenty-ninth," Simon reported, keeping his voice low as the five men crowded close together. "Providing the British gunboats don't block the river," he added starkly.
His head bowed, Jim chewed on his lip and nodded. "Almost two full days from now," he murmured, more to himself than the others. Looking up and around at the town, his expression guarded, he nodded again. "Come on. We need to tell the General - and you men need to get some good hot tea into you, to warm you up."
"Tea?" Joel echoed, a comically plaintive note in his voice. "Some ale wouldn't go amiss."
Smiling then, Ellison winked. "Then ale it is. You've brought good news and deserve a suitable reward for your labours."
Together, they turned and strode swiftly through the heavy rain, back along the street through the town, their boots splashing through muddy puddles.
Trailing at the rear of their little parade, Blair reflected upon the easiness between Captain Ellison and the others. Friendship between whites and blacks wasn't completely unheard of, but nor was it at all common. Once again, his curiousity was aroused and he wondered at the history these men shared; wondered, as well, if they'd ever trust him enough to share the details, or widen their circle to include him.
Once back at the house, dripping wet so that puddles gathered at their feet on the flagstone floor, Jim sought and was granted immediate entry to the General's presence. Inside the room, they found a fire burning brightly in the grate and candles and lanterns chasing the shadows into corners. Washington sat behind a desk, his shirtsleeves rolled up and, absent the wig, his fine hair in disarray, as if, like Jim and Blair, he'd only recently risen from his bed. He looked up from notes he was making as they entered, his high-browed aristocratic face lined with fatigue.
"Sir," Jim began with crisp brevity, "I wish to present to you Simon Banks and Joel Taggart, old and very good friends I'd recommend to you. They've brought word that Colonel Glover will be ready to ferry the Army across the East River the afternoon of the twenty-ninth. His Marblehead Mariners will be supported by volunteer fishermen and bargemen from along the river."
Warmth glinted in the General's intelligent eyes as he wordlessly acknowledged the messengers with an austere, slight nod. "Well, then," he replied, his voice firm, "we'll have to hold off General Howe and his forces until he can get here." His gaze lifted into the distance, and he thoughtfully rubbed his chin. "And we'll need to prepare, to be ready to move expeditiously when the time comes, but without giving the game away." Returning his sharp gaze to Simon, he demanded, "He'll be prepared to take us all - and our horses, cannon, wagons and supplies?"
"That's the plan, sir," Simon replied with formal dignity. Swallowing, he felt compelled to add, "Though Admiral Howe might have something to say about it. General Howe, too, for that matter."
"Yes, yes, you're quite right," Washington allowed, a frown furrowing his brow. "Is the Admiral still anchoring his armada in the mouth of the river?"
"So far as we know," Banks confirmed soberly. "And with the wind the way it is, they'll not be moving this night at least."
Again Washington nodded thoughtfully. The East was a narrow, relatively shallow, fast-moving river and the wind whipped up dangerous currents and waves that could soon dash heavy ships under sail against the rocks or ground them on treacherous sandbars. "Go, dry yourselves off, get some nourishment and rest," he directed. "We're safe enough from the enemy so long as this storm lasts." As they turned toward the door, he added meaningfully, "And hope that this storm lasts for the next two days." When they nodded in solemn agreement, he smiled. "Thank you, gentlemen," he said with rare warm courtesy from an aristocrat toward men of their colour, "for alerting Colonel Glover to our need, and for bringing word of his plans to us. When we leave this island, if you wish to accompany us, I'd be glad to offer you transport."
"Thank you, sir," Simon replied gratefully on behalf of himself and Joel. "We'd sure appreciate a ride across the river." Looking away, he hesitated, then faced the General squarely as he added, "I'm sure you know the British are offering freedom to any slaves that join their cause. But we're freemen, and this is our home, too. Given the chance, we'd be honoured to serve with you, General."
"Then serve you shall," Washington returned stoutly. "I've need of all the good men I can get - there are far more of them than us, I'm afraid. And they're better equipped. Better trained. But if I didn't believe we could prevail, I wouldn't have accepted this command. If we persevere, we will win. We must. As you say, this is our home and our future. We dare not fail. Captain Ellison, I assign these men to your command. Equip them and award their ranks in accordance with their skills and experience."
"Yes, sir," Jim acknowledged readily, while the others regarded Washington solemnly, nodding in general agreement with his sentiments - but they all knew they had to first hold back the horde of British and Hessian soldiers for two days, and then get whatever still remained of the Army safely off Long Island or the war could well be lost before it had scarcely begun.
In the circumstances, hoping for the violent storm's continuation seemed the least they could do for short term success, let alone survival.
Once they'd gotten Simon and the others settled for the night in the sturdy, capacious stable behind the house, Jim and Blair once again set out to make their rounds of the town and to walk the perimeter of the barricades.
Jim was silent for several minutes and seemed preoccupied until he abruptly turned to Blair and demanded, "Would you take orders from a black man?"
"Depends on the man," Sandburg replied calmly. "From what I've seen of Simon, I'm assuming he warrants at least a sergeant's rating, and maybe Joel does, too. They seem solid and very intelligent. So, if you're asking if I mind if they outrank me, then no, I don't." Blair shrugged and looked away. "Captain, I don't know these men; you do. I will support your decisions on the matter. But that's not what you're asking me, is it? You're asking if I can serve with black-skinned men, let alone take orders from one or more of them." Lifting his gaze to Jim's, he stated earnestly, "I'm Jewish, sir, so some see me as a Christ-killer or eater of babies. I was born a bastard and some say that makes my mother a whore - which makes me trash by definition. I grew to be a man with the Cherokee, and you don't need to be told how folks feel about Indians." Waving a hand to encompass the town and the soldiers camped within its walls, he went on with low, fierce candour, "There are few who have much use for me, many who despise me on sight. I know right well what prejudice and blind hatred are and I don't hold with it. You can't tell who a man is or what he stands for by the colour of his skin or the name he was born with; takes time to learn another's soul and heart." He swallowed and visibly took a grip on his emotion. "But from what I've seen of them, they seem to be good, brave, sensible men, and besides, it's clear you trust them and that tells me a lot right there. I trust your judgment, sir, and I'll be glad to serve with them under your command." He paused and peered through the heavy downpour, and then added with a sad shrug and the helpless tone of a man who knew what it was to be judged unfairly, "You might be as well to ask them how comfortable they are about serving with me."
Taken aback by the small, bitterly blurted speech, more by the flood of personal information and taut emotion, Jim blinked. For a moment, he was utterly disconcerted, not knowing what to say and they stood in silence in the rain. But when Blair flicked a wary look at him, as if afraid he'd said far too much before his expression closed and he turned away, Jim felt a twist in his gut and a compulsion to somehow reassure the kid. Looping an arm around Blair's shoulders to move him along the narrow, dark street, he said meaningfully, "They're not the only good, brave and stalwart men under my command, Chief."
But Sandburg stiffened and pulled away. "Chief?" he challenged with a flash of disdain.
"Whoa," Jim exclaimed, gripping his shoulder to keep him from retreating further. "I didn't mean ... I meant that ..." he stammered, belatedly realizing that Blair must have thought it a reference to his life with the Cherokee. There was profound disappointment and no little bitterness in the fiery blue eyes that held his own. Swallowing, he continued hastily, "I meant nothing disparaging, Blair. If anything, given how you're showing me how to handle my senses, the way you helped me when I stumbled back into camp - was it only yesterday night? I meant ... hell, I don't know what I meant. I was trying to say I respect you, that's all."
Sandburg held his gaze for a long moment, searching his eyes, and then he looked away and nodded, the tension in his body easing as he accepted no slight had been intended. His brow furrowed as he thought about what Jim had said. Not really sure, given Ellison's rank, he asked, "How many men do serve under your command, sir?" Most captains would lead at least a company and for all Blair knew, Ellison did as well.
"Three, corporal," Jim replied, a grin twitching his lips. "Three good, brave, sensible men."
A small smile played over Blair's lips, and Jim saw a faint blush creep over the sun-bronzed, stubbled cheeks. Bobbing his head in a paroxysm of embarrassed humility, he seemed gratified but also off-balance, as if he was unsure of how to respond to the unexpected and unstinting praise. "Thank you, sir," he murmured softly.
Despite the blasting wind and pelting rain that soaked him clean through and chilled him to the bone, Jim felt a surge of affection for the kid; buoyed by sudden optimism, he smiled broadly. John Glover and his men would ensure their retreat from what might have been a certain, devastating defeat and now he had a small but skilled team of trackers and scouts to work with him in supporting Washington's command of the Continental Army. Though he was well aware of the prejudices that most of society held against his men, their roles would keep them separate and away from the main force most of the time, which suited him just fine. He'd take the forests over the stench and noise of the camp any day and be glad of the freedom of movement, free of oversight and the endless orders of superior officers. He gave Blair a comradely slap on the shoulder before again taking the lead on their informal patrol of Brooklyn Heights.
When they reached the wooden barricades, Jim found a vantage point to look down upon the enemy. With Blair standing close by his side, he squinted into the darkness, blinking frequently against the driving rain. Gripping the brim of his hat, he pulled it low over his brow to shield his eyes from sudden bursts of lightning, and studied the massive encampment below. He could see sentries patrolling but detected no hint of any sneak advance. The rain and wind, the runnels of water on rock and the mud were keeping the British undercover, at least for now.
Shaking his head, he felt a hollow sense of awe at the might of the forces arrayed against them. "There have to be twenty-five, maybe as many as thirty thousand men down there," he muttered under his breath. The magnitude of the challenge before them, the overwhelming odds against the ill-prepared and poorly equipped revolutionary army dampened his earlier sense of optimism and mild euphoria. Truly, they were embarking upon a venture that held marginal hope of success, despite the General's belief they had a legitimate chance of winning this war. Turning, he looked back over the town, the bleak darkness no barrier to his ability to see men hunched together, crowding streets and lanes, huddled stoically against the elements, shivering and afraid of what the morrow would bring. Close by, a barn had been commandeered for the wounded and errant gusts of wind brought the stench of blood and human waste, and he sighed. They'd lost over a thousand men that day and had no way of knowing how many of those had survived to be taken prisoner.
And the war was only just beginning.
"The General's right," he grunted as they left the fortifications and strode back into the town. "We better hope like hell that it keeps raining."
Dawn, when it came, was dismal, gray and sopping wet. The storm's fury hadn't abated and the wind continued to churn up waves and dangerous currents on the East River, holding Admiral Howe and his one hundred and thirty gunboats at bay. Though the colonials kept a close watch on the British forces covering the flanks of the hills and the plain below, it seemed the redcoats were content to remain under the shelter of their tents and simply lay siege to the town until the storm blew past.
Eagerly grabbing the respite from battle provided by the inclement weather, Washington gathered his senior offices and logisticians to hammer out the tactics of moving ten thousand men, along with horses, cannon and supply wagons while simultaneously fighting a rearguard action against a force that outnumbered them by a margin of more than two to one. If the British ships blocked the river ... well, then all would be lost.
Sighing, the General got up to pace while his subordinates debated options in low voices. Pausing to stare into the fire under the heavy oak mantel, he struggled with his personal sense of incompetence, his fear of being unequal to the responsibility he'd freely accepted. Bleakly, as he listened to the rain drum on the window and the rattle of wind in the trees beyond the wall, he wondered if he'd been a fool, if they were all fools to believe they had any hope of triumphing over the most powerful military on the face of the earth. Sighing, he rubbed the back of his neck and rolled his tense shoulders. His jaw tightened and he chastised himself for his morose thoughts. Out in the streets, in the lanes and alleys, on the battlements, there were nearly ten thousand men who relied upon his leadership and trusted him to make the right decisions so that if their blood was spilled, it would not be for nothing. His back to his senior officers, he listened to their discussion, not so much to the words but the tones, and he heard impatience and frustration, uncertainty. But they grappled with the problems before them with utter sincerity and a commitment to do their best. Still, it was clear, none of them could envision any escape without suffering heavy losses - losses they could ill afford whether in men or armament - but an embattled retreat, they all seemed to agree, would be disastrous. Grimly, unwillingly, they were doing their best to come to grips with the terrible facts of their beleaguered situation.
"So ..." he pondered aloud as he slowly turned to face them, "we can't afford to fight our way out."
They looked askance at him, confusion on their faces. What other choice was there?
"Battles are fought in daylight," he went on thoughtfully. "Otherwise, it's chaos and we end up killing our own in the confusion." They nodded their agreement of this obvious assessment.
"Therefore, we should retreat under cover of darkness, while the enemy sleeps," he said then, bluntly. "If we're well prepared, muffle hooves and wheels with rags and ensure axles are well-greased, if we move in silence - we might even slip past ships anchored in the river."
The men before him stirred, straightening in their chairs, as the idea lent hope and energy to their demeanors. He could see thoughts skimming across their faces, in the looks they exchanged with one another. There was time to prepare - the unceasing rain gave them that opportunity. One by one, they nodded as the idea took hold.
"We'll need to get word to Colonel Glover," one of his subordinates observed.
"I can send Taggart," Captain Ellison volunteered. "Any loyalist or redcoat keeping watch won't suspect a poor black fisherman of carrying a vital dispatch. Given the weather, he may even pass unseen."
With an austere smile, Washington nodded as he moved to the desk and picked up a plumed pen. Dipping it in the inkwell, he swiftly scripted the message to Colonel Glover. After dusting it with sand to dry the ink, he rolled the small scroll and sealed it with a daub of wax impressed with his signet ring. Jim stood to receive the document and quickly left the room. Looking to the others, the General directed, "Gentlemen, our plans remain within this room; I want to take no chance of a spy bearing word to the British. Do what you can to prepare the cannon and wagons. We'll begin to evacuate Long Island one hour after full dark tomorrow night - as we move out, we'll keep the ranks on the pickets so the British sentries don't realize we're leaving. Those men will be the last to go."
Sandburg accompanied Taggart to the back gate to see him off on his perilous journey across the rough waters of the East River, and then stood on the wet, windy battlements over the cliffs until he saw a distant flash of a lantern on the other side - the signal that he'd arrived safely and their message had been delivered. Ellison had been adamant that Joel was not to return on his own, but with the evacuation force so, for the moment, he was safe. After reporting back to the Captain, who was sharing a late meal with Simon in the stable, and unabashedly assuming the role of caretaker of their small unit, Sandburg first checked and re-bandaged the Captain's wounded arm, and then chivied the two older men into calling it an early night. They were all exhausted and, moments after bedding down in the hay, they were all sound asleep.
The wild storm continued during the night, and the winds and drenching rain remained heavy throughout the next day. Thunder rumbled overhead like distant artillery fire, and lightning flickered in the thick bank of gun-metal gray clouds. General Howe, apparently confident of victory and in no hurry to assert the superiority of his forces, kept his men warm and relatively dry inside their canvas tents. Strong, high swells on the river and the treacherous wind kept his brother and his gunboats anchored in the safety of the mouth of the channel, their sails furled.
Inside the fortified walls of Brooklyn Heights, men hunkered in the rain and tried not to think too much about what their future would bring. Hope that they might yet escape to fight another day kept the men's spirits alive; fear of failure haunted them. Loyalists watched from their windows and doorways. The palisades were well patrolled, the gates securely barred, and the dismal weather made it difficult to sneak out of the town; besides there was nothing much to convey to the British. Disgruntled, hoping the last desperate bid for survival would yet fail when the attack finally came, and end this ill-conceived rebellion, they washed their hands of it all and settled back to wait upon events. But those inhabitants who supported the Continental Army donated more blankets to the sodden men, and linens and clothing to make into bandages for the wounded; piles of cloth were torn into strips and carried to the barn where the injured lay tightly packed in rows of pallets. Townspeople also willingly shared their victuals with the soldiers, and continued to supply them with hot drinks to sustain their energy.
Though the preparations needed to be circumspect, Captain Ellison and his men took on the duty of temporary 'blacksmiths', assigned ostensibly to check the axles and wheels of the wagons and cannon carriages. It was tedious work, but they methodically persisted in greasing the axles, one after another.
General Washington had taken advantage of the brief respite to get some much-needed rest, sleeping through the whole of the night and late into the morning. Later in the day, he went out into the bitter weather to encourage his men, as well as to personally take stock of the stealthy progress made in the desperate and hurried preparations. As he slogged his way back to his temporary headquarters in the darkness of the early night, he cast his gaze upward and silently gave thanks for the rain that stung his face, even as he pondered the possibilities of the inclement weather continuing for another night and a day.
First thing on the morning on August 29th, Jim and Simon engaged in discussion about what would be needed once the Army was safe on the other side. If all went as planned, the revolutionary force might be safe on Manhattan for a week, maybe a little more, while the Howe brothers organized the movement of men, supplies, and armament across the river. But the British would be hot on their heels and they couldn't afford to stay within reach for long.
"As soon as you're across the river," Jim directed as they broke their fast on the bread, cheese and ale Sandburg had scrounged for them, "I want you and Joel to scout north and west to ensure there aren't more British lurking on the other side, ready to box us in. I doubt that Howe left many men on that side of the river, but we can't afford to make any assumptions."
Simon nodded in agreement as he took a swig of ale. Lowering the plain, clay mug, he swiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and asked, "Where will we find you on our return? Command Headquarters or your father's residence in the town?"
Curious about Jim and his background, Blair's ears perked up as he finished his own chunk of bread and, after handing out apples to each of them, began to gather up what food was left to wrap securely for later in the day.
Jim sighed and stared into space as he thought about his answer. He and Sandburg had to billet somewhere and it was foolish to commandeer other space when his father had a perfectly good mansion and room to spare. "After dark, at the house," he replied. "Otherwise at Headquarters."
"Which way do you think the General will jump?" Simon asked then, thinking about the challenges of moving thousands of men a safe distance from the British, to give time to regroup and determine the colonial offence plan.
"I'd guess north, through Harlem and into the forests of upper New York," Jim replied thoughtfully. "We'd lead the British away from the towns where they can easily demand supplies and shelter, and into the wilderness; I suspect we may be better at foraging than they, though we've more than enough townsmen in our own ranks to make finding sustenance a challenge. And we'd be handy to Fort Washington and Fort Lee for resupply."
Simon snorted and nodded as he stood; from what he'd seen of Fort Washington, the place was well-nigh indefensible when the British could easily surround it both on the river and on land. There was no need to say more or to belabor the immensity of the risks and hazards that the future would hold, providing they even made it across the river. The colonial bid for freedom was a bold and probably foolhardy undertaking that would most likely end in defeat. But they were each committed to the worthiness of the cause and resigned to the risks they shared. Fighting for freedom and the right to determine their own destiny was, by far, preferable to being dictated to by a capricious and seemingly insane monarch, and the indifference of the distant parliamentary governance of merchants concerned only with their own profits and landed gentry who had no conception of what life in the New World, let alone true equality, was about.
For a moment, they listened to the unceasing patter of rain on the roof and the rattle of the wind through the plank walls, wondering silently if the elements would continue to play on their side. Rubbing his hands together, Simon grinned good-naturedly and said, "Well, unless you've something else for me to do right now, I'll go make myself useful greasing more wagons."
Smiling, Jim waved him off. "Might as well use that oilskin cape hanging by the door. Keep me posted," he called, as Simon strode toward the side door, "on how its going. By midafternoon, the General will give the orders to begin wrapping wagon wheels and horses' hooves, and the regiments should be starting to get everything and everyone in line to move out. It'll take at least the rest of the day to get organized to evacuate swiftly and silently at nightfall."
"Will do," the big man agreed, gratefully throwing the long oilskin around his shoulders before he stepped out into the persistent rain.
"You two seem to have known each other a long time," Blair ventured as he rolled up their blankets and secured the rest of their gear.
"Long enough," Jim agreed as he stood, but volunteered nothing more. "I guess we should also see how to make ourselves useful."
"Uh ... well, that's one option," Blair agreed. "But Simon can handle the rest of the wagons, and once the order goes out, there are almost ten thousand men plus the townsfolk to get everything sorted out and organized. Two more pairs of hands won't make that much difference."
Frowning, Jim glared at him. "Maybe so, but that's no reason to sit on our butts all day, Corporal."
"That's not what I was suggesting, sir," Sandburg returned levelly, apparently not at intimidated by his censure. "We could use the time to work on your senses. Once we're on the move, well, we may not get a day's worth of hours like this again, at least not soon."
Jim's gaze dropped and he rubbed his mouth. He'd rather grease axels than work on his senses, but he supposed the kid had a point. Sitting back down on a bale of hay, he asked, "What did you have in mind?"
"Permission to speak freely, sir?" Blair asked. "This rank stuff kinda gets in the way and it'll slow us down if I constantly have to ask your leave to suggest an idea or, um, encourage you to try different things."
"By all means, Sandburg, speak freely," Jim replied, barely suppressing a grin. It had been his impression that the notion of rank rarely stopped the younger man from saying what was on his mind.
"Okay, well, first we need to get a good handle on the strength of your senses. I've got some ideas on how to do that with each one," Blair told him as he plopped down at Jim's feet and leaned forward eagerly.
"Then let's get started," Jim told him.
"How far can you see?" he asked.
"Imagine the rolling hills of the Appalachia," Ellison replied. When Blair nodded, he went on, "On the furthest hill, a man is standing under the trees just below the horizon."
Squinting as he tried to picture that, Sandburg shook his head. "I couldn't make out individual trees at that distance, let alone a man in the shadows," he reflected.
"I can see his face as clearly as if he was standing in front of me," Jim told him.
Blair's eyes widened and his mouth dropped open in amazement. "Whoa," he gasped. "That's ... that's incredible." Blinking as he assimilated the information, he asked, "Can you always see that well? And how do you bring it back, to not be blinded by such fineness of detail up close?"
Shrugging, Jim looked away. "Sight gives me the least problems; usually, my eyes focus on their own. But sometimes, hard as I try, I can't see that far. Other times, yeah, suddenly everything goes out of focus, everything too big, too close. At night, a sudden bright flare, like lightning, hurts."
Nodding thoughtfully, Blair frowned as he thought about it. "How about," he began, "you think of your eyes like a spyglass - you know, that can be adjusted to bring things into focus? Twist it one way and things get larger, twist it the other and you can see farther." When Jim quirked a brow, he gestured at the floor in the far end of the barn. "Tell me everything you can see, to the smallest detail - dust, gravel, bits of grain, everything - way over there in the corner."
Agreeably, Jim squinted and blinked, grimaced a little and then unconsciously nodded. As he began to describe what he could see, Blair watched his eyes in awe as the pupils expanded and contracted as Jim focused on the details. When there seemed no end to what the sentinel could see, right down to the fine details of the grain on a splinter of wood, Blair whispered, "Keep going; can you see anything smaller?"
Jim blinked and stared into the dusty, shadowed corner. "Motes of dust," he said softly, sounding mesmerized, "like cottonballs floating ...." His voice drifted off and his face lost all expression.
"Oh, oh," Blair observed nervously. "Too far, huh?" When he didn't get any reaction, he waved his hand in front of Jim's eyes, but the flat distant expression didn't change. Swallowing hard, he unconsciously gripped Jim's knee and called, "Captain? Jim? Can you hear me? Listen to my voice, follow it back ... come on, I know you can hear me. The dust is interesting but it's time to come back."
Jim jerked and blinked, and then rubbed at his eyes. Shaking his head as if he was dizzy or disoriented, he asked, "What happened?"
"You kinda drifted off on me," Blair told him. "My fault. I should have realized that focusing that hard would risk getting a little lost in the details."
Irritated, embarrassed, Jim's lips thinned. "How long was I ... gone?" he asked and then, unconsciously rubbing his cheek with the memory of how he'd been brought out of his fugue states in the past, he demanded, "And what did you do to get me to wake up?"
"Well, first you weren't asleep, just concentrating too hard," Blair replied matter-of-factly. "You were only 'lost' for a minute or so. When I realized what happened, I just touched you and called you, and you came right back. No problem."
"No problem? You're kidding?" Jim exclaimed, astonished. "Usually ... well, usually I'm lost in these fits for longer, sometimes hours, and people have to, well, slap me to wake me up."
Wincing, Blair shook his head in empathy and clear disapproval of the crude methods of 'assistance' Jim had experienced in the past. "Jim," he replied emphatically, unaware that he'd again used his superior's first name, "I repeat, you're weren't asleep; you weren't really even 'gone' or 'lost', and you certainly weren't having any kind of fit. You were just focusing so hard that your full concentration was only on what you were seeing."
"I hate it when it happens," Ellison admitted awkwardly. "I hate not knowing what I'm doing, not being aware of my surroundings."
"I can imagine," Sandburg agreed. "But this is why guardians have companions or guides. It's not abnormal or unusual, but it can be dangerous in the wrong situation, and it's certainly uncomfortable for you. The companion's job is to ground you, to help you refocus on the world around you. A touch, voice, should normally be enough."
"And if it's not?" Jim asked, not convinced that it could be that simple.
"Then a sharp scent, maybe a pinch; basically just something which impacts on another sense than the one you're using," Blair replied with a casual shrug. It didn't seem that complicated to him.
"Sandburg, nobody else has ever brought me back that easily or that fast, not ever," Jim told him, his voice tight with remembered humiliations.
"Really? Huh," Blair grunted, his brow furrowing as he considered that. "Maybe that's only because you've never consciously been working on your senses before. You weren't, um, well, tuned into anyone's voice or touch, sorta expecting them to be there, you know?"
"Maybe," Jim replied skeptically. He grimaced and looked away, struggling with an awareness that had been growing for days. He'd been exhausted, there'd been so much going on, and then the battle ... he'd thought the distinctive drumming in his ears was only a temporary aberration and would go away once he'd gotten some rest. But it hadn't. It wasn't that he hadn't heard the same sort of thing in the past, when his hearing was all out of whack, but never before as a constant, even reassuring sound in the background when his hearing was operating normally. "There's something else that's, uh, strange," he muttered and then studied Sandburg intently, assessing his candid gaze and reflecting on how quickly the younger man had become significant to him, how just plain helpful the kid was.
"What?" Blair probed when Jim fell silent, concern flaring in his eyes at Ellison's prolonged scrutiny and obvious assessment of him. He blinked as he thought quickly over the last few minutes and then flushed slightly. "Oh, I ... I guess I got a little too familiar, using your given name like I did. Sorry, sir. I just wasn't thinking."
Startled, not even having noticed, Jim quickly shook his head. "No, no, that's fine when we're just within our own team. None of us are all that concerned with ranks." His lips thinned in impatience with himself. If he was going to work with Blair and rely on the kid's help to sort out his senses, he was also going to have to be candid about how his senses were working. Awkwardly, very uncomfortable with what he felt was some kind of personal invasion that he couldn't seem to control, he admitted, "I can hear your heart beating."
Blair's brows rose in surprise. "My heartbeat?" he echoed and then grinned. "That is so amazing!" he exclaimed, and then as quickly frowned. "But hearing everyone's heartbeat all the time must be really annoying."
"Not everyone's. Just yours," Jim said. "Ever since you found me stumbling toward the encampment a couple days ago. I, uh, I thought it was like the ringing in my ears that I get sometimes, just the result of being nearly dead on my feet. But it hasn't gone away." Restless, he stood to pace. "I've heard heartbeats before, but not often. I can listen for them ... I tried with Simon this morning, and when I concentrated, I could also hear his heart. But I've never just heard someone else's ... all the time."
Blair had lifted his hand to his chest and he looked away as he shook his head, the blush on his cheeks deepening. "I'm sorry ... I don't know why that's happening. Must be driving you crazy. But we can work on it; figure out how to block it."
"No, it's not bothersome," Jim replied, sorry that he appeared to have embarrassed the kid when it wasn't anything Blair was responsible for. "It's ... reassuring, actually. I think it helps ground me. My senses have settled down a lot since, well, since you found me by the river. Working better generally, even when I felt exhausted and my wound was hurting bad. I think maybe that's why; your heartbeat, I mean. It gives me a kind of balance."
Blair took a shaky breath and looked hesitantly up at him. "Jim ... Captain ..." he began nervously, and then licked his lips, obviously grappling with something.
"Jim's fine," he reassured the kid.
"Okay, thanks," Blair sighed gratefully. Taking a breath, he explained carefully, slowly, "The legends I heard? They say a sentinel will recognize his guide, like as if they've always known each other through time even if they've never met in this life. Anyway, the legends say that the sentinel will hear his guide even in the midst of chaos." He shook his head and held up his hands helplessly. "I'm sorry, I don't really understand this all that well. Just what I've been taught by the Cherokee. I swear I never intended, didn't do anything to ... to make this happen. But ... but it sounds like maybe we were destined to meet, if you believe in that sort of thing, that is."
Rubbing his hands together, Jim shook his head. "I've never been inclined to believe in such things," he replied, but thoughtfully, without censure. "What would that mean, exactly? That you're my guide?"
"Yeah ... and, and that I always would be. For the whole of our lives, I'd give you the best support I could, watch your back," Blair said as he studied Jim, thinking about all that would mean in his life.
Chuckling dryly, Jim said, "But surely you have a choice about that, right?"
"No, sir; I don't think I do," Blair murmured, frowning thoughtfully. "No more than you had when you started to hear my heart beating."
"But ... but that's ridiculous, Chief!" he exclaimed. Waving around at the world in general, he went on, "We're engaged in a fight for freedom, and you're talking about a kind of, what? Spiritual slavery?"
"More of a partnership, actually," Blair replied soberly. He shrugged. "But you're right. We're in the fight of our lives, all of us, and who knows if we'll even survive it. No point in worrying about anything long term at this point."
Jim almost flinched at his words; the unwelcome thought of Sandburg dead tightened his chest and twisted his gut. "That's not what I meant," he stated emphatically, moving to squat beside the kid and grip his shoulder. "I meant that it doesn't seem fair that you'd somehow be tied to me for the rest of your life and not have any say in the matter."
"Oh. Well, actually ... I always thought the legends about sentinels and their guides were compelling and, uh, I ... but you probably wouldn't want ...." He stammered to a halt in confusion. Pulling himself together, he went on hurriedly, "The point is, none of that matters right now. We need to get back to work on your senses." Taking a breath, he continued, "So, where were we? Sight. And the problem of ... of over-focusing on one sense. Okay. Um, does the idea of thinking about a telescope help you control your sight better, do you think?"
"Yeah," Jim replied quietly, studying him, thinking about how willing the kid was to accept the idea of helping him as a lifetime project. And how relieved he felt to know that. Didn't make any sense. They hardly knew one another. Giving himself a shake, he brought his mind back to the discussion. "Yeah, that did help. So what do we try next?"
"Well, we kinda started on hearing," Blair replied. "So, let's keep going with it. What can you hear outside? Can you hear conversations in the house?"
Tilting his head and closing his eyes, Jim concentrated on his hearing and Blair, mindful of not letting him over-focus, laid a light hand on his arm. "It's such a jumble of sound," he said finally, frowning with frustration.
"That's okay. Just pick one of the more faint conversations or sounds and focus on it," Sandburg encouraged, his tone low, supportive. After a moment, when Jim's expression cleared, he asked, "You've got something?"
"Yeah. But I don't know where it's coming from."
"Okay, that's okay. What are you hearing?"
"Soldiers talking ...." Jim's eyes opened and his lips parted as he realized what he'd been hearing. "British and German accents! I was hearing soldiers in the camp below!"
"Oh, my God," Blair exclaimed, his enthusiasm and awe once again filling his face and eyes. "Jim ... you're a walking surveillance, spy and forward scout network all by yourself! This is incredible! You're incredible! Your gifts are amazing."
"Gifts?" he repeated, repressively, shaking his head. Standing, he moved away. "Sandburg, my senses have been a torment. I've never thought of them as being any kind of gift."
Blair's gaze softened and he nodded slowly. "I guess I can understand that. You never had anyone to help you figure them out or make them predictable or consistently reliable. But we're going to change that, Jim. Once you find you can trust them, draw upon them at will, they won't be a torment anymore. And it will happen pretty quickly, I think. Look how fast you got the hang of controlling pain, and your sight. With a little practice, you'll find you'll hardly have to think about controlling them - it will become habit."
"You really think so, Blair?" Jim asked but averted his eyes, hating the appeal for reassurance he could hear in his voice, the weakness and uncertainty of it.
"Yes, Jim, I really do," he replied with quiet but absolute confidence. "Your senses really are gifts and I think you'll be very glad to have them in the days and weeks ahead. But you have to be patient with yourself. It takes time to learn and master new skills - though, honestly, you've picked up stuff so fast that I don't think it will take all that long."
Jim nodded slowly, wanting to believe the kid. A slow smile quirked and he said, "You know, I'm really glad you found me by the river the other night. You and not someone else. For the first time, I don't feel like some kind of freak of nature who ... who has these inexplicable, uncontrollable fits and these weird senses that felt like a curse. I appreciate your help in making them work."
Blair flushed with pleasure and ducked his head diffidently. "Thanks, Captain. I'm really glad I found you, too," he replied softly. "Really glad." Looking up, he added with devastating candor, "I ... I never really felt like I belonged anywhere before, you know? That maybe I mattered and could make a difference to anyone. So it means a lot that you want me on your team, and I really will do my best for you."
Jim's throat tightened. "I know you will, Blair. You've already proven that to me."
A brilliant smile lit Sandburg's face and he took a deep, satisfied breath. "Okay, let's do some more work on hearing," he said eagerly. "Tell you what; let's go for a walk and see if we can create distance markers in your mind that are linked to sound, by listening to what you hear and tracking down how far away the various levels of sound clarity are?"
"Good idea, Sandburg," Jim agreed immediately, even gratefully. Though it was still pouring outside, he'd be relieved to get some fresh air, and not simply to get out of the dusty and noisome barn. There was an intensity about the kid - more, about how much he was beginning to care for Blair that he found disconcerting. He wasn't used to caring about many people or feeling a growing need to personally protect them; usually he held himself pretty aloof. And despite Sandburg's odd moments of candid vulnerability, he was obviously a self-sufficient, resourceful man who had little need for a protector. If anything, Sandburg was oddly his protector at the moment, or at least his teacher. He told himself the improbable intensity of his feelings was only natural because Blair was the only person he'd ever met who actually understood what was going on with his senses, and that he was simply feeling unusually dependent, something he'd not felt about another human being since he'd been a child. But he couldn't deny that his earlier brief image of losing the kid in battle had left him feeling decidedly shaky.
He told himself all would pass, had to pass - they were at war and there were no guarantees for any of them - but he still felt unbalanced. A bracing walk would do him good, would help him clear his head.
As they strode along the wet, muddy street, Blair chattered on about ideas on how to link sound to distance and suggested that the telescope idea might work for his hearing as well, as a means of tuning sounds louder or softer. He nodded as he listened; and he found the flow of the melodious voice and helpful suggestions, and the subtle steady sound of Sandburg's heartbeat, calming, even soothing, as they walked in the rain. Taking a deep breath of the cool air, he smiled and looped an arm around the kid's shoulders. For the first time since he'd been a child, he felt excited about his senses rather than resentful, even more than a little afraid, of them. Maybe Blair was right. Maybe they would prove to be gifts after all.
Three and a half hours later, back in the stable, Jim sneezed and wiped his streaming eyes, and decided he'd perhaps been a mite too optimistic. Blair had had him sniffing a seemingly endless stream of various and sundry herbs, dried flowers and twigs from his backpack to identify each and every one of them, and he was tired, his head was aching from the effort of concentrating so relentlessly, and he was completely frustrated by the discomfort of learning to master his errant senses. Shoving Blair's hand and a small leather pouch of herbs away from his face, he growled furiously, "Enough!" and surged to his feet just as Simon stepped in from the rain.
Sandburg jerked back, flicked a glance at Simon, and then bowed his head to concentrate on tightening the drawstring on the pouch before carefully replacing it in his pack. Watching both of them warily, a frown drawing his brows together, Simon palmed his tight, black curls to slick off the rainwater, and then wiped his face with his hands. The cape streamed runnels of water and a puddle formed around his feet. "What's going on here?" he asked, looking from Jim, who was pacing in agitation, to Blair, and back again.
Snorting, Ellison scooped his tri-cornered hat from the hook by the door. "You tell him," he snapped curtly at Blair, the words in the clear tones of command, as he pushed open the sturdy wooden door.
"Yes, sir," the Corporal replied with just enough sarcastic emphasis on the 'sir' to infuriate Jim even further, in large measure because he knew damned well he was being unreasonable and he didn't appreciate Blair's evident irritation that only made him feel arrogant and churlish.
"Look," he snarled defensively, pointing a finger at the younger man, "Don't play me for a fool. I told you earlier, you don't need to 'sir'-me when it's just amongst ourselves. So, cut the crap."
Blair leveled a flat look at him, but then his gaze dropped and his shoulders sagged as he nodded mutely. Jim stared at him for a moment more and then stormed out, calling coldly over his shoulder, "I'll raid the kitchen for some food and drink, and be back in a while."
Simon blinked as the door was slammed shut in his wake, and then turned to Sandburg. "What bee got into his bonnet?" he asked, a hint of amusement lurking in his dark eyes. Jim might have appeared livid, but the fact that he was going to find them all food, normally Sandburg's job, told Simon clearer than words would that the man just needed some space. Quirking a brow as he watched Blair's lips thin as he continued to pack away small clay pots and leather pouches, he reflected that the kid probably didn't know their Captain wasn't really all that angry with him. After shrugging off the leather cape he'd borrowed that morning and returning it to the hook by the door, he moved across the straw-strewn floor, grimacing a little at the squeak of his very wet boots.
Blair craned his neck to look up at him from where he was sitting cross-legged, Indian-fashion, on the floor by the bale Jim had been sitting on. Rising, he perched on the bale and sighed. "You know about his awesome senses, right? That he can see and hear, smell and taste stuff more clearly, more ... finely, than ordinary men?"
Simon nodded as he sat down on a nearby barrel. "Yeah," he allowed. "And he sometimes has spells."
"They aren't spells," Blair replied solemnly. "When he seems, I don't know, lost like that, he's really just concentrating so hard on one sense that he loses track of everything else around him. When that happens, he needs to be touched and called back. If that doesn't work, then smelling salts probably would."
"What were you doing that got him so ornery?" Simon asked curiously, intrigued that the kid seemed so comfortable with what had been a mystery to everyone else about his friend and his senses.
"Jim's problem is that he never had anyone to help him learn how to control the intensity of his senses or how to use them reliably, so they've frustrated and, I think, maybe, scared him a little," Blair replied evenly. "This morning, we've been working on getting a handle on how strong each sense is, and how he could bend them to his will." He shrugged and bowed his head. "It's my fault that he got annoyed. I was pushing him too hard; trying to do too much, too fast." Looking back at Simon, he added earnestly, "But he's a fast learner and he was doing really well. He's, uh, well, he's pretty amazing."
Smiling indulgently, Simon asked, "How do you know stuff about his senses? About how to gauge them and work with them?"
"I heard legends about sentinels when I lived with the Cherokee," Blair told him, smiling a little in memory. "When I was a kid, I loved listening to the shaman - he told some really great stories."
His gaze narrowing, he echoed, "The Cherokee? How'd you come to live with them?"
Blair's smile faded and his gaze drifted away. "It's a long story," he replied with a shrug.
"So ... you got some place to be?" Simon encouraged, scratching his cheek. "Myself, I like a good long story."
"Yeah?" Blair returned, flashing him a small, speculative grin. "If I tell you my story, will you tell me yours?"
"Sure," Simon agreed with easy companionability. "But I asked first."
Sandburg studied him and then he rolled his eyes. "You'll tell me - just not today, right?"
Chuckling, Simon gave him a wide smile of approbation. "You're a quick one," he observed approvingly. But he sobered as his gaze roamed the barn and the horses in the back stalls. Shrugging, he said quietly, "Some stories are dangerous to know."
"I figured," Blair murmured. "It's okay. You don't have to tell me. I ... I know that some secrets are best kept secret, at least until you really know a man, if he's trustworthy or not."
Simon gave him a piercing look then, one of assessment that weighed him. He nodded to himself and, settling more comfortably on the barrel, he crossed his arms. "I'd really like to hear your story, if you've a mind to tell it," he encouraged, his tone low and gentle.
"Well, let's see," the kid began, gathering his thoughts and frowning a little, as if he wasn't used to relaying the tale of his life. "My mother was only sixteen when I was born in, I think, a city somewhere here in the north. I don't know who my father was." He paused for a moment and then went on flatly, as if daring Simon to signal contempt or judgment, "I guess my arrival was something of a disgrace, 'cause Ma had to leave and take care of both of us on her own." When the older man simply nodded, Blair relaxed marginally. "We ended up in a small town near the Virginia frontier and I guess she told folks she was widowed, and she needed work. There wasn't much - we had a small garden and she baked and canned and sold what she could, and she had some education, could read, write, do 'rithmatic, so she persuaded some of the folks to send their little ones to our shanty for learning in exchange for meat and supplies. We managed fine, most of the time. But, well, when ... when I was seven, one of the men in town brought home his new bride from the place he'd originally come from, and she recognized my mother. She, uh, she told everyone my mother was a harlot, and that I was a bastard."
Again he paused and took a shaky breath, his face averted. "I don't know how I came to be born, but my Ma was a good person, an' she took real good care of me. She was kind, gentle, and she loved to laugh. And she was no whore. From as far back as I can remember, men were always coming 'round, 'cause she was a pretty lady, but she didn't have nothing to do with them." He swallowed hard. "Not that that made any difference. Things got ugly, with all the unhappy married ladies blaming my Ma, saying she must be dallying with their husbands. One day, Ma came back from the general store, and she looked scared. She was hurrying and shoving books in a canvas bag, along with some of our clothes and whatever food we had in the larder. And then she took my hand and started running away from the town. I could hear angry shouting and then people were all around us on the road, chasing us - they threw stones. She ... she pulled me close and bent over me, to keep the rocks from hitting me. And we fell to the ground. I couldn't see anything but after awhile the shouting stopped and I could tell the townsfolk had finally left us alone."
Avoiding Simon's eyes, he pressed his lips together and swallowed hard, sniffed and swiped his hand under his nose. "She ... she groaned and moved a bit, so I could crawl out from under her. And there was blood, so much blood, on her head and face. Her breathing sounded funny, like she couldn't get any air." Shaking his head, he took a shuddering sigh, "She took my hand and gripped it hard, and she told me ... she told me to take the canvas bag and to keep going. She told me to read all the books in the bag, and that I was a good boy and that I'd be a fine man someday. She ... she told me to always act so's she'd be proud of me." Crossing his arms, Blair bowed his head, and his voice lowered to a rasping whisper. "She wanted me to leave her, but I wouldn't go. I stayed with her all night. I was so scared and didn't know how to help her, you know? Anyway, the last thing she said was, 'I love you, Blair. I will always love you.' And she died, right there by the side of the dirt road. And nobody ... nobody cared."
"You cared, son," Simon rumbled, his voice sounding thick and sad.
Biting his lip, Blair nodded. "Yeah," he murmured softly. "I cared." He sniffed again and brushed at his eyes. "I found a stick to dig with and I did my best to bury her decently next to some bushes and flowers off the trail, and I asked God to take care of her. And then I left, dragging the heavy bag behind me. I was afraid to stay on the road, so I walked into the hills. Walked for a long time. I ate what she'd packed so quickly, and berries; drank from streams. I don't rightly know how many days I walked. But one day, I was so tired. And I just wasn't sure ... I didn't know where I was or where I was going. I ... I gave up, I guess," he said, sounding ashamed, "an' I just dropped by a log. I thought ... I thought, you know, about animals and stuff, but I just couldn't go any further." He drew a shuddering breath and then pushed his hair back from his face and straightened. Looking up at Simon, he said, "A Cherokee hunting party found me lying there, half dead, and took me back to their village. They didn't adopt me, exactly. Once I was strong again, I was a kind of servant, I guess, to one of the village elders. Cooking for him, mending his clothing."
Simon's eyes flashed and his mouth tightened. The whites weren't the only ones who took slaves and he had some idea how warriors would view boy or man doing a woman's work.
Oblivious to his reaction, lost in his memories, Blair was continuing, "But, eventually, they taught me how to hunt and fight. And because they believe in a person being of their own 'tribe', they did their best to tell me about white people and what they'd learned from the missionaries about our God. They also, as I said, taught me about their own customs, legends and beliefs. The Shaman was a really interesting person and he kinda took me under his wing after a few years, maybe because I was so interested in his stories. He taught me about the herbs for healing, and how to care for the injured and sick, well, in terms of how they care for their people." Fingering his earring, he told Simon, "He made this for me. Said I was of the wolf clan. His name for me was Wind Walker. He told me that was because the wind had blown me to them and would one day blow me on my way; and that, if I listened, I'd hear all the secrets the wind knew and if I closed my eyes, my spirit would walk in the wind. And he said the wolf would protect me and guide my steps on my journey until I found the black panther who guarded his tribe. He said ... he said when I found the panther, I would be home."
Frowning, Simon cocked his head. "Sounds ...."
"Crazy. Yeah, I know," Blair allowed defensively. But his gaze went to the door.
"No, not crazy," Simon corrected thoughtfully. "Sounds to me like he saw your future; sounds to me like he thought you might have special powers."
Blair's lips quirked wryly, and he shook his head. "Special powers? Me? No. I'm just a wanderer, which is ironic, isn't it? My people have been wandering through all the centuries."
Silence fell between them and then Simon asked, "How'd you come to be fighting with the Continental Army?"
"Well, when the Chief and the Elders were invited to Philadelphia to sign one of those treaties that nobody pays much attention to, they took me along. Said I was a man and it was time for me to go back to my own people, so I could find a woman and marry one of my own kind."
Blair hesitated, frowned as if he was going to say more about that and then shook his head. But Simon interrupted knowingly, "The Chief's daughter was getting a mite too interested, huh?"
Looking chagrined, Blair nodded. "Yeah. But he didn't have to worry, you know? She was just a kid. No older than my Ma must've been when .... Well, I just wouldn't do that." Quirking his brows, he gave a small grin as he added, "Besides, there were other and more, um, suitable offers from time to time."
Laughing as he regarded the young man and reflected on how the ladies of any culture would no doubt find him of interest, he replied, "I'll just bet there were."
"Anyway, that's when I met the General," Blair said, bringing his story back on track. "And he was intrigued, I guess, by the idea of a Jew raised by the Indians, and he was sure surprised I could read and write. I was a ... a novelty of sorts."
Glancing at Simon, he added, "I did read all those books my Ma told me to read. There were quite a number of Shakespeare's plays, and a book on basic arithmetic. Another on the history of the world. One that explained good manners. The Tanach ... uh, the Jewish book that contains some of what is in the Christian Bible. A few others. I knew how to read well enough that I struggled my way through them. Some of 'em I had to read more'n a few times before I understood them, or thought I understood. And the General, well, he wasn't a general then, but he needed someone to work with him, taking his notes, keeping his letters, stuff like that an' he let me make free with his library. When he had no need of me, I read everything I could. Anyway, I needed a place to be, so I went on home with him. That was not quite a year ago. When he was named Commander in Chief, it seemed natural to come with him, to help with the same sorts of things, running errands and such."
"How old are you?" Simon asked.
"Eighteen," Blair replied. "I was with the Cherokee for eleven years." Blowing a long breath, he finished his tale, "I'm not with the Army just because of the General. I believe in what this fight is about. I read about the first democracy in Greece in that history book, and I've read Thomas Paine's Common Sense. I agree with him that men should have a right to govern themselves. And I think freedom is important, really important, worth fighting for." Glancing at Simon, he added, "I expect you think the same thing."
"Well, you got that right," Simon allowed grimly. He hesitated and then asked with a carefully neutral tone, "You think you've found your panther, don't you?"
Surprised, Blair's eyes widened, but he again looked at the door and nodded slowly. "I'm not really sure what it means to have a home," he mused distantly. "I've never really had one, or not for long."
In the large kitchen in the back of the house, Jim stuffed small, two-day-old hard loaves of bread, a ring of white cheese, a few carrots, and more apples into a sack. Wasn't fancy, but it would stave off their hunger. His expression was solemn, and his head was slightly cocked as he listened to the steady thrum of Sandburg's heartbeat and the end of the story of the young Corporal's life. He wasn't sure if the kid had answered Simon's question, but he remembered Blair's remarks earlier in the day, about being glad his life might now make a difference and about how sentinels were sometimes called guardians of their tribes.
He'd never been 'home' for anyone before, hadn't really thought he ever would be. Wasn't entirely sure he was worth the commitment and dedication the kid was willing to give to him. Shaking his head, his jaw tightened when he thought about Sandburg trying to bury his murdered mother when he was only seven years old; he'd thought he'd had it rough when his own mother had abandoned their family when he'd been the same age. Anger flared and his fists tightened at the brutality of those anonymous townspeople; he'd rarely felt such virulent or such futile rage. And then he thought about that probably damned scared little, orphaned kid wandering in the wilderness and lying down when he'd run out of food and didn't have the strength to go on; lying down to die alone in the middle of nowhere. The muscles in his chest cramped and his throat thickened as a wave of profound grief and protectiveness nearly swamped him. God, it was a miracle the kid had survived. He'd heard some sad stories in his life, tragic stories, but Blair's ranked with the worst of them. Swallowing hard, he shook his head and sighed. And then he dashed through the rain across the cobblestone courtyard, back to the barn.
Just before he entered, he heard Blair say, "Oh, by the way, when the Captain and I were doing the rounds this morning, we stopped by the supply wagon and requisitioned some clothing for you and Joel - we noticed you'd arrived with just the shirts on your backs. I've got it packed in my duffel and I'll take it all across the river, unless you'd like to change into dryer things now?"
"Well, that's mighty kind of the two of you," Simon exclaimed, pleased by the consideration shown for their needs. "But I think I'll probably get a whole lot wetter before this night is done, so might as well save the dry stuff for later."
They both looked toward him when the door creaked open.
"You can thank Sandburg for the clothing. He thought of it," Jim said as he pulled off his hat and then opened his sack to serve out their repast. Glancing at Blair, he added, "You still stuck on 'Captain'?"
"Uh, well," the Corporal stammered. "It's reflexive, sir."
Both older men chuckled and, Blair, seeing that Jim's earlier anger had dissipated, relaxed.
"How're the preparations going?" Jim asked Simon as he sliced the round of cheese, and handed around good-sized chunks along with the rolls.
"Good," he replied. "They'll be ready to move before full dark so as soon as the Marblehead Mariners get here, we'll be good to go."
Jim's cheeks puffed slightly as he blew a relieved breath. "We just might pull this off."
Grimacing, Simon observed, "The wind'll have to go down. I looked out at the river before I came back here, and the swells are still mighty high."
"But if the wind goes down, Admiral Howe could stop us with his gunboats," Blair said anxiously.
The other two men nodded grimly, and concentrated on eating their simple meal. The weather was out of their hands, and they could only hope it would cooperate. Cocking his head a little as he listened to the wind and the rain beating on the roof, Jim thought the storm was finally letting up but, whether that was good news or not, it was too soon to tell.
Simon's voice drew his attention back. "Blair, here, tells me you're a sentinel."
"Yeah, according to Cherokee legend," Jim replied, his tone neutral but, when he caught uncertainty flickering in Sandburg's eyes, perhaps wondering if he was being disparaging, he added with more warmth, "The stories sure fit what I've experienced all my life. And Sandburg has been a fount of ideas on how to deal with them."
Blair didn't say anything, but the subtle tension in his body eased and he attacked his bread and cheese with more evident appetite. A grin played around Simon's mouth. "Well, you know, Jim, I think we found a good one in this young'un. He's resourceful, that's for sure. Quick, too, and I don't just mean how lightly he runs through the forest."
Sandburg choked a bit and flushed, and he turned his face away as if unsure what to say.
"Yes, I think we have found a good one for our merry little band," Jim agreed, amused by the kid's discomfiture.
Standing, Simon helped himself to a couple of carrots, and then pulled on the cape once again. "Think I'll just mosey 'round town, maybe wave to General Howe," he said genially. "You two probably got more work to do on them senses."
Jim grimaced but nodded. After the big man left, silence reigned. Blair got up to appropriate an apple and then cleared his throat. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I pushed you too hard this morning. I know it's not easy."
Glancing away, giving a little, uncomfortable shrug, Jim sighed and wondered if the kid had any idea at all how very hard it was. "It's a lot to take in," he finally said as he rubbed the back of his neck. "Cups of river water to ease pain, lantern wicks to turn up or down to hear things more finely, spyglasses to see better and maybe to figure out how far away sound is, water cocks on mills to control the rush of smells or tastes ...."
Studying him, Sandburg nodded. His gaze grew distant for a moment, and then he said bluntly, "It's too much, way too much to remember, especially when we're in tight situations. I should have realized that." He paused for a spell and then suggested, "What if we just used one idea for all your senses? Which one works the best for you? Feels most comfortable? Is easiest to imagine?"
Frowning, Jim thought about it. "The spyglass. It's simple; just twist it one way or the other."
"Okay, then. From now on, to adjust any of your senses, you adjust it up or down," Blair agreed. "We can at least try that, and see if it works."
"Good enough." Jim hesitated and then went on, "I guess we should go back to working on my sense of smell."
"You sure?" Blair asked uncertainly. "Made you pretty miserable this morning."
"Avoiding tough stuff never makes it go away," he replied, resigned, and then felt ashamed as he thought of a child burying his mother by the side of the trail. More firmly, he said, "Let's do it."
Two hours later, Jim cocked his head and held up his hand. "The rain's stopping," he reported and then stood to pull on his hat. Scrambling to his feet, Blair followed him out the door. Only then did he realize that, not the only the rain was ending, but the wind had fallen, as well. With a long stride, Jim led the way to the gates and palisade overlooking the valley below. Scant minutes later, they were climbing the sturdy wooden steps and gazing out at the mass of tents in the morass of mud.
Tendrils of mist hung over the valley, ghostly in the gray afternoon. Jim tilted his head and closed his eyes, and Blair laid a hand on his back. "Take it easy," he murmured. "Slip over conversations until you find what you're listening for." Jim nodded and then frowned with frustration; unconsciously rubbed his ears. "Open the spyglass," Blair suggested softly. "A little at a time ...."
Jim stood silently concentrating for so long, that Blair wondered if he should pull him back. But then a feral smile flitted over Ellison's lips. Straightening, blinking his eyes open, he looked down at Sandburg. "C'mon. We need to brief the General. Howe's decided to let the ground dry out overnight, and to attack in the morning."
Grinning, Blair followed him down the steps and they hurried back to their temporary Headquarters. Now, if the fleet of gunboats would just stay anchored in the channel, they would all live to fight another day.
The mist thickened as the afternoon waned, until a heavy fog hung just a few feet over the land and water, making it impossible to see anything even just two paces away. By evening, the wind had died and the swells had calmed, though the current was still swift. Soldiers began putting the horses into harness and then, as darkness fell, the narrow streets leading to the back gate began to fill with wagons. Behind them, companies formed along side streets and alleyways, ready to march out when the command was given. The townspeople watched, the Loyalists mutely cursing the charmed weather, and the Army's supporters looking hard-pressed to hold in their cheers. Anticipation and the eagerness to go became palpable, and then the back gates opened and the first carts carrying their cannon and munitions began to trundle down the incline toward the water's edge.
Standing on the parapet, Jim peered through the heavy mist, and attempted to stretch his hearing at the same time. Finding it a struggle, he mentally imagined two spyglasses, adjusted both of them and, finding that worked better for individual sense adjustment, he muttered to Blair, "I need a spyglass for every one of my senses." Sandburg looked at him in surprise and then smiled, pleased that Jim was applying what they'd discussed and was making adjustments for his own ease and comfort.
Only minutes later, it was his hearing that alerted him first. "They're on their way," he told Simon and Blair, his voice taut. "Sounds like a whole flotilla is gathering out there, just out of sight." He turned and waved down to the General, and then gave a 'thumbs-up'.
Below, Washington sent aides scurrying to inform the company commanders that relief was at hand, and then he swung up onto his white charger to make his way down to the dock, to welcome Colonel John Glover and thank him personally for coming to their rescue.
Boats and rafts appeared out of the fog like silent specters, until the river was thick with watercraft. But the Mariners had organized themselves well. The rafts pulled in tight to shore, to begin taking on warriors even as more sturdy craft docked one after another, so as one left with cannon or supply wagons, another took its place. Ropes were tossed and caught, quietly looped around stanchions, and as quickly loosened, and as silently, when the boat was ready to cast off.
Above, while Simon and Blair stared into the darkness and could barely make out the forms of wagon teams and men moving down the slope below, Jim watched the incredible spectacle with ease. They all found the near silence, but for the muffled clop of hooves and soft nickering, and the occasional scrape of a boot, almost eerie. But none there that night dared make a sound for the slightest noise would travel easily over the water and the gunboats weren't that far away. The wounded, heavily dosed with laudanum so that most would sleep during the painful transfer, followed the weaponry and supply carts, carried aboard on stretchers. The odd snore sounded like a fisherman anchored for the night - or so they hoped the British would think, as mariners and waiting soldiers went still, straining to hear the raucous sound of anchors rising. But the murky fog dampened sounds, so the rhythmic dip of oars and barge poles were almost soporific. The night wore on, tension growing with the worry that the mist would lift or the dawn come before they were all away. Then, hour after hour, boats and rafts overflowing with soldiers euphoric with the sure knowledge of escape ghosted back and forth across the East River, and the fortified town of Brooklyn Heights gradually emptied of the crowd of ten thousand men and their camp followers. The fog shifted and whirled as the boats slipped through it, small eddies of wispy motion that then settled in their wake. The wind, so strong that morning, was holding its breath, and the air was heavy with damp. The seeming endless parade of weary, anxious and yet excited men down the lane and onto ghost ships that appeared from and as quickly disappeared into the mist took on a dream-like quality, surreal in the silence.
"As good as most of 'em have been," Simon murmured, looking over his shoulder, back over the town that was perched high enough to be above the drifting, wraithlike mist, and squinting through the darkness that was relieved only by the flicker of a few, scattered torches. "They have to glad to see the back of us. They shared what they had, but their larders must be near empty by now."
Jim nodded and then led the way down to the road. Across the river, the passengers felt less need for total silence and he could hear low calls and the thud of boots along the wharf as they hurried into town, seeking shelter and sustenance; the sounds had a distant, hollow quality, distorted by the mist. Biting his lip, he looked to the eastern horizon and he could see a slight lightening in the cloudbank; the heat of the rising sun would burn off the mist swiftly. Dawn was only about an hour away and it was time to take their places down on the shore if they were to be off the water and safely hidden on the other side before light broke. He waved Simon off onto the raft that would carry General Washington across. "Find Joel and fill him in on what we decided. I'll see you back at my father's place sometime tomorrow night or at Headquarters the next day."
Simon nodded and was turning to go when Blair caught his arm and handed him the duffle he'd been carrying. "We probably won't need this for the next few days," he said. "Bed rolls and dry clothing."
The big man smiled gratefully down at him as he shouldered the pack. After gripping Blair's shoulder briefly in thanks, he made his way to the raft.
Jim and Blair waited until the last of the soldiers had left the embankment and then they, too, climbed aboard a small fishing boat. By the time they were across the river, most of the boat and rafts that had saved the Continental Army had already moved off, the fishermen drifting into the channel to cast their nets as if it were any ordinary day. The longer they could keep the British believing the Americans were still trapped on the Heights, the more time the General would have to determine the Army's next move. As the sun rose, they strode along the wharf and Blair looked back at the river. The heavy mist that had sheltered them all the long night was lifting and breaking up in the freshening wind, as if it knew its job of providing a protective shield was done. A shiver rippled along his spine as he looked searchingly into the sky. "Thank you," he murmured to whatever power had watched over them for the last several days and had seen them safely away from their enemy.
Up in the town, on the upper balcony of the west side mansion that hosted the Headquarters of the Continental Army, General Washington also stared up at the sky, offering his own fervent gratitude. A Deist, he believed in a Creator or, as some called the force that governed the universe, Divine Providence. However, he hesitated to assume that any such force concerned Itself with the picayune affairs of men, but the persistent storm and heavy rains, followed by the timely fog and night of calm sent shivers along his spine. Could it be that they were aligned with the designs of Providence, with the God that had created the earth and stars? Was their enterprise as natural and right as the turn of the seasons? He didn't know, but he felt a lightening of the weight of enormous responsibility he bore for leading his fledgling army in this desperate gamble for freedom. Surely, the weather had been a sign, perhaps even a promise; Divine Providence had sheltered them and seen them to safety when, by rights, all should already have been lost. If their struggle was, indeed, a natural part of the evolution of man and community, how could they ultimately lose? Snorting to himself, he shook his head. He didn't believe in miracles and it was arrogant to imagine something as great and unknowable as the Creator bothered about his worries and challenges. Smiling with wry weariness as he went back inside to his private chambers, he reflected on the axiom that God helped those who helped themselves, and he thought it a very sensible idea. They'd need courage and resolve; the way forward would be hard. But, for the first time, he believed in his heart that they would win this War of Independence.
Twenty minutes after they'd stepped ashore, Jim led Blair through a tall, wrought-iron gate in a high stone wall surrounding a residence on the edge of open meadowland and forest. Spurning the formal graveled path that paralleled the paved carriageway that wound up a slight incline to the house and, beyond, to the stables in the back, Jim strode across emerald grass past sumptuous gardens filled with multi-hued flowers and elegant shrubbery. In his wake, Blair looked around the grounds and up at the stately stone mansion, his mouth gaping and his eyes wide. He'd known that Jim had to be a gentleman or of the rich merchant class; all the officers were. So he'd imagined a certain level of wealth. Having stayed for a time on the General's estate, if not in the house but sharing space in the barn with the horses and rats, he had seen how the privileged lived. But this was beyond anything he'd seen before and he sorely doubted that rats would dare to venture anywhere near even the stable of such a grand palace as this.
It was only as they were marching up the stone steps to the gracious verandah and entry that Sandburg noticed that Jim seemed tense, his expression closed and guarded. Wondering why, Blair nevertheless followed his lead and hid his discomfort and uncertainty behind a stoic mask. Jim shouldered opened the burnished oak door and waved him inside, where he found himself in a richly appointed wide foyer. The floor was paved with marble and a crystal chandelier hung overhead. To the left and right, side corridors led off to unknown salons and chambers. Directly across from the door was a wide, elegant staircase that led up to a balcony that overlooked the entryway. He could see various doors along the upper hall.
"This way," Jim told him, turning to the right. They passed a massive formal dining room that looked out the back through French doors and floor to ceiling windows upon a vast garden. Further along, there was a less formal dining chamber and, beside it, what looked as they swept past what looked like a study, the walls lined with tall bookcases. Along the way, they encountered a manservant.
"Marcus," Jim greeted him with an austere nod. "Would you have rooms made up for my companion and myself?"
The servant, or butler as Blair supposed he was, ran a disapproving eye over him and sniffed. "As you wish, Master James," the man replied pompously, with a slight curl of his lips. Sliding past, his head down, Blair figured he probably objected to their scruffy appearances, which were so at odds with the elegance of the house. Or maybe the man simply objected to Jim bringing him home; clearly, he did not belong in such a setting, not as a guest to the heir.
Jim ignored the butler's attitude and continued along the richly-paneled corridor. Finally, they came to a covered walkway that led to the kitchen that was separated from the main building to guard against the possibility of fire. A cook was already at work, making bread, and the bright room was warm from the heat of the huge black stove against the far wall. She was slightly built, with silver threads in her coal-black hair that was gathered at the nape of her neck in a bun.
"Sally," Jim called warmly as she looked up with exotic, almond-shaped dark eyes, and a joyous smile illuminated the porcelain beauty of her face.
"Jimmy!" she exclaimed, wiping her hands on her apron, and then blushed at her familiarity when she realized he wasn't alone.
He moved across the room and bent to buss her floury cheek. Then he gestured toward Blair. "This is Blair Sandburg. He'll be staying here with me for the next day or so." Sniffing the air appreciatively, he grinned. "And we're starving, to tell you the God's own truth."
"Well, you just sit yourselves down at the table," she urged, waving them toward the chairs on the far side of the table from where she'd been working. In minutes, she had fresh cinnamon rolls, still warm from the oven, fried eggs, bacon and potatoes sharing plates with sliced tomatoes served up and set before them. She poured them each a large glass of milk, and smiled to see them both dig into their meal with hearty enthusiasm.
They'd just finished when Blair heard footsteps in the hall beyond, and then a distinguished man with a thick head of gray hair and eyes the same colour of blue as Jim's strode into the kitchen.
"Jim, good to have you home, son," he said, the words welcoming though his manner was stiff and awkward. "Marcus told me you were here."
"Father," he replied as he stood from the table. "This is Blair Sandburg. Blair, my father. William Ellison."
"Yes, Marcus mentioned you'd brought someone with you," the elder Ellison said with a cursory glance at Blair and a quirked brow at the rough, frontier garb. "Mr. Sandburg," he acknowledged with little evident warmth. "We'll have accommodations prepared for you in the servants' hall over the stables."
"He's staying here, in the main house," Jim retorted flatly. "And, since we've been up all night, we'll be retiring for a few hours of rest."
Something flickered in William Ellison's eyes that Blair couldn't read, but the older man didn't contest the matter further. Instead, he said, "We heard the Army was under siege on Brooklyn Heights."
"We were," Jim allowed briefly. "The Army evacuated to Manhattan during the night."
"All of it?" he exclaimed and then frowned as he looked away, and his lips thinned. Blair's gaze narrowed as he watched and listened. But he'd seen and heard enough. Jim's father was either a Loyalist or at least unsympathetic to the revolt. Shifting his gaze to Jim, he regretted the undercurrent of conflict that was palpable between the two men. Never having had a family, he thought it a shame to have one and not be happy with it.
"Yes, Father, we all made it to safety." Waving Blair to again follow him, he said, "Don't worry. We won't be here long." He thanked Sally for their meal, and then led the way out of the kitchen, back to the broad staircase in the foyer. Blair suggested having another look at the healing wounds of his arm, but Jim waved the idea off. "It's fine," he replied, flexing it and barely wincing. "The dressing's still clean."
Jim left him in a spacious, luxurious chamber that overlooked the grounds at the back of the house. "I'll have hot water sent up, and the chamber pot'll be under the bed," he said. "We'll go over to Headquarters this afternoon. Someone will wake you for lunch and I'll meet you downstairs."
"Uh, okay," Blair agreed, feeling dazed and out of his element as he gaped at the massive bed and then looked up at Jim. "In the kitchen?"
"Most comfortable room in the house," he agreed with a nod. "Sleep well."
Left alone, Blair dropped his pack near the bed and wandered across the room to the windows and looked out on manicured lawns and well-tended gardens. From his vantage point, he could see a small pond fed by a stream that rambled across the property and he smiled at the ducks that swam serenely on its surface. There was a white gazebo near the water, and he spotted benches set under shade trees.
A sharp knock on the door claimed his attention, and he hurried to respond. A young maid carrying an over-sized pitcher with steaming water and an armful of linens scooted past him to deposit her burdens on a low table in the corner, beside a bowl. After pouring a generous amount of water into the basin and pulling a wrapped bar of soap from her apron pocket to set beside it, she turned and curtsied. "Will there be anything else, sir?"
"Uh, no, no, that's great. Thanks," he stammered and, with another bob, she hurried out again.
Blowing a breath, Blair began undressing, eager to clean off the mud and filth he'd accumulated in the last several days. After washing, he was delighted to find that, with care, he could wash his hair over the basin, rinsing it with still warm water from the pitcher. Toweling his hair dry, he turned to the bed. A large four-poster, it was covered with a goose-down quilt and the pillows looked as soft as clouds. Tentatively, he moved toward it and reached out to press down on its surface. Firm, but not hard. He looked at his bedroll and then back at the bed, and a slow smile curved over his lips. Carefully, he drew down the counterpane and found sheets edged with delicate lace and so fine he was sure they must be silk; for a moment, he simply allowed himself to touch the smooth, pristine surface. Then he looked under the bed and spotted the ornate porcelain covered pot and his lips thinned in a grimace. Seemed indecent to him, the idea that someone else would have to dump his slops and clean up after him. But his need was immediate, and there didn't look to be other choices. The one thing he hadn't spotted out the back was a privy. Feeling decidedly awkward, he used the appliance, his nose curling as he covered it and then he carefully slipped it back out of sight.
And then he climbed onto the high bed ... and sighed in pure sensual delight. He'd never lain upon a mattress stuffed with something soft that conformed to his body, or on sheets that felt cool against his skin even in the summer's heat, or upon plump pillows that cradled his head. A breeze laden with floral perfume drifted through the open windows, billowing the light curtains and lightly caressing him. Closing his eyes, he savoured the decadence, the incredible comfort of it, knowing well that this was probably the only time in his life that he'd experience something so indescribably luxurious.
Exhausted, his stomach pleasantly full, his body clean, a small smile of utter contentment on his lips, he soon slipped deeply into sleep.
"General Howe! Wake up, sir!"
The middle-aged general pushed away the hand that shook his shoulder lightly, and grumbled as he pulled himself the rest of the way from sleep. He scrubbed his eyes and sniffed, and then looked up from his camp cot in his tent at his aide-de-camp. "What is it?" he demanded.
"There are no sentries on the Heights," the young man said flatly.
Frowning, Howe swung his legs to the ground and pulled on his boots. Standing, he pulled up his suspenders and donned his coat. Grabbing his elaborate headpiece, he led the way out of the tent and stood staring up the long muddy hill toward the town. His sharp gaze roamed the walls and then he grabbed his orderly's shoulder. "Run to wake my staff. Tell them I want their men ready to march immediately."
Less than an hour later, the British Army pushed into Brooklyn Heights. At first, the lead soldiers went cautiously, expecting a rebel around every corner. But their mystification grew as they only found deserted streets and alleyways.
No more than an hour after they entered the town, a messenger returned on the run to the General. "They're gone, sir!" the soldier gasped. "All of the bloody Americans are gone! Crossed the river in the dark, they did!"
Howe's jaw tightened and his pallid face flushed with anger. He'd thought them caught, trapped, with nowhere to go, only to have them slip out of his grasp. Wordlessly, he turned away and swung up into the saddle of his black steed and then set the animal at a walk up the mud-slick hill. When he got into the town, he continued to the back gate and the lane down to the dock, where he stared at the river and saw British gunboats rounding the headland, slowly making their way upriver to blockade the Heights. Too late. He and his brother were both too late. His gaze shifted to Manhattan. So close and yet ... he had thirty thousand men to decamp from Long Island, and the Americans were no longer boxed in. For all he knew, they'd already taken flight.
Grimacing, he muttered, "Well, at least I have them on the run."
Awakened by another sharp rap on his door hours later, Blair groggily sat up in bed and then hastily hauled the sheet up to his chin to cover his nakedness when the pert little maid hustled right on in. "Good afternoon, sir," she said crisply as she sped across the gleaming wood floor. Briskly, she dumped the water in the basin out the back window and gave it a swipe and picked up the empty jug and used linens, leaving fresh towels and steaming hot water in another large pitcher. "Master James will join you in the kitchen in fifteen minutes," she told him just before she closed the door behind her.
Blair blinked and raked his hair back from his face. Feeling better for the rest, he slid out of bed, once again used the chamber pot, and then hastily washed and shaved himself, scraping his hunting knife over his soap-lathered face. After pulling on his clothes and tying his hair back with a leather thong, he quickly straightened the bed and glanced at his pack, powder horn, and musket. Seemed a bit much to cart all that to the kitchen, but Jim might want to leave as soon as they'd eaten. So he gathered up his possessions and stood for a moment, just looking around the room, memorizing it, certain he'd never see the like of it, or ever sleep so comfortably, in his life again.
Still, he thought, looking at the heavy paintings on the wall of ships at sea, and all the knick-knacks that were pretty but useless, the ornate furniture, it would tie a man down and leave him feeling boxed in. He wondered if that was why Jim didn't appear to live here anymore. The man he was coming to think of as a friend seemed too humble for such surroundings and too vital to be caged.
He went downstairs and retraced the way along the corridor toward the distant kitchen. As he neared the chamber that contained the wealth of books, he heard taut voices and he slowed, recognizing them.
"Jimmy, I'm just worried about you, son!" William exclaimed. "You could have been killed on Long Island! This war is insanity, and you know it. The revolutionaries haven't got a hope against the might of the British."
"We've been over this before," Jim replied, sounding both annoyed and tired. "We see this country - hell, the world - in different ways. Whatever happens, you'll be secure, but there are a great many people who are being badly hurt by the unfair taxation. Besides, we're better able to govern ourselves than are strangers way over on the other side of the world."
William sighed. "Well, you're a man and entitled to make your own decisions. I hope your choices won't cost your life." There was a pause and then Blair heard him add in a hopeful tone, "How long will you be visiting?"
"Probably another night," Jim said, and Blair heard the scrape of a chair so, not wishing to be caught eavesdropping, he hastened along the corridor. And then he remembered that Jim could hear his heartbeat, apparently heard it all the time, and he flushed. Jim would know he'd been listening in the hallway. Slowing his steps, he paused and waited for his Captain. When Jim and his father came out of the study, Jim quirked a knowing brow at him, but William Ellison seemed surprised to see him. Blair figured the man had forgotten he was even in the house.
"Good day, Ca ... uh, Jim, Mr. Ellison," he said politely, looking from Jim to his father. "I thank you for your fine hospitality, sir." Seeming distracted, the elder Ellison nodded and half-lifted a hand, as if to wave off Sandburg's gratitude.
"Blair," Jim greeted him. "We'll get something to eat from Sally, and then go over to Headquarters." He didn't look back as he walked away from his father.
But Blair saw the aching sorrow and discouragement on the older man's face as he watched his son, and the defeated way his shoulders sagged as he turned away.
When they reached Headquarters, they learned that squads of men had been sent out across the small city to scavenge supplies for their retreat. Washington was with his senior officers, and they all stood around a map of the colonies that was nailed lightly into the wall, each arguing his perspective on what they should do next. His head bowed and his hands clasped behind his back, the General listened to their opposing views, quietly thinking about how best to save his nascent Army. Tension was high; everyone in the war room knew that the British gunboats had begun the evacuation of the British from Long Island. The size of the beast was their salvation: it would take days to evacuate the British off Long Island and transport them back to their main camp on Staten Island. When he noticed Ellison and Sandburg had arrived, he left the half-circle of colonels and waved them to the far side of the large room.
"When will you hear from your scouts?" he asked, needing their vital information before making a final decision on deployment.
"Hopefully, later this evening," Jim told him. "Tomorrow, if they ran into trouble."
"Fair enough," Washington sighed and rubbed his chin as he glanced back at the map. "What are your views, Jim?"
Lightly chewing the inside of his lip, Jim pondered the options. "North," he said. "I'd go north. If we go much farther west, we'll get too far from our own supply lines. We can lead the redcoats into the wilderness, buy ourselves some time to get this Army into shape, and still be within striking distance of the towns and ports where the British are most likely to billet, like Boston." He turned to Blair and quirked a brow, inviting his input.
"Either way," the younger man added, "we'll need to make some contact with the Indians in the area, hopefully to win their support but at least to keep them neutral. If they actively join with the British, we could be in real trouble - and the Algonquins in the north, and the Mohawk around the lakes, are already more aligned with the British than the French. The Huron, though ... hard to say which way they'll jump."
"Good points, both of you," the General mused. Sighing, he rolled his shoulders; despite his certainty that the revolution would succeed, he still wasn't at all sure he was the man to lead the armed resistance. He was a farmer, an armchair philosopher, but not a warrior by inclination. "Well," he added, "all things being equal when your scouts return, and given all I've heard of everyone's views this morning, north it will be." But his eyes clouded and he frowned, unconsciously rubbing his hands together. "Our comrades in the south will fare better than we when the snow starts to fly," he murmured unhappily as he turned away.
"He's right, Jim," Blair murmured as they left the war room. "The men are not equipped for winter survival."
Jim nodded soberly. The cold might well defeat them faster than the British ever could. "That's months away, Chief," he muttered, leading the way out of the building and into the bright August sunlight. "First we have to survive the next few days."
Joel arrived first, in the early evening. He knocked politely on the kitchen's back door, and Sally hustled him inside, immediately sitting him down and plying him with food. From the way he ravenously tucked in, Jim and Blair understood he'd been some long time without food.
"Admiral Howe has moved two gunboats into the river on the west side - won't be no slipping past 'im in the night this time," Joel told them. Jim nodded, not surprised. The British were the most powerful military force on the face of the earth, their navy ruled the seas, which made their escape from Long Island all the more incredible. Though he said nothing, he wondered if the rumours about Admiral Richard Howe were true, that he was sympathetic to the colonials. The man could make an argument about not sailing down a fog-shrouded narrow river in the dark but, by rights, he should have been blockading Brooklyn Heights to prevent exactly what had transpired.
Simon stumbled in about an hour later, gray with exhaustion, heaving to catch his breath. He'd had the longer run and the big man had evidently maintained a relentless pace. "It's clear," he puffed. "At least when I watched. Two gunboats sailed past but none are watching the bridge. No redcoats anywhere."
Jim clapped him on the shoulder. "Rest while you can, eat. I doubt we'll still be in the city when the dawn comes." Leaving his friends to Sally's diligent ministrations, he and Blair jogged out of the house and back to Headquarters to report to the General.
The word flowed back out immediately to the company commanders. Rouse your men, organize the transports - depart when ready to the north, through Harlem and beyond, into the hills.
"That means we go now, Junior," Jim told Blair. "We need to be out ahead, scouting the way."
They passed the Ellison Mansion on the way north through the city, and stopped briefly. "I'll tell the men, Jim," Blair hastened to volunteer. "Why don't you let your father know we're on our way?"
His features flattening, his gaze hard, Jim replied with deep anger, "He might report our movements to the enemy. I can't risk it."
Blair's brows furrowed and he shrugged, but decided to speak up. "You know him better than I do," he allowed. "But, I don't think he'd ever take any chances with your life. He thinks we're crazy, taking foolish risks for a fruitless cause. But he loves you, Jim. He'd never betray you."
"And you know this how, exactly, after meeting the man exactly twice when he scarcely acknowledged your presence?" Jim growled irritably.
"I'm a stranger - an odd-looking, blue-eyed Jewish Indian who doesn't fit in his world," Blair argued. "Why should he pay any attention to me? You're his son. I saw him this morning when you strode away from him. He was hurting, Jim. Hurting bad."
Huffing an impatient sigh, deep down very much wanting to believe Sandburg's assessment of his father, Jim hesitated.
"Who taught you your integrity?" Blair pushed, his voice very low, almost a hiss. "Who taught you to see through your commitments? To never give up, no matter what? Or even how to assess your rivals, your enemies?"
"My father," Jim returned, his tone icy with the cold memories of his childhood.
"Then he taught you well," Blair said flatly. "You're ... you're a good decent man, but you've got the strength and ruthlessness we need in leaders engaged in a desperate venture. If he prepared you for this, you owe him a debt of gratitude. We all do."
"Fine, fine," Jim capitulated, not having the time or the patience to argue further. "I'll meet you back at the gate in ten minutes."
Jim found his father having a solitary dinner in the family dining room. The older man jumped to his feet, clearly wanting his son to join him.
"I'm sorry, Dad," Jim told him, though his tone held little warmth. "I just came to let you know we're moving out tonight."
Stricken, William moved around the table and gripped his son's arm. "You be careful, Jimmy," he insisted, his voice unsteady. "You be damned careful, son."
Relenting, wondering if maybe Sandburg had the right of it, Jim allowed a small smile. "I'll be careful, and when I can, I'll send word."
William stood awkwardly, gazing at him with eyes growing red with unshed tears. He lifted an arm helplessly and Jim, unable to deny the desire, in truth, needing the same thing, moved forward and they embraced tightly. "I'll pray for you, Jimmy," William rasped brokenly. "I want you to come home, hopefully in one piece. I love you, son."
When Jim pulled away and strode down the corridor to let himself out the front door, he felt confused. That hug had contained more affection than he'd known for nearly the whole of his life. But he also felt the better for it.
Blair was waiting by the gate, and they loped along torch-lit streets, heading north.
They jogged past heavily-laden carts and wagons, and all the streets and lanes heading north were already crowded with hundreds of soldiers, bedrolls over their shoulders and muskets in hand or slung across their chests. They moved swiftly, their steps light, all of them heartened by their narrow escape from the British, and anxious to put more distance between them, at least for now. The time would come to fight, a time when their leaders would choose the ground. Some sang or whistled along with the fifes as they marched to the beat of the snare drums. Word had gone out and all in the city knew that the British were decamping from Long Island, and many of the townspeople came out to cheer them along, or waved from their upper windows.
But shouts from behind caught their attention as mounted messengers approached from the rear, shouting out that Washington was ordering the men already on the move to stop at Harlem Heights, and to go no farther until they received further orders. The rest were going to remain in Manhattan. Surprised, Jim flagged one of the young soldiers down, and the lad, no more than sixteen pulled up beside them.
"What's happening?" Ellison demanded. "Why the stop in Harlem?"
"It's Admiral Howe, sir," the young private replied earnestly, flushed and panting a little in excitement. "He wants a parley. Maybe they're going to surrender to General Washington!"
Jim snorted and looked away, his gaze taking in hundreds of men who were in retreat. "I doubt that, lad," he replied starkly. The British were trying to hold them close, that was all, until the redcoats and Hessians were ready to take another go at them. Staying within their reach was foolhardy, but he could hardly say so, or even disparage the General for wishful thinking to the young soldier.
"When's this meet to take place?" he asked instead.
"Admiral Howe suggests Staten Island, on the eleventh, Captain. He's promised no more attacks between now and then."
"I'll bet he has," Jim remarked sarcastically. It took time to get tens of thousands of men and a whole armada of gunboats in place, time to plan a battle strategy. His lips thin and closed tight against words he couldn't say aloud, he nodded and slapped the rump of the mare, sending the soldier off to complete his duty of slowing the Continental Army's retreat to safety.
"This isn't good news, is it?" Blair murmured, frowning in thought.
"The side that's winning, and that holds all the power, doesn't usually sue for peace, Chief," Jim grated caustically. "No, I don't think this is good news at all." He sighed and scratched his cheek. He'd heard rumours that, for weeks, Washington had been refusing to meet with Howe, refusing even to accept messages that weren't appropriately addressed with his formal Commander in Chief title. Why was he agreeing now? Was it just another example of procrastination and uncertainty on Washington's part? Or was the General angling for time to regroup?
"What do you want to do? Keep heading north or wait here until the eleventh?"
Chewing absently on his inner lip, Jim thought about it. "We've got time between now and the talks to scout out the north a bit, maybe get some ideas for the General, in case ... well, in case this is all a setup."
"Works for me," Blair replied congenially, and they resumed their journey. "It'll give us more time to work on your senses, too," he added with a teasing smile, knowing full well what Jim would think about that idea.
Exercising massive restraint, Ellison confined himself to rolling his eyes and then giving the kid a playful cuff on the back of his head. Blair darted away, laughing, his eyes sparkling with bright mischief.
Jim chuckled, too, then, and his dark mood lightened. Only later did it occur to him that it had been the first time he'd heard the kid laugh with such abandon. Even the memory made him smile. That laughter was rich and warm, replete with joy, and very, very contagious.
Making good time, they arrived ahead of the messengers on horseback and the bedraggled troops marching to the desultory beat of the drums. The messengers had gotten slowed down by officers wanting to know what was going on, and the confusion that resulted about whether to carry on or stay in Manhattan. They stopped briefly to talk with the Marblehead Mariners who were standing ready to assist in a further retreat from Harlem Heights, if that proved necessary and most believed it was inevitable. After informing the men that plans had changed, at least for the moment, they climbed the Heights and paced off the rolling landscape.
Having grown up in Manhattan and on the farm on Long Island, Jim had been there many times in the past, but Blair hadn't seen the area before. They took note of the broad plateau and the cover it offered for the movement and engagement of troops, as well as The Hollow, a sunken sector of ground - a place to conceal troops but not a good place to be caught and surrounded. They also reconnoitered routes of retreat. Like it or not, the Continental Army did not have the skills or experience to confront the British Lion head-on. Jim shook his head and sighed, while Blair bit his lip as he bowed his head and shrugged. Both were well aware that the war would not be won easily, nor would it be won here, where the British could easily overwhelm them simply by sailing boatload after boatload of redcoats up the river. Descending to the ferry landing, they accepted a lift across the water by one of the Mariners.
As the sun began to set in the west, they chose a campsite that overlooked the river and was sheltered by trees from the wind. They gathered deadfall for their fire, and Blair rummaged in his pack for the food Sally had wrapped for them and insisted he bring along, not that he'd fought the offer. Jim shook out their bedrolls and dropped to lie on his side, propped on his right elbow as the wound in his left arm was still tender. Blair sat Indian-style on the other side of the fire. As night fell, they munched on fried chicken, raw carrots and peapods, cheese, pickles and soft, fresh rolls Sally had liberally lashed with sweet butter. Stars brightened overhead, filling the night sky, and the quarter moon rose leisurely from the horizon.
"Will Simon and the others follow behind us now that the orders have changed, or wait until we return?" Blair asked.
"I think they'll wait," Jim replied laconically, trusting his men to use their best judgment. "They've been pushing pretty hard and could use the rest time; Simon and Joel will know to take advantage of that."
His lips twitching in amusement, Blair refrained from commenting that the others weren't the only ones who had been pushing hard and getting little sleep in the recent past. Tossing the chicken bones into the flames, he stretched out and looked up at the night sky, wondering how much more, or how much more clearly, Jim could see the stars blazing above them. But, not wanting to risk Jim falling into his sense of sight and the headache that he was learning invariably accompanied such moments, he didn't ask. Instead, he enjoyed the peace of the silence, the tranquility of being away from crowds of people, the noise and foul smells of the town ... and the respite of knowing there'd be no battles to fight for the next week or so, at least. Pulling his hair free of the leather thong, he rested his head on his laced fingers and palms and simply relaxed.
An easy, companionable silence fell between them and he had nearly drifted to sleep when Jim admitted quietly, "I heard what you told Simon the other day. In the barn."
"I thought you might have," he replied with a yawn, seemingly unconcerned. Rolling onto his side to face Jim, squinting against the flickering flames between them, he went on, "You've been generally pretty solicitous of me and extraordinarily patient with the sensory work, ever since. It's okay to tell me if I push too hard, or if you need to take a respite."
"Hmm," Jim mumbled, grimacing at the thought of being so transparent.
"Jim ...." Blair began, and hesitated. But then he drew a breath and continued, "My Ma died a long time ago. It was hard at the time - very hard - but lots and lots of people have hard lives, maybe even most people; especially on the frontier, but even in the towns when they're poor and haven't enough to eat. I never starved. The Cherokee were good to me in their way and I learned a great deal from them. I'm strong and healthy and free. There's no need to feel you have to coddle me or ... or feel sorry for me. There was certainly no need to risk a confrontation with your father over where I slept - you know I didn't need to be treated like a guest." He grinned impishly and added, "Though I have to say, that bed was the closest thing to paradise that I could possibly imagine."
Surprised into a chuckle, Jim scrubbed his face with his palms, feeling fairly caught. This kid didn't miss anything. "Fighting with my father has been a way of life for more than twenty years - you just happened to be a handy reason," he returned, sounding weary and distant and he frowned with perplexity, remembering the hug.
"What're the hard feelings about, if you don't mind me asking," Blair asked carefully.
Sitting up to toss a few more sticks into their fire, using another to stir up the ashes, so that burning flakes swirled into the air, Jim took his time answering. Sighing, he finally replied, "We've just never gotten along well. He's ... his whole world is trade, competition and profit and he's never understood my need to find out what's beyond the horizon. And ... well, he's never wanted to acknowledge my freakish senses or, worse, the fits I've had since I was a kid."
"Your senses aren't freakish and you don't have fits," Blair retorted firmly, also sitting up. Scratching his stubbled cheek, he mused, "So ... the senses don't come from him."
"No," Jim responded, his voice low. "My younger brother doesn't have them, either. I think my mother may have suffered from them. She, uh, she left us, the city, when I was seven; went back to her family's estate in Maryland. Said she 'couldn't abide' the noise and the stench." He looked up at the sky. "She killed herself less than a year later."
"Oh, God, I'm sorry," Blair sighed, regretting that he'd prodded such memories. His throat tightened as he thought about what she must have endured, and she must have missed her boys and felt so bereft without them ... and probably felt an unbearable burden of guilt for having left them. And then a horrible thought curdled his blood. "You didn't ever ... I'm mean, you wouldn't ...."
Turning his face away from the fire's light, Jim shrugged. "A lot of people have believed I'm cursed or something," he finally replied, his voice dry and rough. He bowed his head and said softly, "Until you came along, I didn't know ... I thought I was the only ...."
"The only person like you," Blair supplied, sounding sad, aching with empathy he didn't think Jim would want. "You're not. But you are rare and very, very special. Your senses are not a curse, Jim. Or, at least, they don't have to be, if you accept them and work with them instead of resent them and fight them."
"Very, very special, huh?" he echoed, striving to inject wry humour into his voice and not quite managing the feat. Sighing, he said, "Maybe, with your help ... maybe. Too soon to tell."
"You're doing really well, Jim. You've already gained a lot more control," Blair encouraged. "You're going to be fine." Jim nodded but didn't say anything more, so Sandburg didn't know if his companion was convinced or just wanted to talk about something else. Casting around for another subject when Jim's silence lengthened, and hoping he didn't stumble into another swamp, he asked, "Where's your brother now?"
"Steven works the family farm on Long Island," he replied, rolling his shoulders and absently supporting his wounded arm. "I'd been to see him, to negotiate for his harvest on behalf of the Army. T'was on the way back that I encountered General Howe and his redcoats."
"You think he's okay? I mean, what with all that happened over there?"
"Should be," Jim said evenly, not sounding worried. "The British don't make war on civilians, though his crop may have been requisitioned to feed that horde."
Blair thought about that, about how different the culture was from the one he'd grown up within. "I guess they figure it's not gentlemanly or something," he mused.
"Guess so," Jim agreed, but shook his head. "Beats me, though, how a people who fought and won their own right to representation can deny the same right to their families, just because we're a few generations removed and live over here."
"Maybe that's why they haven't pressed their advantage, at least not yet," Blair reflected. "Maybe a lot of them think this war is wrong."
"I guess we'll find out," Jim replied stoically, lying back down and closing his eyes.
"Yeah," Blair murmured, looking at him for a long moment and then up into the distant, untouchable sky. "Yeah, I guess we will."
They roamed the countryside to the village of White Plains, about twenty-five miles north of the city, and then scouted around the surrounding three hills for defensible positions. Nearly ten thousand men and innumerable camp followers were a whole lot to feed and even harder to hide. The men would need time to drill to become real soldiers, and not just a motley collection of hunters and trappers, craftsmen, clerks, and merchants. At least the hunters and trappers knew something about survival, and how to prime and shoot the muskets they carried.
After briefly debating which way to wander next, they decided against east because that would take them ever closer to the coast and the British. So, west it was, eventually along the river into Pennsylvania. And then, they cut back cross-country, hurrying now, jogging in a ground-eating lope they could both maintain all day. Colour was beginning to show on the trees, the vibrant greens turning to yellow, orange and, here and there, a hint of the flaming crimson that would paint the hills in the weeks to come. The days were growing noticeably shorter as darkness crowded out the summer, and fall's crisp chill breath on the wind in the dawn's early light hinted of the coming winter. They kept to the woodland, skirting around villages, even tiny crossroads' settlements and farms where the harvest was nearly over, much of the land stripped and bereft of their verdant crops. From time to time, Jim put out a hand to stop Blair, and touched a finger to his lips - and then he'd point at a magnificent stag drinking by a bubbling stream, or a pack of wolves loping over the brow of a nearby hill. Blair would always smile widely and nod mutely, as if he understood and shared the joy of the wilderness and the creatures within it. But, occasionally, the swift gesture for silence was accompanied with an urgent push to the ground, and they'd huddle in the shadows while a hunting party of Shawnee roamed past.
Throughout their journey, Blair took what seemed like every opportunity to work with Jim on his senses, from hooking vision to sight, to hearing a songbird's warble on a far, distant branch, to examining tiny rodent tracks in the ground and trying to determine from the consistency of the semi-dried mud how long since the light, barely discernible prints had been made. Blair had him sniffing the air constantly, until he could block out other scents and home in on the specific type of berry Sandburg had a hankering for that particular day. But it wasn't all as taxing or annoying as Jim had feared it might be; Blair had a knack for making it all fun, a kind of game of discovery or exploration. And the kid got good at reading him, at knowing when he'd had enough and a headache threatened, until Sandburg finally scolded him strenuously for not being more in touch with his own energy. Blair emphatically told him to simply say when he'd had enough, instead of waiting until it was too much and irritation had crept into his eyes, face and voice. Though Jim couldn't say he was enjoying his senses, and still didn't wish they'd just go back to normal, he was less intimidated by them and more comfortable with each day that passed with his ability to use them in a predictable, reliable way.
At night, around the campfire as they roasted their catch of the day, sometimes fish, more often rabbit or quail or pheasant, they talked ... or, rather, Blair talked and Jim listened. Blair told him stories, like the one he'd heard from an old grandfather amongst his time with the Cherokee while the man was conversing gently with younger men, whose blood was on fire for a raid against their latest enemy. "When I was young," Blair quavered slowly, thoughtfully, mimicking the old man's voice, "I had a wolf inside of me, a wolf that hungered to hunt, raged for revenge - a wolf that was quick to anger. But I had another wolf inside me, too; one that was patient, that treasured the pack and wanted to protect it, keep it safe, not draw back danger. Those wolves, they fought all the damned time. Was wearing and sometimes I did not know which one was going to win." Blair's voice drifted off and the only sound was the crackling of the wood in the fire and the hiss of grease dripping in the flames.
"So, which wolf won?" Jim asked, turning the spit.
Grinning, Blair nodded approvingly. "That's just what the young men asked. And the elder looked piercingly at each one of them before he stood and said flatly just before he walked away, 'The one I fed'."
Sitting back on his haunches, Jim thought about that and nodded slowly. "Wise man," he murmured.
"Very wise," Blair replied, suddenly sober. Leaning forward, wrapping his arms around his knees and clasping his hands, he stared into the fire. "I thought about that story for a long, long time, Jim," he said softly. "I hated those people who stoned my mother to death. I used to dream of going back there one day to ... to kill them. I mean, she was my mother, and she didn't do anything wrong, nothing to deserve such brutality. And ... and she was all I had. But anger is like a wild, ravaging beast that really only tears you up inside. As for revenge? Well, it wouldn't bring my Ma back. I had to learn to let my anger go."
His gaze lifted to meet Jim's then, the irises so dark a blue they were mesmerizing, his face so solemn and so still, and yet so full of meaning, that Jim felt his throat thicken. Sometimes, they just talked but, sometimes, Blair told him what he was beginning to think of as 'message stories'. These stories held a deeper meaning, something Blair was trying to tell him, but also wanted him to work out for himself. And he figured this message, this lesson on life, was about his tendency to be swift to anger and the conflict between him and his Dad. Blair was telling him a lot of things; especially, that the turbulent emotions did no good and a lot of harm to oneself as well as to others, and Blair was also telling him he was lucky. He still had a father, a brother. Still had family. His own gaze fell away and he nodded, though he couldn't find the words to say he'd heard even the unspoken message.
Other times, Sandburg entertained him with anecdotes about what he'd read about other places in the world, and other cultures in other times. His face would light up, his eyes dancing and his hands flashing as he described some faraway, long ago land, his words falling faster and faster, with bright eagerness and wonder. And then he'd sigh and shake his head; murmur that he'd sure like to see that place some day. The ruins of the Parthenon high on the mount in Athens. The pyramids in Egypt. The hanging gardens in Babylon, that didn't even exist anymore. The Roman forum. Jerusalem. Sometimes, Blair sounded almost homesick, as if he was pining to return to places that haunted him because he'd loved those places and times so well, and Jim found himself wondering if Blair's spirit was one that some people believed got born again and again. But then, he'd shake himself and tell himself he was being whimsical, foolish. You got one life, and that was all you got. When it was over, it was over. The kid just had a good imagination, that was all. But he was fun to watch and listen to as darkness fell and the wind blew soft through the rustling leaves.
Without hardly realizing it, the seed of their friendship was planted in those days, rooting solidly in their lives, and growing swiftly, sure and strong, as their comfort in one another's company grew. Jim's trust, never easily given, was placed in Blair's care. The kid was just so good, so inventive when it came to his senses, so matter-of-fact about them that his confidence in Jim's abilities was both comforting and reassuring. And that kid could hunt with the best of them. He had an eagle eye of his own and rarely missed even the most difficult shots when they were hunting for their supper; and he was as accurate and fast with the hunting knife in his belt, or with the bow and arrows he'd crafted to keep his hands busy at night. Though he wasn't a big man, he was strong and resilient, tireless ... and good-humoured even in the drenching rain of a storm that overtook them one day, despite how much he bitched about hating to be wet or chilled, water dripping from the ends of the leather fringes and swirling in a cloud of drops whenever he gestured with his hands, creating interesting rainbow effects in the air that Jim found captivating.
Despite the grumbling about the weather, though, when Jim thought about it, the kid didn't bitch seriously about anything; just seemed to take things as they came and generally find them interesting or, at least, challenging. And Jim liked the fact that Blair was always thinking, planning ahead, even in small ways, like how he saved and rolled the skins of the animals they caught -- including one of a big black bear they'd found dead after a battle with some other animal. Ellison remembered their first night after they'd hunted and cooked their meat, and had eaten their fill. Patiently, while he drilled Jim on his senses and, later, told one of his stories, he scraped the skin clean and set it to smoke over the fire to drive out or kill lice and ticks. After a time over the smoke, and still keeping up his chatter about one thing or another, he soaked it in the nearby stream, cleaning the skin carefully with the roots and herbs he mixed with fat to boil into soap. And then he did something Jim had never seen or heard of before. Blair cracked the skulls of the animals and scooped out their brains, blending them with water into a pink pasty emulsion he heated gently over the fire. And then he carefully worked the diluted brain mixture into the hides. When Jim curled his lip in revulsion, Blair smiled in amusement.
"What?" he challenged mildly. "You'd rather we do this the white man's way, pissing on the hides and rubbing in excrement? I wanted to puke when I heard that's how you traditionally cure and soften leather." He shuddered. "Imagine wearing that on your skin. And it's no wonder your leather goods wear out so quickly." His hands continuing to knead the mixture patiently into the hide, he went on, his tone almost reverent. "This way is better ... softens the hides better and preserves them longer. And is more respectful of the animal, using what they were to keep them strong and supple, as they were in life."
"There are times, Chief, when you sound more Indian than white," Jim said flatly.
"Just because the tradition is Indian, Jim, doesn't make it wrong or inferior," Blair retorted, his eyes flashing. "We can all learn from one another. If we're willing to ... if our minds aren't closed to anything that's different."
Feeling chastened, Jim shrugged and turned away, though in moments like that he felt as though his friend was some alien creature, someone he didn't understand at all, and maybe never would.
Blair finished his work, rolled the hide and left it to warm by the fire. Later, he washed it thoroughly again before hanging it from a branch to dry, occasionally rising to stretch it carefully. In the morning, when it was time to move on, he rolled them if they were still damp and too big to hang on his belt or around his shoulders to dry while they traveled. Every night after a hunt, it was the same ritual of activities, wasting nothing, preparing for the coming winter. Once the skins were completely dry, in the evening around the campfire, he built a tripod of sticks and, one night when he was working on a skin where he'd kept the fur intact, he cajoled an old cotton shirt from Jim. "Smoke discolours the fur," he explained softly as he worked, his hands stroking the rich softness. "It's respectful to let the natural beauty remain, if we can."
After carefully stitching the shirt to the edges of skins that still had their fur attached, he rolled the fur side to keep it away from the smoke as much as possible, and then hung the bundle from the tripod, over the hot coals that he kept burning low and occasionally sprinkled with water, so that only smoke and not flames reached the dangling leather. As he worked, he explained that smoking the leathers would make them dry better after being wet, leaving them supple.
Blair's curing of hides became part of their evening's activities. Every time they stopped, he pegged them in the sun to dry or smoked them over the fire. The disgusting smell of the fresh and curing skins hung around them like a persistent cloud that left Jim feeling vaguely nauseous. When he complained one night about the stink, Sandburg just blithely told him to 'turn it down' and then said, wryly, that he planned to make more moccasins because he had a feeling they were going to need lots of moccasins, and maybe fur-lined vests for winter. Jim didn't say anything at the time, but he'd noticed that Blair's feet didn't seem to ache the way his did at the end of a long day, and he was beginning to envy the kid his footwear. And they both knew that bearskin might be all that kept them alive on the trail during the freezing nights that weren't all that far off. Before long, he was helping with the work, pretending not to notice how pleased Blair was by his interest and his skill in cleaning the carcasses. Smiling to himself, he figured enhanced sight and a delicacy of touch could be used for more than making war.
When they got back to civilization right on schedule, the eve of September 10th, and slowed their pace in the busy streets and lanes of Manhattan, Jim unconsciously drew him close and walked with an arm slung around his shoulders. He couldn't explain it, really, but touching Sandburg or being touched by him seemed to make the noises and the stench of the city more bearable. He'd gotten past consciously thinking about all the reasons that he liked the kid; he just knew that the warm spot in his heart was as strong for Sandburg as it was for anyone in his life, or even stronger, including his own brother. Mostly, given how much he depended upon Blair's help with his senses, and how closely they had to work together, he was just really glad they got along so well.
The discussions on Staten Island the next day didn't last long. The British, confident that their show of overwhelming strength and superiority would cool the revolutionary ardor, expected a complete surrender of hostilities and were prepared to give no ground or concessions in return. When he heard, Jim wasn't surprised and he still wondered if it hadn't been simply a ruse to keep the Washington and his troops within easy reach, but he hoped it was simply British arrogance and that they hadn't used the time as he and Sandburg had, to scout the route of retreat from Manhattan.
Badly torn, reluctant to move far from the stockpile of supplies in the armories in the city, fearful of losing such precious goods to the British, Washington nevertheless began slowly moving his Army out of the city and established his field headquarters on Harlem Heights. His men could not withstand a full-out assault; nor did he wish to place the civilian populace at risk. He needed time that he didn't have to get his Army organized, time to train his troops, time ... but there was no time. There was only the fearful might of the British and the colonial determination to be free of their yoke. At least Harlem Heights provided more suitable ground, if and when it would come to a fight, than the city's streets and lanes.
On the fifteenth, the British landed at Kip's Bay and began their own march toward Harlem Heights along the east side of the island, while the colonials continued moving up the west side. Washington was feeling boxed in and anxious about being driven, step by step, out of New York and into the wilds beyond. On the morning of the sixteenth, while out doing his own reconnoitering of the area, he and the one hundred and fifty rangers with him ran into the British light infantry in the narrow ground of the Hollow Way. Having no choice but to retreat from the overwhelming numbers they'd encountered, he and his men fled back to the plateau.
Behind them, they heard the contemptuous bugling call of the fox hunt, the call that said the fox was flagging and running away. The taunting notes of the horn were picked up by others, and heard on the Heights.
"Those bastards," Jim cursed, his eyes narrowing as he studied the forces arrayed below.
"What?" Blair asked tensely as he crouched by his friend on the lookout point, unable to see what was happening in the distance but well aware from the sounds of distant shouting, shots and the horn-blowing that the fight was fast coming toward them.
"The fox horn, Chief," Ellison grated angrily. "It's the call of the hunt; they're mocking us, saying we're helpless foxes on the run, not men, not warriors."
Around them, enraged rumbles rose from the ranks of men who had been ready to flee, to retreat once again as soon as the orders came. But they'd be damned if they'd run now, like helpless foxes before the hounds and 'gentlemen' on horseback. This was their ground, their land, their country and they would not be chased like vermin from that hill.
His mount blowing hard from the climb, Washington rode up onto the plateau, the rangers that had been with him now providing a rearguard delaying force, as best they could, against the thousands of British that were swarming behind them. Yelling sharply for his commanders, he waved them to him urgently. When one of his officers hastened forward asking if the word was to fall back, the General cursed and, instead, hastily ordered his companies to deploy across the rolling plateau, to seek cover until the British were drawn forward and surrounded, and then they were to attack. A messenger was sent flying to hasten the men still en route to the Heights from Manhattan. Washington kept a small force with him while the others moved into position and, when the rangers fell back and the British reached the uplands, he drew them after him, luring them further and further onto the wide plateau, smiling grimly now as he heard again the call of the hunt.
The British hounds were about to find out that these colonial foxes could bite.
When he turned, his saber in the air, his men turned with him, and his forces struck from either side. The British were caught flat-footed, startled and undone by the unexpected resistance and attack. Though their numbers were superior, they were surrounded and, after vicious exchanges of fire, their commanders ordered them to fall back. The colonial forces, emboldened by the success of their strategy, still enraged by the bugling that had assumed their cowardice, pressed forward relentlessly. Smoke filled the air and cannon belched fire. Redcoats shouted in confusion, and the Americans bellowed back in fury. Men on both sides yelped or screamed with the agony of their wounds; some died where they stood, dropping like unstrung marionettes to the ground.
"Jim! Jim!" Sandburg shouted over the din of battle when he turned and spotted Ellison crouched in pain after a cannon ball exploded close by. Some distance away, well aware that Jim was in trouble but too far to help, Simon and Joel cast anxious glances their way, while continuing to fire as often as they could reload and shoot.
Blair launched himself across the short space between them, tackling the Captain and rolling him to the ground behind tumbled rocks, covering Jim's body with his own, even as British lancers fired upon their position. "Turn down your hearing!" he urged, pitching his voice low to be heard, his tone commanding. Seeming oblivious to the tug of a whining ball of shot and a sharp burn along his upper arm, he turned and aimed his musket, firing to forestall a better aimed attack.
Startled surprise at the swiftly and selflessly protective action suffused the faces of their two older comrades, and Simon grunted, "I'll be damned."
Joel glanced at him and muttered approvingly as he again primed his musket, "That boy's got guts."
Pressed to the earth by Blair's body, eyes scrunched shut in agony at all the sounds tormenting him, Jim nodded jerkily, agreeing with them, and then he was wrestling with the spyglass in his mind, frantically twisting it to turn down the blistering chaotic noise that blasted through his ears. A breath, another ... and then his shoulders loosened and he squinted up at the kid.
"You okay?" Blair demanded as he grabbed Jim's rifle and then fired it, too, his deadly aim wounding the British marksmen, who retreated further back along the plateau.
"Yeah," Ellison gasped. Blair slid off him and he pushed himself to his knees, reclaiming his weapon while Sandburg reloaded and primed his own. "How 'bout you?" he demanded, eying the splash of blood darkening Blair's torn sleeve.
"Yeah, just a scratch, no problem. Best keep sound way down until this is done," Blair suggested hurriedly. Nodding, Jim led the way from their temporary shelter and they joined their compatriots in chasing the redcoats off the mount.
The British did not give up easily; they fought for every foot, but still found themselves forced back. Down the long hillside, dropping into gullies or behind fallen logs, they fired back and, when the infuriated colonial warriors overran their positions, they used their bayonets with deadly precision. But still the Americans kept coming after them, driving them back and farther back, into the Hollow Way.
The battle raged for hours, and more of the Continental Army's force, three thousand more, joined the battle as they arrived from Manhattan. Thirty Americans and fourteen British, including two of their senior officers, died that day; more than two hundred men suffered wounds. Six hours after the first shots were fired, though his forces would have fought on, Washington called them back. He didn't know how Ellison knew with such certainty that the British had landed more men, thousands more, but he believed him. And he knew, despite the courage of his own men, he could not let them stay and be slaughtered by a force that, in the end, badly outnumbered them. So he ordered them back to the Heights they'd held, to the ground they'd claimed as their own.
And when they stood upon that ground, panting for breath, grimy with sweat and dirt, many nursing wounds, dozens of their compatriots lying dead around them, they stood grimly proud. They'd reclaimed their dignity after their panicked retreat on Long Island; they were no longer abjectly terrified of the enemy. The Continental Army had just won its first pitched battle against the mighty British Lion.
But winning a battle didn't mean they'd won the war, or that they could win it on that ground and Washington knew it. Ultimately, they were no better positioned on Harlem Heights than they'd been in Brooklyn ... and the bitter reality of what had grown to nearly two hundred gunboats and thirty thousand British and Hessian troops had not changed. Though he sorely regretted giving up his foothold in New York, and all the supplies he'd have to leave behind, he had to move his forces to a safer, more open location, where they'd have room to maneuver and not be hemmed in by the Hudson and East rivers. Biting the bullet, having no real choice, he grudgingly ordered a total evacuation of Manhattan, and began to move his force across the river.
The British moved into the city on their heels, but their own time there was brief. A devastating fire broke out just after midnight on the twenty-first of September, destroying vast sections of the town. Nearly five hundred houses, the buildings the British had planned to use for the billeting of their force, went up in flames.
From Harlem Heights the molten glow of the voracious fire filled the night and stained the dark sky.
"My God," Jim gasped, squinting to focus his gaze in an effort to determine what part of the city was burning. Fear bloomed in his belly that his father and Sally might be in its conflagration.
Blair gaped and felt breathless at such fiery destruction. Fire was the hungry one, the appetite that ate and ate until there was nothing left or until water, the comforter, assuaged it. His chest felt tight as he scanned the sky and the brighter heat below and he wondered if ... if the family he'd never known was down there, trapped in the inferno. He'd clung to a deep, secret hope that one day he might find that family, that they'd want him, be glad he'd finally found his way back to them but what if ...? What if there was no one left to find, no home however mythical to return to? Was he truly so alone in the world? Swallowing hard, remembering himself, his duty, he clasped Jim's arm. "What do you see?" he asked, his voice tight, nearly cracking from strain.
"It's down in the south end of the city, burning to the west, I think," Jim replied soberly, blinking and rubbing his eyes. "Dad and Sally should be okay."
Ashamed that he'd not even thought of them, Blair flushed and bowed his head. "That's good, Jim. I'm glad."
"Doesn't help those poor people who are losing all they have," he replied disconsolately, and then with more anger, "I wonder if the British did this, to punish them ... us, all of us."
His gaze again lifting to the mesmerizing dance of heat on the horizon, Blair shook his head. "I doubt it," he muttered, sounding more cynical than Jim had ever heard him before. "They needed those buildings, those supplies, to billet and feed their men. If they ever do the burning, it will be on their way back to England, to punish us after we've driven them out - if we ever do. Men use fire to kill, to hurt and deprive, to express limitless anger. Maybe we did this to ourselves."
Frowning, Jim looked down at his friend. "You think Washington ordered this?" he demanded heatedly.
But Blair shook his head. "Nah. The General is trying to save this country. But men under his command? Who are jealous of leaving anything behind for the British? Who care less about life than winning? Maybe. Guess we'll never know."
A runner came for them, drawing their attention away from the burning city. Washington was planning to move out at first light, and wanted them in the vanguard, to lead the columns to White Plains.
They looked back over their shoulders at the angry sky. "War is like fire," Blair murmured. "Hungry, insatiable ... so destructive of all in its path."
"You think we're wrong to fight?" Jim asked as they made their way back to their camp, to pack up their gear.
"No," Blair replied stoically. "After a fire, a forest grows anew, stronger, more vibrant and vital, all the old deadwood cleared away, the ashes fertilizing the ground, making it healthier. This war is about clearing out the deadwood, the old ways, and letting a new country grow in its place." He paused and looked up at Jim. "Loss ... death ... death is natural, inevitable. Just ... just sometimes you lose what was precious, too, not just the deadwood. Sometimes you lose what can never be found again, won't ever be seen again."
He turned away and started rolling their blankets and filling their packs. Watching him, Jim felt as if he'd missed something. As if Blair felt he'd lost something in that fire that he'd hoped to find but now believed was forever gone. He sounded bereft and a little lost. Or maybe he was just remembering his mother and that he'd never see her again.
But then Jim remembered the Jewish quarter was south of Broadway and his expression tightened. He'd been relieved that he'd not lost family in that fire. But - Sandburg had told Simon he thought he had been born in New York. Had Blair lost family he'd never known and now never would? His throat thickened, but he remained mute in deference to his partner's clear desire to simply pack up and move on. Lending a hand, he reflected that this kid had had to pack up what little he had and move on too many times.
Furious, the British accused the Americans of having set the fire deliberately but, by then, most of Washington and his men were already slowly heading north toward White Plains. Affronted by the willful stubborn intransigence of the colonials, General Howe set off in pursuit. However, his efforts to contain Washington were frustrated at Throg's Point, where marksmen held his men back. Days later, he attempted to cut off the retreat to White Plains by landing at Pell's Point, but Colonel John Glover spotted the British gunboats that had entered Eastchester Bay overnight. He and his three hundred men fought a valiant delaying action, holding the British, driving them back briefly, and then holding them again, throughout the day, until he was forced to drop back himself. However, as the sun set, Howe gave up the pursuit ... and the remainder of Washington's main force made it to White Plains.
Further north in Quebec, the British General, John Burgoyne - often mockingly called 'Gentleman Johnny' because of his love of luxury even in the wilderness - failed in his attempt to achieve total supremacy, but did manage to drive the American boats out of Lake Champlain. However, the snow was already falling and so, rather than pursuing the colonials under Benedict Arnold's command, they retreated back north to their winter headquarters. Howe read the dispatches and shook his head. He'd thought they'd quell the revolt before winter, but the rebels were proving more obstinate than anticipated. "Damnation," he muttered, sorely aggrieved, and sighed. He wasn't completely unsympathetic to the colonials and had helped make some, if modest, gains in negotiations with the Crown before the revolution began. He'd hoped that they could be cowed, discouraged and overwhelmed without significant loss of life that would only lead to bitterness and strife in the future. Despite their orders, he and his brother both had a hard time seeing them as the enemy; more like fractious cousins. The conflict felt less like a war than an uprising of civil disobedience - at most, like a civil war, and he and Richard well knew how crippling, how devastating such conflict could be. He'd wanted them, ironically, to quit this madness of their own free will. Once again, he studied the dispatch in his hand. He and Richard had been candid with one another about their distaste for this commission, but they didn't dare discuss it with their subordinates, for it would be treasonous to suggest that such a war was short-sighted, that there might have been better ways to resolve the issues. Still, given how readily his subordinate had withdrawn for the winter, he wondered if anyone on their side was truly committed to this engagement.
He truly didn't believe Washington and his ragtag excuse for an army or the even less competent militia that supported him could possibly win their revolt. But, regretfully, he was beginning to understand that the colonies would have to be bathed in blood before they'd again submit to the rule of the distant British government.
His mouth set in a grim thin line, he gazed over the terrain and took a resolute breath. He had his orders and he knew Washington was close. If he could end it now at White Plains, well and good; if not, well, war was hell, particularly in the winter when men needed to be fed and the countryside was barren. The Continental Army was comprised of volunteers ... when they got hungry enough, volunteers often deserted to return to their homes. Perhaps the coming winter would resolve the matter once and for all. Briskly, Howe called his subordinates to him and rendered his orders for the attack that would take place on October 28th.
Having been briefed by Ellison about the hilly terrain around the village of White Plains, Washington wasted no time upon their arrival in having his men build fortifications on the two nearest hillsides. But, somehow, he didn't grasp the import of the looming flat-topped mount, Chatterson's Hill, just across the Bronx River. Jim and his men had been sent to keep on eye on Howe's approach, so weren't aware that the General had missed the strategic significance of the position. However, they hared back to give a general alarm that the advance guard of British troops had taken position up on the heights and, after a brief skirmish to drive them off, Washington belatedly realized whichever side controlled that plateau, controlled the valley. He hurriedly had cannonry hauled up its steep slope to its flat summit, and deployed sixteen hundred men to hold the site.
Howe arrived as planned, with four thousand Hessian mercenaries with him, and took up position about a mile from Washington's main force. However, immediately realizing the significance of the looming hill, he set most of his force into battle to secure it, bombarding the Americans with artillery fire, sending three companies up the slopes to root them out, and finally directing a cavalry charge - the first in the war. The militia broke under the triple assault and ran, leaving the Continental Army soldiers to battle on against staggering odds. Despite fighting valiantly, they were ultimately forced into an orderly retreat, surrendering Chatterson's Hill to the enemy.
Washington had no choice but to pull back and regroup at Castle Hill, about four miles north. Evening was quickly falling, and Howe decided not to give immediate chase and then postponed further action for two full days, indicating his intention to march again on Halloween. But the weather turned and heavy storms moved in the night of the thirtieth, making any kind of concerted action impossible.
When he finally marched his men to Washington's last known location, he found the Americans had again vanished. The wind was cold and damp as he studied the abandoned site, ignoring the suggestions of his officers about tracking the rebels. Still loathe to annihilate the colonials, he fell back upon his specific orders. Lifting a hand, he told them flatly, "Our first duty is to secure New York." He turned his force back south, to Fort Washington, where Washington had left two thousand men to safeguard the stockpiles of supplies and armament: 146 canon, 12,000 shot and shell, 2,800 muskets, and 400,000 cartridges. Howe's plan was clear to himself, if to no one else. Divested of invaluable and irreplaceable armament, forced to accept one loss after another, and faced with enduring a bitter winter, he was certain the Colonial Congress and even Washington himself would see the light and recant this notion of liberty. And if the leaders proved too stubborn and refused to quit, Howe knew as well as Washington did that his men had enlisted only until the end of the calendar year. Surely it could only be a matter of time before a goodly number deserted and the rest to refuse to re-enlist.
After all, bereft of an army, Washington could hardly continue the war.
"Sir, with respect, Fort Washington is indefensible against a concerted attack by the British," Jim argued. "We need to evacuate the site and take as much as the men can carry when they go."
Washington's lips thinned and he looked away, evidently troubled. He wasn't sure he disagreed with his trusted scout. "Colonel Greene is on site and believes differently," he replied distantly. "I trust his judgment."
Nevertheless, he took his main force to Fort Lee, located across the river in New Jersey but close enough, he hoped, to render assistance if it was needed. But, once they arrived and he looked out upon the British gunboats that had navigated the Hudson despite the obstructions sunk deliberately to prohibit their access, he realized that the situation was disastrous. The British had already surrounded Fort Washington and the American line was too thin to hold them at bay. Nor did he have the men or resources to effectively assist in confronting the full might of a determined Howe. Sick at heart, he watched Fort Washington resist bravely but ultimately surrender, and closed his eyes in grief over the fate of the two thousand men he'd just lost to the British prison ships. The loss of the armament was just as staggering in terms of their future success. Disgusted with himself for having vacillated and having doubted his initial instinct that they should have taken what they could and run while there'd been a chance, he turned away from the parapet and ordered the immediate evacuation of the equally indefensible Fort Lee. His Army would winter in New Jersey, to protect the forges and furnaces there that would fire throughout the winter to replace at least some of what had been lost.
"It's a bitter lesson," Simon rumbled to Joel, as they helped to hastily load the supply wagons, relieved to be on the move. "But he's learning. The General is definitely learning."
Joel looked around at the haggard, discouraged and disgruntled faces of the soldiers that filled the fort's open square, and hoped it wasn't too late. Disserting soldiers had been a problem all along, but he feared there'd be a whole lot more in the days and weeks ahead. "Where're we meetin' up with Jim and the young'un?" he asked as he hefted a large sack of grain into the wagon's bed.
"Washington sent them on ahead into New Jersey. But the General wants us to stay in New York, to keep an eye on the British and an ear to the ground about morale and support for the war effort."
Joel's brows arched in surprise, but then he nodded. "Make sense," he allowed. "After the last few weeks, people're gonna be wonderin' if'n it's all worth the trouble." Grinning humourlessly, he added, "An' it's not like anybody'd suspect two negras of bein' spies, ain't that right?"
Simon's lips thinned as he nodded grimly.
With the British on the march toward them, there wasn't time to take everything and fifty more cannon, piles of tents, and a thousand bags of flour the Continental Army could scarcely spare and would sorely miss were left behind.
Washington left most of the army under the command of General Lee, ordering Lee to follow him expeditiously, while he took four hundred men and moved deeper into New Jersey. But Lee was chafing under Washington's command, believing himself to be the more rightful leader by virtue of his military experience. If Washington were defeated by the British, then as the most senior general, he would move into the Commander in Chief position. So he dawdled, remaining a good fifty miles behind Washington, and ignored almost daily messages to hurry while he wrote correspondence to his own supporters, seeking to promote himself. It was a dangerous game, especially with the British pursuing them persistently, but he arrogantly believed he could repulse any attack.
While he finished constructing a lean-to shelter with pine boughs, Blair muttered under his breath, cursing the filthy weather. Sleeting rain had turned to fat flakes of snow that were falling heavily, creating a white curtain that muffled sound and quickly covered the ground and the trees. Though he'd chosen a site on the edge of the main encampment, he could no longer see the nearby canvas tents and could scarcely hear the voices of other soldiers - most of them stinking drunk as usual - who were grousing loudly about the freezing, miserable weather. At least now that they couldn't see him either, he didn't have to endure the disparaging 'medicine man' and 'Indian lover' insults by others who seemed to assume he bothered to build such a shelter simply for the fun of it. Other hunters in the army who lived their lives outdoors also built their own shelters rather than relying upon the questionable comfort of the small tents, also hunted to augment the thin rations of hardtack and jerky. Some of them even wore fringed leather, because such garments were sturdy, blended well with the terrain, and .... His thoughts stalled. The other hunters hadn't lived most of their lives with the Cherokee; weren't Jewish; weren't so foreign. Shaking his head, he sighed and returned his attention to his work.
He was tired, and his sense of humour was running thin. For months, he and Jim had scarcely stopped moving as they ranged ahead of Washington to scout and to carry the call for the New Jersey militia to rise and support the General. The cold was bitter and he couldn't stop shivering but he knew he was better off in his buckskin long-sleeved shirt and knee-length fur-lined vest, warm leggings and moccasins than were the others with their ragged clothing and poorly made boots that were rotting from being constantly wet. His lips thinned and twisted into a chagrined grimace when he recalled how he'd tried to encourage others to use the pelts of the animals they all hunted to augment the poor rations, and the skins of the cows and pigs and sheep they slaughtered when they could be had, into knee-high leather footgear and more resilient tunics and breeches. But ... he'd been jeered and mocked, and he'd given up making suggestions that weren't wanted. Determinedly, he pushed the unpleasant memories away. It was cold and he had no time to let his mind meander down useless trails.
His hands were chapped and had grown numb; he had to blow on his fingers to warm them, his breath billowing in a white cloud before the snow and light wind carried it away. Determined to find something positive in the situation, he told himself the falling snow would soon cover the shelter and help to insulate it so that, once inside, he and Jim had a half-decent chance of being warm and a good deal dryer than the others who thought their flimsy canvas tents were so much more superior. He'd built it larger than the two of them really needed, but he hoped that Simon and Joel might rejoin them, if only briefly, to brief the General on what they were hearing and seeing in New York; it had been a while since they'd reported and they were overdue. Though he didn't know either man well, they'd spent enough time together before the fall of Fort Lee to know that he liked them and respected them. And that he could learn a lot from them. If they did show up while they were camped there, then he wanted to be sure there was a place for them. He just really hoped nothing bad had happened to them.
Finished with the exterior construction, he crawled inside and cleared out the soaking wet leaves until he'd reached the relatively dry ground beneath. He built a small fire, knowing the smoke would find its way out through the meshed boughs above. They could use Jim's rapier to punch a small hole up through the snow on the 'roof' to ensure ventilation. Once the air around him began to warm, he unrolled their bearskin to cover as much of the ground as he could, to keep out its chill, and then opened their bedrolls to place their blankets near the fire to warm them. Taking a bucket with him, he left the shelter and trudged through the growing drifts to check the traplines he'd set earlier along the river, some distance away from the camp. Thirty minutes later, he was rewarded with three good-sized jack rabbits that hadn't yet lost their summer plumpness and, on the way back, he filled the bucket with fresh, icy cold water. With the root vegetables he'd scrounged the week before and still had squirreled away, he could make a passable stew. So far, they hadn't had to partake of the ghastly gruel that was all that was left of the food stocks that served the men; so long as he could hunt and scavenge, they never would.
By the time he heard the welcome sounds of Jim's voice and Simon's deep rumbling response, the stew was simmering over the fire and the shelter was both warm and scented with the rich aroma of dinner. He quickly shifted their gear into a corner, and was glad that he'd built the lean-to large enough to also accommodate their two friends - even happier to know they had arrived. He'd missed them. It would still be a tight fit for so many large men, but the added body heat would only make their little home away from home that much toastier.
After brushing the snow from their coats and stamping their boots outside, Jim led through the low opening into the shelter. With a grateful grin, he cheerfully told Blair, "Snow's so thick, I couldn't see a thing - but I could smell that stew from a mile away."
Chuckling, Sandburg greeted the other members of their team with sparkling eyes and an exuberant smile. "Hey, long time no see," he welcomed them, waving expansively to indicate they should make themselves at home. "Really, really glad you found us," he added warmly.
Holding their hands near the fire and rubbing them to restore circulation, Simon and Joel gave him wide smiles in return. "You know how to make a man welcome, I'll grant you that," Simon said. "This is a fine shelter."
"Sure better'n those pitiful tents the others are huddlin' in," Joel agreed heartily. Sniffing appreciatively, he went on, "And, so far's I could tell, not many of 'em are lookin' forward to such a bountiful meal."
"So, what's the news?" Blair asked, trying to sound eager and not anxious, though he doubted the news could be good, given the losses that summer and fall. Just the day before, two full brigades of the Flying Rangers - over two thousand men - had flatly refused to re-enlist when their hitch expired, and many more men, too many, were simply deserting in despair, giving up and going home. All told, Washington had less than three thousand men left, and not all of them were able-bodied, not by a long shot, what with the wounds many had suffered and the illness many more were succumbing to because of inadequate food, no rest and exposure to the increasingly rotten, bitter weather. They'd had little to celebrate at Thanksgiving the week before, beyond still being alive. Most days, Blair figured that was enough to be grateful for.
Snorting, Jim muttered bitterly, "The only good news is, Howe has to be getting close to ending the campaign for the year and pulling his men into winter quarters. Maybe soon, we can stop running for awhile."
"'Fraid there's not much else but bad news," Simon sighed, shaking his head. "You know better'n we do that with so many deserting, Washington scarcely has three thousand able-bodied men left to fight, an' most of them are with Lee. Word in New York is that support for the revolution has dwindled to just about nothing."
"Hasn't helped that there hasn't been a victory on our side for months, and the losses have been mounting up," Joel added glumly. "Most folks're a'feared of the British wrath an' are just keepin' their heads down."
Blair nodded. "We've heard that our paper money isn't being accepted for supplies and soldiers aren't even being given permission to sleep in barns anymore," he said bleakly. "And the New Jersey militia sure hasn't rushed to give any support."
"Most of 'em are staying home to ambush the British and Hessian patrols in retaliation for their raiding and plundering across the countryside during the last few weeks," Simon told him with a sigh. Shaking his head, he went on, "It's not looking good. Not good at all. Doesn't help that Lee is taking his own sweet time about bringing the main force to Washington."
Jim nodded in disgruntled agreement. "The man's a menace; too damned arrogant to follow orders and too stupid to make good decisions. I sometimes wonder if he's receiving word that the General has been getting dispatches that indicate there are plots afoot to have him removed from command, even to surrender, and he hopes to be the new Commander. God help us if he's ever the man in charge." Grimacing, Jim poked at the fire and muttered, "We need a victory and we need it bad."
Blair looked at each of them before his gaze dropped to the fire. A victory? In winter, when more than half the army had deserted or been captured, and the rest were scarcely clothed or shod? His lips thinned and he shook his head sorrowfully. Liberty was a fine dream, but it wouldn't be real unless something changed, and soon. A morose silence fell amongst them, but he shook himself and reached for his pack.
"I was hoping you guys would show up soon," he said, determinedly cheerful as he changed the subject and drew out several rolled leather objects. "Don't know if you'll want this stuff, but I made 'em for you to keep your heads and feet warm this winter. I hope they'll all fit." Sorting through the handmade leather goods, he handed around fur-lined moccasins that would lace almost to the knee and coon-skin caps. "The Indians say if you can keep your head and your feet warm and dry, well, then, the rest of you doesn't suffer the cold as badly," he explained diffidently. "They aren't fancy, no bead work or anything, but ...." Uncertain as to whether they'd welcome Indian-style gear, his voice died away.
Looking a lot like children who'd only expected a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking and had found their heart's desire instead, utterly speechless with surprise and wonder, Simon and Joel gaped at him and then at the warm boots and caps he'd made for them. And then they were hastily hauling off their old, battered, wet boots, and drawing on their new gifts, and then both pulled their new caps over their heads. Joel's eyes closed as he smiled blissfully and Simon looked as if he was having trouble finding words. Finally, he cleared his throat and said, his voice husky with emotion, "These are mighty fine, Blair, and we're sure enough grateful. Were envious, to tell you the truth, of Jim's fine boots and cap you'd already made for him. I swear, he's the only man in the camp, aside from yourself, who's got warm, dry feet."
"And now, we do, too," Joel chimed in with a contented sigh. "This is real good of you, Blair. Real thoughtful. Thank you."
Very pleased with their reaction, he grinned happily as Jim slapped him approvingly on the shoulder, and then he began serving up their dinner.
Later, their hunger well satisfied, warm for what felt like the first time in weeks, the four men snuggled into their blankets around the fire. Blair put a pot of water on the fire and dropped in a handful of dried leaves from his pack, and soon the clean scent of herbal tea swirled in the air. When he'd filled their cups, Simon looked at Joel and lifted a brow, and the older man nodded.
"Well, seems to me," Simon began, "we've got a long evening ahead of us and nowhere to go, so maybe it's time for a bit of storytelling."
Jim gave his friend a thoughtful look, but Blair lifted eyes bright with interest, and he grinned eagerly. "I love hearing stories," he encouraged.
Nodding, Simon watched him as he said, "Was a time you said to me that some stories are best left untold until a man was known and trusted." When Blair flushed and looked away, Simon went on, "Joel and I have decided you're a man to go the distance with. We decided we wanted to tell you our story, if you've a mind to hear it."
Knowing their trust was far from lightly given, Blair's throat thickened with sudden emotion. Pressing his lips together to gain control, swallowing hard, he nodded. Finally, he murmured hoarsely, "I'd like very much to hear it. Thank you."
"You fine with this, Jim?" Joel asked, sure of the answer but wanting it said. "It's partly your story, too."
"More than fine, Joel," he replied stoutly as he looped an affectionate arm around Blair's shoulders. "I trust Sandburg with my life."
"Yeah, we know," Simon allowed with a grin. "We've seen that he takes mighty fine care of you." They all chuckled at Blair's flush of embarrassment. After sipping at his tea, Simon continued, "Well, we need to go back a mite into the mists of time to get to the beginning. You know that the slaves taken in Africa were often kidnapped by rival tribes because they were a threat?" When Blair nodded solemnly, he went on, "My great-grandfather was destined to be the king in his land, only he wound up on a slave ship bound for Virginia. Joel's mother's uncle was also groomed for leadership in his tribe. They and the others who came with them held as fast as they could to who they'd been, to sustain their dignity and pride, and they passed down their stories about where they'd come from. About their beliefs and traditions. Secretly, you understand? The white massa never wanted to know 'bout no high falutin' slave yarns; probably wouldn't've believed any of it."
"So ... you were born ... you weren't born free?" Blair murmured, not surprised, as he looked from Simon to Joel and back again.
"No, son," Joel answered. "We were born slaves, and lived as slaves up until about twelve years ago."
Blair's gaze dropped away and he slowly shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said softly.
For a brief span, none of them spoke, and then Simon sighed. "We was field slaves, the lowest of the low, little more than animals. In fact, the truth of it is that the animals was treated a sight better than we was. Oh, not every overseer was a sadist, but too many are. Anyways, the man who owned us decided he had a surplus one year, an' he sold off the women and chill'un. One night, Joel and me had families - the next day, they was torn away from us, loaded on wagons and ... and that's the last we ever saw of 'em."
His voice tightened with mingled fury and inconsolable sorrow, and he looked away. Joel reached out and patted his shoulder, and then took up their tale. "We went a little crazy. Well, a lot crazy. Maybe you understand that kind of anger? When you jus' don' care 'bout nothin' no more?"
Blair met his eyes, his own dark with the memories of his mother's murder, and he nodded. "Yeah," he allowed huskily. "Yeah, maybe I can, sort of." Jim's grip around his shoulders tightened.
"We was taken out one day to work on a road that had been bad rutted by the rain, to shovel dirt in the potholes so the Master's horse wouldn't break a leg and the Mistress' carriage ride would be smooth," Joel told him then, shaking his head at the memory of the day. "It was a hot day, the air so clammy it stuck to us, and there wasn't no water, no matter how long we worked in the sun. We ... Simon and I ... we just had enough, that's all. We jes' flat refused to shovel anymore o' their dirt for 'em. And the overseer, well, he wasn't impressed, an' he whipped us both somethin' fierce, right there on that road, for anyone passing by to see. A ... a shovel got swung hard an' that overseer just plum keeled over."
Blair looked from one to the other, but he didn't ask - wasn't sure he either needed to know or really cared about the brute that had fallen on that distant road.
But Simon told him, "We don't know if he was alive or dead. We just knew that if we stayed, we'd be dead before dawn. They can't afford to have slaves strike back, not like that. Could lead to an uprisin' on the plantation."
"So, we ran, as best we could with the chains around our ankles," Joel said flatly. "There wasn't no real hope of escape, but we couldn't jes' stand there like dumb animals waitin' to be slaughtered."
When silence again fell, the two older men looked at Jim, who was gazing into the flames. "I saw the whipping," he murmured, a frown between his brows. "They'd done no more than defend themselves."
"When Jim first rode up fast behind us, we thought we was dead for sure," Joel chuckled. "But he waved us into the bush, an' helped us to the river, where we could lose the scent, you know? For the dogs they'd use to track us? An' then he hid us in this big ole haystack. 'Stay there and stay quiet,' he ordered. 'I'll be back after dark'."
"An' he came back with a wagon full of boxes and crates that he tol' us he was sent to fetch and bring back north, special furniture his father had ordered from a craftsman in Richmond," Simon relayed, again taking up the story-telling. "And he brought medicine and bandages to clean our wounds and bind them. And food and water. An' he put us into one of the crates, an' loaded a bunch of others on top - an' he set off for the North."
"We heard 'im tellin' the search parties that no, he never saw two big crazy slave boys on the road; nope, he never did see nothin' at all, at all, an' with his fancy rich accent and his aristocratic manner, they never doubted him," Joel said fondly. "He brung us all the way home with 'im, an' he got us papers that said we was free. An' then he set us up with our fishin' boats and gear, an' he wished us luck."
"You know they'd hang him right alongside us, if'n anybody knew the truth," Simon said then solemnly.
"Yeah, I know," Blair replied soberly. "But sometimes what's right isn't what's legal."
Simon grimaced grimly. "And that's the God's own truth," he intoned. "An' there're half a million slaves in this new country who are wondering just what the inalienable right of liberty is gonna mean for them." Shaking his head, he sighed and shrugged. Someday that question was going to have to be answered, but he wondered if it would be in his lifetime. Letting his bitterness go, he turned to Blair and said, "So ... now you know our story."
"I ... I'm grateful for your trust," Blair said somberly, very moved by his clear understanding that they'd just voluntarily placed their lives in his hands. The other three men nodded and sipped at their cooling tea.
"We got another story for you," Joel said then, with a wink at Simon. "One the both of you might find a tad interestin'."
"Really?" Blair asked, hoping it would be a happier one, and Jim looked at the two of them, wondering what they were up to now.
"Uh huh," Simon said as he scratched his cheek. "Like I said earlier, beliefs and traditions, old, old stories and legends have been passed down through the generations by those who came here first. We got a number of tales about the tribal guardians, the watchmen ... and about the men who stood with them, guarding them from danger."
Blair's eyes lit up and he breathed, "Really?" He glanced at Jim, who seemed bemused by the revelation, and then frowned as an old memory tugged at him. Ten years before, when he'd been Blair's age, they'd mentioned something about their legends, but he hadn't been listening. Turning back to the other men, Blair urged, "Go on, please." And Jim nodded soberly, more inclined to listen this time around.
For the next hour, while the snow continued to fall around their shelter, Simon and Joel shared a number of their myths with Jim and Blair. Some of the stories had them laughing, while others left them almost in awe of the parallels with Jim's experiences and senses, and the role Blair had come to play in his life.
"Our people believe that the partnership between these companions is sacred," Joel concluded solemnly, looking from one to the other. "Something rare and precious, to be treasured by the whole tribe. The two of you finding one another - that can't be no accident. You was meant to be together."
Thinking about his shaman's words, that one day the panther would find him, Blair gazed at him and then looked away. His throat tightened with the sure belief that Joel was right, that his meeting with Jim, their friendship, was somehow fated. But it wasn't for him to say, wasn't his place to impose himself on Jim's life beyond what they were, or to suggest that he hoped, if they both survived the war, that what they shared would go on.
Silence stretched and then Jim sighed. "I suspect you're right, Joel," he allowed. "I don't begin to understand it and don't really believe in all the mystical stuff ... but I suspect you're right. I only know that I'm lucky Blair found me and he's helped me more than I can ever say."
Blair smiled then, slowly, quietly, and he relaxed under the arm that held him close to Jim's side, held him where he belonged. However long it lasted, he was home.
Their respite was short-lived. On the first of December, the British were again on the move and crowding their tails, so Washington ordered his men to quickly break camp and move out. They had barely made it across the bridge outside New Brunswick when the redcoats poured into the town. Jim and Blair stayed with Washington at the rear of their retreating column, holding the bridge while the others made their escape, and then destroying it before the enemy could cross. For the rest of that day and the next, they cut down trees to block the road of their retreat and destroyed more bridges along the way - anything and everything they could do to slow Howe's forces, to buy their comrades more time to put some distance between the two armies. Survival was the order of the day. By the time they joined up again at Princeton, Washington had less than four hundred men with him. He again sent urgent dispatches to Lee to move the main force more quickly, and repeated his call to the New Jersey Militia to rally to him, but Lee seemed to have his own plans and didn't respond, and the New Jersey Militia continued to remain elusive.
During the next week, as they ranged back and forth across the river between Princeton and Trenton, Washington was gladdened by the unexpected arrival of two thousand militia from Pennsylvania. Shortly after, more of his men under the leadership of his most trusted general, Nathaneal Greene, were forced to retreat before the British until Greene reached Washington and the two groups joined, giving him a more formidable if increasingly pathetic army of ill-clothed, poorly nourished, usually drunk, largely unhealthy, vermin-infested men and their ragged camp followers. They couldn't keep running in their exhausted state, and the weather was growing colder; while the freezing temperatures made travel easier over hardened ground, rather than sloppy mud, the British could move faster as well. Washington sent out an order to pull all boats from the river, confiscating them if necessary, to land them on the Pennsylvania side where he'd set up their camp, to prevent the British from following further.
The General was feeling desperate, though he strove to hide his despair; if things continued as they'd been going for too long, there was no hope. He knew in his heart that the game was about up and he was on the verge of being forced into surrender. But, though there was little enough reason for optimism, he clung to his belief that their cause was just and, deep down, he remembered that providential fog that had shielded them during the Long Island evacuation. He was certain that, inevitably, they must win this war - and he felt an odd sense of invincibility.
If they could just hold on, surely, at some point, they must begin to prevail.
Washington's strategy to gain some relief from pursuit bore fruit when Howe's forces couldn't find any boats to take them across the river on the seventh and eighth of December. Standing on the bank and looking across to where Washington held the ground, the British General thoughtfully scratched his cheek as he considered the situation. Over the past weeks, he'd crossed New Jersey with virtually no opposition other than the occasional raids on his foraging parties. The militia there might as well be non-existent. Rhode Island had fallen when the British navy had sailed into Newport, and he held New York. Further north, the British forces had been triumphant until they'd retired to their winter quarters in Quebec. His spies, linking closely with the Loyalists, told him that only half the population had ever supported the rebellion and now, given the pathetic showing of the Continental Army, even that support had fallen dramatically. Washington was suffering from rampant desertion of his troops, not that Howe could blame the poor buggers for their cowardice. Better to quit and live than run and keep dying from the weather and hunger as much as from military engagements. Washington's paper money was being rejected everywhere as the trash it was, and no one wanted to be caught with it when the British swept through, lest they be hung as traitors. In less than a month, the vast majority of Washington's men would come to the end of their term of voluntary service, and Howe couldn't imagine that any of them would be so foolhardy or such imbeciles as to re-enlist in support of what was so obviously a hopeless cause. No, the men would walk away, and Washington would have no army left.
The wind was achingly cold off the water, the sky above muddy with low scudding clouds. Howe shivered and then turned away from the Delaware River and his stubborn foe. The time had come to rely on the weather to do the last of his work for him. Weary of the chase, he sent orders to deploy his regiments along the line of territory they held. Oh, he knew he was spreading his forces thinly, but that pathetic, ragtag band was no threat; never had been really. Though others urged him to continue the pursuit and 'foreclose the mortgage' by destroying the tattered remains of the Continental Army once and for all, he ignored them, preferring to continue his policy of avoiding total annihilation if he could. Instead, he retreated to winter quarters, certain the spring would bloom with an easy peace.
A week later, on December 16th, acting on the information of Loyalists in the area, British Dragoons captured Lee in a tavern in Basking Ridge. Though Lee's men, camped some distance away, again eluded capture, Howe remained convinced that Washington was no challenge. It was Lee, after all, who was the experienced warrior and the real military threat - and now those fangs had been pulled.
Washington felt Lee's capture as yet another blow, but it had the unexpected benefit that his main army, now under the leadership of General John Sullivan - his most experienced general after Lee - quickly made its way to join him. And, just as they arrived, another eight hundred men marching behind General Horatio Gates came to join him from Fort Ticonderoga, the massive British fortress that Benedict Arnold had captured the year before.
And suddenly, as swiftly as that, he had an army again, though only about forty-seven hundred were truly fit for duty. Still, that was enough and considerably more than he'd had for some time. Determined that the year could not end without a significant American victory to rally hope and support, on the twenty-second of December, he called in Colonel Glover and made his plan of attack for a battle he knew he must win or forfeit the war ... and all their dreams of liberty.
"Hell of a way to spend Christmas," Jim muttered as he hitched the bearskin more closely and tightly around their shoulders to cut the cruel wind. Looking up at the thickening clouds, he shook his head and blew on his hands to warm them. They were hunched together in a thicket at the edge of the forest on a low rise nearly a mile from Fort Trenton, keeping surveillance on the Hessians quartered there. Curious, he turned to his partner and asked, "You celebrate Christmas?"
With a small smile, Blair shook his head. "Wasn't a tradition amongst the Cherokee," he replied, "and, well, being both Jewish and poor, Ma and I treated it like any other day."
Pursing his lips thoughtfully, Jim shrugged and looked away. But his hand went to the pouch on his belt, and fiddled around until his fingers gained entry past the drawstring. "Christmas was a big deal when I was growing up." Jutting his chin toward the fortified town's church where all the inhabitants were currently gathered, he said, "Like them, we went to church, sang Christmas carols, gave thanks for the birth of that baby in Bethlehem that came to bring peace to the world." His voice fell away and he snorted. "Peace," he echoed, shaking his head. "And those bastards praying down there are the most vicious, merciless ...." He shook his head, furious about all he'd heard and seen of how the Hessians had raped, tortured and murdered during their so-called 'provisioning' expeditions around the countryside. Grimly, he told himself that their depredations had gone a long way to making people think twice about remaining on the fence and not supporting Washington and the Continental Army.
Silence fell between them until he set his dark thoughts aside and began speaking again. "Anyway, we exchanged gifts, usually some new clothes or, especially when Steven and I were little, toys. Was nice," he remembered, a wistful note in his voice. "Before my mother left, it was nice."
When he again fell silent, Blair probed quietly, "And after she left?"
Rolling his shoulders, his expression distant, he replied, "My father tried, I guess. But ... it wasn't fun anymore. Felt like we were pretending to be happy, to have a good time, but ... it wasn't real."
Blair looked at him and patted his arm with wordless empathy, and then he rummaged in his pack. "I heard," he said, "that food is a big part of the tradition. Now, I can't conjure up a banquet, but I saved some of that pheasant we roasted yesterday, and brought some cold bannock. Not fancy, but it's filling."
Jim grinned and gratefully took the flat, fried Indian bread and rolled a slab of meat within it. He could smell the herbs Blair had used, and his mouth watered, remembering how good the bird had tasted the afternoon before.
"And," Blair continued, again rummaging, "when we stopped at that farm the other day, to get a report on the looting and burning the redcoats and the Hessians are doing all over the countryside, the kind lady pressed some of what they had left on me."
Amused, because all the farmer's wives they encountered seemed intent upon feeding his friend, Jim watched him dig out whatever it was this time. His grin widened in delight when Blair first pulled out a small jar of pickles, and then two apples ... and then he carefully unwrapped a small cloth packet of what Jim could already smell was rich shortbread biscuits. "Oh, and you said you couldn't conjure a banquet!" he exclaimed appreciatively as he opened the jar and inhaled the sharp, piquant scent.
Blair grinned and shrugged. "Well, scouting has its advantages. I know we eat better on a regular basis than they do in camp."
"Yeah, that's the truth," Jim agreed, taking a bite of his rolled pheasant and then crunching on a pickle. "An' I've got warm boots and a warm cap - most of 'em don't have more'n rags on their feet, and that's gotta be hell in this weather." Blair smiled widely, well pleased that Jim appreciated the boots and cap. Contently, they ate in silence while Jim kept watch on the Hessians but, when they were finished, once again, his hand drifted to his pouch. "Speaking of having warm feet and head," he went on, sounding almost diffident, "I've got a Christmas gift for you."
"You do? A gift? Really?" Blair exclaimed softly, his words forming puffs of cloud in the crisp morning air. He looked astonished and excited and ... very young.
"Really," Jim assured him with an indulgent grin as he drew forth a small linen bundle and placed it Blair's palm. "We been back and forth through these parts so often these past months," he explained, "I was able to get a silversmith to make this up for me."
"Silversmith?" Sandburg echoed in awe as he delicately unwrapped the linen. And then his lips parted in wordless wonder as he beheld the gift Jim had had made for him. The craftsman had fashioned a medallion of a panther on one side and a wolf on the other, so that they were positioned back to back within a circle of glimmering metal that hung on a sturdy silver chain. Speechless, Blair swallowed hard as he stared at it.
"When you told Simon your story," Jim said softly, "you said your shaman told you the wolf would guide you to the panther and ... and, well, uh, I guess I sort of think of the wolf as you and the panther as me. It's us, Chief," he rasped, unaccustomed to putting emotions into words. "Working together. Watching each other's back. "
Blair's fingers curled reverently around the medallion as, his head bowed, he nodded jerkily in agreement. "This is ..." he began, but his voice cracked and he had to swallow and clear his throat. He sniffed and took a breath. "Jim, I ... this is ... this is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen." When he looked up, Jim could see his lashes were wet, all sparkly in the light, and a single tear was freezing to his cheek. "Nobody has ever given me a gift before. And ... and this is the most perfect ...." Again his voice failed; he blinked and sniffed, flushing in embarrassment. "You don't know how much this means to me," he finally blurted. "Thank you."
Moved, Jim nodded mutely and gently covered Blair's hand and the gift it held with his own larger hand. "Go ahead. Put it on," he finally urged.
Blair pulled off his coonskin cap and looped the chain over his head, but still he held the medallion and gazed at it as if he couldn't quite believe it was real.
Jim looped an arm around his shoulders, and drew him close to his side. Looking away, he said quietly. "You said you're a wanderer, and your shaman said you'd wander until you found the panther and then you'd be home." His gaze scanning the frozen landscape around them, he went on, "Might not seem like it, the way we're always on the move. But ... but you've got a home with me, Blair. You don't have to wander anymore. You're ... you're not alone anymore."
Settling the medallion on his chest, Blair turned into his embrace and hugged him fiercely. "Neither are you, Jim," he whispered hoarsely. "Neither are you."
Jim fondly rubbed his back and then ruffled his hair. "Better put on your cap," he teased, "before your head freezes. Even that wild mop of hair isn't enough to keep you warm on a day like this." When Blair chuckled and pulled away to do as he was bid, Jim settled back and resumed his surveillance of the town below.
And he thought that maybe it wasn't such a bad Christmas after all.
As the hours wore on, knowing there'd be no sleep that night, they took turns dozing, curled tight under the shared bearskin. He'd slept first, unhesitatingly pillowing his head on Sandburg's leg, trusting the kid to stand watch. Now, while Blair slept, Jim lightly clasped his shoulder, to keep himself grounded when he stretched his vision and hearing to follow the activity in the Fort. But there was little to see beyond the regular patrols that strode out and back again. Apparently, the General had been wrong about the Hessians; they weren't carousers, didn't appear to drink much at all. So they'd not be hung over the next day. Jim shook his head. There was nothing he could do about that; it just meant the battle might be fiercer than the General had hoped. He was more concerned about the dampness in the air, and the lowering clouds, and the dropping temperature. He could smell a storm coming, and could only hope it would hold off at least until the next day. With little to focus on, he let his thoughts drift in the almost perfect silence of the forest around them.
Smiling softly at how the kid muttered even in his sleep, Jim thought about the difference Blair had made in his life - and not just with his senses. The competition his father had persistently generated between himself and Steven had kept him and his brother at odds too often to allow them to be completely comfortable with one another, even now, though at least they could be civil to one another. Somewhere during those childhood years, he'd lost the capacity to trust easily, though he wasn't sure if that was because of his mother's abandonment or the tension that seemed ever-present in the house and the feeling that he couldn't rely on either his father or his brother to be there for him if he needed them. His father would just tell him to toughen up, and he ignored the 'spells' and the problems Jim experienced with his perceptions of the world, as if they didn't exist or as if he thought Jim was just making them up. And Stevie? Well, whatever weakness Jim ever revealed, his brother exploited to win points with their father. Sighing, he shook his head. Stevie would be the first one to run to their father to shout out that Jim was having one of those spells - again. After a while, Jim had felt hunted in his own home, as if there was nowhere that was safe.
He'd left home as soon as his schooling was finished. The noise and stench of the city was like a physical burden, a boulder that pressed him into the ground, overwhelming him, exhausting him, and so he'd journeyed to the west and the wilderness of tree-carpeted hills and valleys. The peace, the clean fresh air, had restored him, though he knew he still had those damn spells, because sometimes he'd lose a whole day, coming to as the night was falling when the last he could remember was rising to meet the new day. The episodes scared him, and he knew he was courting disaster. He was helpless in those lost hours; an animal or the elements could kill him and he wouldn't even know he was in danger. Reluctantly, he'd returned home, but found the city as stifling as ever. Restless, he accepted his father's offer to be a wagoneer, traveling from place to place to buy and sell goods for his father's company.
And that's how he'd met Simon and Joel years a dozen years before. They were friends now, good friends, but that had taken time. They'd been embarrassingly grateful for so long and had a disturbing tendency to defer to him, even though he was just a kid and he didn't deserve such respect. The turning point had come when he'd invited them to go hunting with him. He just had to get out, get away, but didn't want to risk going back into the wilderness on his own. He'd been humiliated to know he couldn't trust himself, couldn't predict when the spells would come or how long they'd last, but he couldn't be such a fool as to pretend they weren't a danger. Awkwardly, he'd explained that he had 'episodes', and they shouldn't worry about it, because they didn't seem to hurt him but he needed someone with him, just to be sure he didn't get into trouble. They'd looked at him oddly, but agreed to set out with him. Strangely enough, the spells had been the key to changing how they all got along. Somehow, after the first time they'd seen him so vulnerable and had watched over him, there was a new equality between them all. He needed something they could give, could do for him, that he couldn't do for himself. The fact that he trusted them with his vulnerability conveyed his respect for them. And they'd grown very protective of him, firm friends from that time on.
Jim found himself remembering something Joel had said to him back on that first hunting trip. "The way you can see, hear, smell," the older man had mused, "I think you may be a watchman, but ... I don't know. I never heard of a watchman who had so much trouble."
Simon had muttered then, "Never heard of a watchman without a companion, neither."
Joel had looked at Simon and nodded thoughtfully, and then he'd said with solid confidence, "The companion'll show up one day, probably from out of the blue."
"Watchman? Companion?" Jim had challenged, not understanding what they were talking about.
"Has to do with our legends," Joel told him with a smile.
"Oh," he'd replied and let it go. He'd never given much credence to old wives' tales.
He'd forgotten all about it until Joel and Simon had told them those legends a few weeks ago, and then it all seemed to make sense to him, even though he still had trouble believing in anything he couldn't see, hear or touch. But he didn't know how else to explain Blair's miraculous presence in his life. Not only did the kid make sense of his senses - make them seem natural, even, not some curse - but, from the beginning, from those first moments on Long Island, he'd committed himself to supporting Jim and he'd never once wavered. Nor had he once asked for anything in return. His friendship was unconditional, or so it seemed. And that was something Jim had never experienced before. As Joel had said, Blair had indeed appeared from out of the blue, unlooked for and unexpected but, now, Jim couldn't imagine life without Blair at his side.
Oh, he'd known since he'd overheard Blair's recounting of his life that Sandburg somehow saw him as 'home', and hoped their affiliation would be more than simply a matter of convenience, borne of the war. But the kid had never, not once, hinted that he'd wanted anything longer term. If anything, he was the first one to reflect that they were at war and there were no guarantees of any kind about whether tomorrow would ever come, let alone some far distant, unimaginable future when the war was finally over. After a while, Jim had come to understand that Blair was using the war as an excuse for him, to save him from having to make a commitment of sorts to Blair, so he wouldn't feel badly about not doing so. He'd figured that out when he'd realized one day that Blair didn't ask for anything, ever; that Blair must have learned a long time ago not to ask for help or support or understanding or friendship because it wouldn't be forthcoming. And yet Blair hadn't forgotten how to give. And he thought again of the orphaned child burying his murdered mother and then wandering until he dropped and believed he would die, and waking to find himself a slave in a foreign place where he didn't even know the language, let alone the customs. How hard, how unspeakably hard, had that been for that little kid? And yet, he'd not forgotten how to love, hadn't forgotten his commitment to his mother, had used his fine mind to learn more than most of the so-called philosophers of Jim's acquaintance. Blair had learned to expect nothing and be grateful for everything; he'd even learned how to let go of hatred.
Jim's grievances with his own life paled in comparison, and his anger over childhood hurts shamed him. He told himself that Blair was a survivor and that if anyone got through this war alive, it would be the kid. But he knew he was telling himself that because every time Blair suggested that there were no guarantees, his blood ran cold and tremors rippled along his spine. And, as the months had passed, and they'd fought battle after battle and faced one danger after another, Jim had felt a growing, even superstitious, need to somehow cement the partnership they'd formed, to convey that it wasn't just about the war or today, but was something that would last. Because the one thing he'd figured out that Blair hadn't learned was to believe that he'd ever really matter to anyone again, like he'd mattered to his mother, or to trust that life could hold anything that good for him. And yet ... and yet, he'd made his own commitment and had given his trust to Jim for however long Jim wanted it.
Jim had decided he wanted it - that trust and commitment - and he wanted Blair beside him, in his life, for the whole of his life. He'd never felt that before, not about anyone, at least not since he'd been a child. At first, it was borne of his need for Blair's help and confidence that his senses could be managed. But it had become more than that. Blair's presence had enriched his life, opened his eyes to see the world and his relationships differently, and just having the kid close made him feel good, settled somehow ... happy. As he lightly combed his fingers through the curls and listened to Blair's mutterings, he felt soothed, despite the cold and his knowledge of the battle to come.
When he'd arranged for the medallion to be made, he suspected that Blair would only think that he was trying to reassure the kid, to let him know he understood and accepted Blair's wish to belong. Looking down at the man dozing so peacefully, as if the kid knew he was perfectly safe with Jim watching over him, he remembered Blair's whispered but emphatic reassurance. He'd known in that moment that Blair had understood that the medallion meant so much more. Somehow, Blair knew that the panther had been looking for a home, too. A place of safety and acceptance. A place where he could rest. A place he could count on to always be there for him. And Blair had given that gift to Jim, as freely as he'd given everything else.
Joel and Simon had been right, both far back in the past and just a few weeks ago. The watchman needed a companion, and Jim knew now all that that meant. The companion was more than a friend, more than a brother. The companion was 'home'.
Glancing up at the sky, he felt his eyes burn with the surge of emotion that filled him. "Thank you," he whispered hoarsely, his heart full. The world around him might be at war but, in the midst of the chaos, he had found his peace was right there, lying next to him.
This guardian had found his companion, and he was immensely grateful.
The temperature continued to plummet and, by late afternoon, the cold was bitter; the strengthening damp wind cut to the bone. A few snowflakes drifted gently to the ground and Jim's eyes narrowed as he searched the sky.
"This isn't good," he stated flatly.
Following his gaze, Blair's eyes narrowed. "Storm's coming, isn't it?"
"Uh huh, too fast," Jim replied, coming stiffly to his feet and stamping them to get his blood going. He offered a hand to Blair and hoisted him up, and then they quickly rolled the bearskin and their blankets. Again looking at the sky, Jim said, "It's going to hit sometime tonight."
"You think the General will call off the attack?"
"No, he can't afford to - he needs this win," Jim muttered as they began the nearly ten-mile trek back toward the river, to be there when Washington landed. The darkness that night would be almost absolute and Jim would need to be at the head of the column to lead the men to Trenton. If it snowed, there wouldn't even be a road to follow along a good part of the stretch that ran between fields, just a blank white landscape; they could wander far off the mark.
Full dark had fallen before they reached the Delaware and Blair had hooked his hand into Jim's belt to follow closely after him and not stumble blindly along. The brisk walk warmed them but, if anything, it was even colder by the river. Chunks of ice were beginning to form on its already glazed surface, despite the wind kicking up the waves. Grimly, they thought about the men forming ranks on the opposite bank. Jim could see the dim shapes of boats and hear the restless mutter of men impatient to be standing around in the cold, as well as the creak of the cannon carts, and the low call of the Marblehead Mariners as they moved their craft into position. Blair couldn't see much of anything through the darkness, and he could only hear the rush of the worsening wind and the snap and crack of ice on the water.
Hastily, they built a small lean-to and got a fire going, hoping to create and hold enough warmth from the wind that their sweat wouldn't freeze on their skin and kill them with hypothermia. The tiny fire would also serve as the single beacon to lead in the boats as the night wore on. Once again, they huddled close under the blankets and the bearskin, and Blair broke out more rations - the last of the pheasant, bannock, pickles and biscuits.
"It's going to be the nightmare march from hell," Jim murmured starkly, "assuming they can even make it across."
Grimly, Blair nodded as Jim drew him closer for warmth. "The Nordic hell, Niflheim, a cold and dark place, ruled by the goddess, Hel," he muttered bleakly. "The original hell, not full of heat and fire, but icily dead, frozen, from which there was no escape." Shivering, he rambled on thoughtfully, "In Judaism, there is a more hopeful belief. Souls go to Gehenna or She'ol to be purified, and then they can enter Paradise or Heaven. Sometimes, though, souls return again and again, either to make up for past wrongs or because they are very good souls, who have much to teach and who wish to help, to make a difference to the living. I once overheard the General and Mr. Franklin talking about their beliefs - called themselves Deists. They think there is a Creator, even a personal God, but that miracles are a lot of nonsense. They think the way to understand the Creator is to understand nature, and the way to do that is through rational thought. And the Cherokee believe people and the animals go to the same darkening place in the west ... and with prayers, according to the deer, the spirit can return to live again. But people forgot to pray for the deer and so they were punished with rheumatism - and the plants, being kind, offered a cure, or at least a way to ease the aches and pains."
"According to the deer?" Jim echoed, shaking his head at the wild flights of fancy that people engaged in to explain the unknown and unknowable.
"Well, yeah," Blair replied with a small smile. "All living things have spirits and spirits can communicate one to another. Haven't you ever had a pet, and just known what that animal was trying to tell you?"
Despite his tendency toward disbelief, the example made sense and Jim, indeed, did remember that sense of communication with horses and dogs. But he wasn't so easily convinced. "Being able to communicate doesn't mean there is a spirit, Sandburg, just a brain."
"Well, you were raised Christian, right? So you were probably taught not to believe in reincarnation - your crowd only gives people one chance to get it right," Blair replied with amusement, though his words sounded like another one of his message stories. "Always thought your crowd was pretty unforgiving in that respect. You guys also think you own Heaven so you're the only ones who can get in, as if you can define or fully understand the Creator's mind or plans, or even hopes, for us and this world."
"You sound like you believe in a Creator who cares, Chief," Jim observed hollowly. "I'm not sure I do."
Laying a hand on his arm, his tone sober, no longer teasing, Blair said quietly, "There's something, Jim. Whether it's Divine Providence, the God of Abraham and Moses, the Father of Jesus, or the benevolent beings of the Upper World of the Cherokee, there's something. And ... and, well, just look at this incredible world we've been given to nurture and feed us, to ... to inspire our senses with its beauty. Of course the Creator cares for us, about us."
Shaking his head, Jim argued, "How can you be so sure? How can anyone know for sure?"
Sighing, Blair watched the flames. "I guess nobody can be sure, not the way you mean," he replied softly. "But ... but it's all so amazing, you know? Like ... like a wolf leading me to a panther," he went on, his fingers absently lifting to the medallion hidden by his clothing. "It can't all be accident or coincidence. At least, I don't think it can." He looked up at Jim, his gaze earnest and sure. "I believe we come back again and again, if we want to. I believe that ... that we were meant to find one another. That we have purposes to fulfill in this life. I don't believe that death is the end of it - might even be only the beginning."
"With the kind of life you've had, Blair, why would you even want to come back?" Jim asked softly. "All the hurt and pain, the suffering, the struggle ...."
"The wonder and magic, the beauty and hope," the kid replied, a smile ghosting over his lips. "And ... and, well," he went on very quietly, sounding almost embarrassed as his gaze dropped away to the fire, "I'd have to come back, wouldn't I - if my panther was here and needed me."
The soft words hit Jim like a cannonball, knocking the breath from his chest. "My God," he gasped, stunned by the magnitude of what the kid had just said, the kind of commitment his words implied. "You can't really believe that ... that you came back, that you were born because ... because ...."
"Because I needed to be here?" Blair asked, his voice barely a murmur. "You don't think I'd come back just because ... because you needed me to be here?" When Jim didn't answer, couldn't find the words to answer, he leaned his head trustingly against Jim's shoulder. "If there is an eternity and paradise, however you define it or imagine it, it's infinite; there's no hurry to get there and no need to stay forever, because it's always there and we can always go back there. But ... but if your soul feels the call to be a watchman, a sentinel, to help and protect the vulnerable, then ... well, then my soul is going to want to come back, too." He swallowed hard and took a deep breath, as if drawing courage from the air to keep talking. "Jim, I know you probably think it's crazy, that everything I'm talking about is nuts but," he again lifted his eyes to study Jim's face in the fire's light, and the hope that Jim wouldn't laugh at him was nakedly vulnerable in his expression as he said soberly, "but I'd always find you, no matter what, no matter how long it took. I'd find you."
Jim ached to believe him, but couldn't form the words - and icy fingers were again skimming up and down his spine. Finally, tightening his embrace around Blair's shoulders, he rasped, "Yeah, well, we're here now and you found me. So maybe you're right. It's, uh, a nice belief, comforting. But ... but ...."
"But you don't really believe all this mystical shit," Blair supplied when his voice fell away. "That's okay. I'll believe for both of us, and you'll just have to trust me."
He smiled winningly, and Jim couldn't help but grin back as he nodded. "Trust you?" he echoed, chuckling. "Okay, okay, that I can do." Sniffing against the cold, he swiped his hand under his nose and then suggested, "You think we could talk about something more cheerful?"
"Oh, you mean talk about the filthy weather and the fact that we're likely to freeze to death before a Hessian can shoot us or turn a bayonet on us tomorrow morning?" Blair grumbled. "Jim, I gotta say that I think talking about eternal life and a never ending number of chances to get it right is a lot more cheerful than that."
"Well, when you put it that way," Jim sighed. "I was thinking more about, oh, I don't know - maybe where we might go fishing next summer."
Blair laughed and punched him playfully. "Okay, okay. You're right. That'd be a lot more fun to think about." He put a few more sticks of wood on their small fire and they talked about where they'd fish the next summer, both of them fervently, if silently, hoping they'd both still be alive when summer came.
Not long after, Jim caught the sounds of the first boatloads plowing through the ice-strewn water, and they stood to help unload the artillery that Washington was bringing with him. But they were surprised that there were only eighteen cannon, and learned that more was being sent with another party, which was to land further along the river later that night. Jim glanced at the sky and was filled with foreboding, very worried that the weather was soon going to turn from bad to worse.
The temperature continued to drop, and the crossings slowed as the seaman battled the strengthening wind and the increasingly hazardous icy river. The boats were not large, and they had to ply back and forth countless times to ferry across the hundreds upon hundreds of men. As they disembarked, the sodden soldiers crouched in huddled circles, shivering miserably. Blair shook his head in pity as he eyed their inadequate wet and freezing clothing, some covering their nakedness only with their blankets, and too often bare feet were rapped only in rags, if that.
"They're going to freeze to death," he muttered anxiously to Jim.
"There's not much we can do for them," he replied tightly. "If more of 'em had paid attention when you tried to teach them how to make moccasins and leather garments out of the skins of the animals they hunted all along to augment the rations, they wouldn't be in such bad shape now."
Blair nodded bleakly as he turned away, and they set about swiftly cutting boughs to build at least modest windbreaks to protect the others from the worst of the gusting blasts of icy air. Some, seeing what they were doing, lent a hand, but most watched numbly, made wretchedly lethargic by the bitter cold. A few small fires were built to help them stay warm, but they couldn't risk many lest they attract attention.
But an hour before midnight, their worries about being seen by Hessian patrols or Loyalist spies gave way to the dangers of the weather. The storm that had been threatening all day broke with a fury of slashing, freezing rain that soon turned to driving snow so thick that drifts swiftly accumulated. More fires were quickly started as the heavy curtain of white would protect them from being seen from any distance, but the flames spluttered feebly and didn't survive the wind and snow.
The vicious weather wreaked further havoc with the crossings, already far slower than planned, and the agonizing, miserable transits grew slower still. Washington strode back and forth, fretting about the delays and glancing with evident compassion at his suffering men. Hour after hour passed and then, finally, around three in the morning, twenty-four hundred men, horses and cannon had crossed from Pennsylvania and they were able to form up, if raggedly, to slog the nine miles through the blinding blizzard to Trenton. Gazing down the river that he could barely see now for the thick, blowing snow, Washington wondered bleakly if his two other columns had made it safely across the Delaware.
As Jim had predicted, the narrow road to Trenton was completely obscured with drifting snow. All around them, fat, heavy flakes swirled making even his vision limited and blanketing the ground with a thick cover of white; the darkness was nearly absolute. He took point, Blair close beside him with one firm hand looped in his belt, and led off, breaking the path through snow up to his knees.
It was slow going, exhausting, to fight the cold and the drifts, slipping and sliding on the uneven ground under his boots and trying not to lose himself in the whirling curtain of swirling particles; difficult, too, to not go too fast, because the poor bastards behind him could barely shuffle along at a snail's pace. Casting a look back to stretch his sight differently and check the pace he'd set, he studied the men plodding behind him. The General was doing fine, looking as resolute as ever despite his advanced years. But the men behind him reminded him of sorely abused beasts suffering in despairing silence, moving forward by brute determination alone, pushing past any conceivable bounds of normal human energy or strength. All were blue with the cold, shivering violently, which used even more of their depleted energy at an alarming rate, energy which they couldn't spare. They all moved sluggishly, numb and stunned by the bitter cold, barely conscious, barely enduring the unendurable. Most of the poor wretches were wearing little more than torn rags, breeches with gaping holes, homespun shirts hanging open - the buttons long ago torn off and lost - and one or both sleeves missing. Many clutched blankets around their shoulders, but the wind whipped them up and around, so the thin cloth shields couldn't be providing much warmth to the poor beggars. And most had completely inadequate footwear, too many were shuffling and stumbling on bare feet that had to have lost all feeling hours before, and they'd be lucky not to suffer severe frostbite. Others had canvas wrappings around their feet, like awkward bandages, that were unraveling and could scarcely be doing any good. To him, they appeared like wraiths emerging eerily out of the blinding snow, not quite alive, not real; lost souls forever condemned to struggle miserably in abject despair through the cold and dark of an unforgiving hell.
He glanced down at Blair who was striding along gamely, lifting his feet high as the drifts were over his knees, having to take an extra step to match his longer stride. Grimacing regretfully, he shortened his stride to match his companion's. Blair's face was pinched and ruddy with cold, but too pale under the tan around his chapped lips and nose, but his breathing was still even, so he wasn't pushing the boundaries of his endurance. Despite his leather garments, he was shivering, too - poor kid hated the cold, having spent most of his life in more temperate climes. Jim looped an arm around his shoulders, wishing he could do more to ease the journey and convey warmth. But the only thing that was keeping any of them alive in the midst of the freezing blizzard was the warmth they generated as they walked onward, ever onward, to face a brutal enemy who gave no ground and didn't know the meaning of mercy or compassion on a battlefield. Shaking his head, he wondered how the hell anyone could expect the men behind him to be able to fight a flea, let alone armed and dangerous Hessian mercenaries who had spent the night warm in their beds.
The grueling, tortuous journey went on and on, yard after yard, mile after hideous mile. Washington muttered to himself that they'd never make the Fort by dawn, and Jim mutely nodded in agreement. The cold grew worse, the wind more biting, and the snow piled higher and deeper with every step. Watching the sky, or as much as he could see of it through the still falling snow, Jim realized that dawn couldn't be far off, that it must be close to seven in the morning. And they still had miles to go.
Washington called a brief halt at an open area where the flat ground provided no respite or break from the full force of the wind. "Is this the junction for Birmingham?" he called, pointing west.
"Yes, sir, it is," Jim confirmed.
The General scanned the area but there was no sign that any Hessian patrols had blundered so far from their refuge on such a rotten night. After a glance at his pocket watch, he waved his generals Greene and Sullivan forward and said, "Nathaneal, you and I will lead two thirds of the men along this road and come into Trenton from the north ... and, once we're there, you'll take half of our advance and swing around the Fort to hit from the east. John, you take the rest of the men straight on in, to hit them from the west."
"With respect, sir," John Sullivan observed pointedly, believing the whole adventure ill-conceived, "the muskets won't fire - it's too wet."
"Then use your bayonets," Washington replied with caustic deliberation. A steely look of determination on his face, he turned and gestured in the direction of the Fort. "I am resolved to take Trenton."
Sullivan nodded unhappily and dropped back, hoping he'd not be captured again, as he'd been on Long Island - or worse, wounded or killed in what was surely going to be a massacre of their pathetic excuse for an army.
"Captain Ellison, you stay with Sullivan," the General directed, and then lifted his arm to signal the men onward.
Ellison and Sandburg stepped to the side of the trampled path of snow and watched the long, straggling lines of men shuffle past, their heads down, shoulders slumped, moving sluggishly at best. Glad to be wearing the long, fur-lined sleeveless cloak Blair had made for him over the fall, even more grateful to have dry and relatively warm feet and head, he pitied those that resembled beggars far more than soldiers, none of them truly warriors. And those men had the harder, longer road for they'd have to travel nearly two miles further than Sullivan's group.
His grip around Blair's shoulders tightened. He understood the General was desperate and very much had to go forward with this battle, regardless of the hazards and hardship, but he was in no way convinced that they'd win. The Continental Army was in a do or die situation; if they won this battle, they might yet survive and triumph; if they lost, then it was all over and most, if not all of them, would be killed. Anxiously, he cocked his head, straining to hear past the wind, to overcome the muffling effect of the snow, to hear the Fort three miles away, with the hope of knowing if the Hessians were up and about, or hunkered down out of the inclement weather.
"Don't," Blair murmured, nudging him with an elbow. "We're not close enough yet. It's too far, too hard a reach."
Cocking a brow, Jim glanced at him, wondering how Sandburg had known what he was attempting.
"You tilt your head when you listen," Blair replied softly with a small smile. "And you scowl ferociously when you're trying really hard but not having any success."
"Uh huh," Jim grunted. Even after the months they'd spent together, he was still unnerved by how closely the kid observed him and how well Blair could read him. Sometimes, he had the uncomfortable feeling that Sandburg was reading his mind. Impatiently waiting for the last third of the column to appear out of the snow, stamping his feet to keep warm, he glanced at Sullivan and then quickly away, lest his opinion of the man be evident in his eyes. Like Lee, Sullivan held an undeservedly high opinion of himself and he expected to replace Washington if anything happened to the General. Which it well could, given that the man didn't spare himself and was most often to be found in the front ranks, sharing the dangers of his men. Sullivan knew enough about self-preservation to hang back - and, admittedly, he had suffered capture once and was lucky to have been returned in a prisoner exchange some weeks back. Shrugging, Jim figured they both counted on the code of honour on the field of battle that kept officers from being deliberately targeted. All part of the gentleman's game of war - they would send in the peasants to die but their precious hides were protected by tradition and ritual.
Finally, General Nathaneal Greene, a man only a few years older than Jim and the youngest general in the Continental Army, signaled that the rest of the men were to stay with Sullivan. He nodded genially at Jim and Blair, who saluted him formally as a measure of their honest respect for him, and then he turned to hasten forward, to rejoin Washington on the point.
"Lead on," Sullivan called to them, and they stepped back onto the snow-encrusted road at the head of the column, to continue breaking through the virgin drifts between them and the Fort, three miles away.
When Jim was finally able to glimpse the Fort ahead and the open land around Trenton, he sighed with deep relief. The snow on the ground was pristine, completely unbroken but for the shallow tracks of rabbits out foraging. In deference to the blizzard and, no doubt, their firm belief that there could be no threat on such a godforsaken Christmas night, the Hessians must have suspended their routine patrols. Extending his hearing, he smiled wolfishly at the cacophony of snores that rumbled throughout the fortified town - they were still abed! Though the storm had delayed them badly, and it must be past eight o'clock in the morning, they still had their element, their invaluable element, of surprise.
Turning his attention to the north, and then the east, he could hear that Washington and Greene still had some way to travel, and he waved his column to a stop where they were still obscured from the Fort by trees. He pointed out the unbroken snow to Sullivan, who called his aide forward with the intention of ordering the man to take word to Washington that they were in position.
"Sir," Jim intervened, conscious of the aide's evident exhaustion, "with respect, Sandburg and I know these woods and could make our way through them more easily to the General. We can take your message."
"Good enough," Sullivan nodded. "Off you go. Tell the General that I'll keep watch for his arrival and when we see him moving toward the Fort, we'll set out as well."
Jim sketched a vague salute and turned with Blair to lope off into the forest. The going was easier, for the thick canopy of trees had blocked much of the snow from the ground, so they didn't have to struggle through endless high drifts. And being able to move at a sharper pace warmed them further, loosening muscles that had stiffened with the cold. Since Jim could hear exactly where the General was, he angled their direction to take the shortest path. He only hoped that Sullivan would have the sense to keep his men moving in place, and not let them collapse in exhaustion to rest, for they'd quickly succumb to the cold and fall asleep, never to wake again.
In less than twenty minutes, they encountered Washington and Greene, and Jim hastily briefed them on the excellent news that the enemy was clearly very much unaware of their approach. Vastly heartened, the generals sent word down the column and the men perked up, grim smiles lighting their faces, giving them the appearance of hungry wolves. Trenton contained more than the despised enemy. There were supplies there. Warm, blue Hessian surcoats and sound, warm Hessian boots. Food. Lots of food. Eager now with the hope of victory and its spoils, the men rallied and their pace picked up as they hastened toward their target. The snow was finally tapering off and the wind dying, as if the weather had finally turned again to play on their side - in truth, superstitiously, many thought the storm, as horrible as it had been, was a gift of God to keep the Hessians ignorant of their coming. In another half hour, they were in position in the north, and Green broke off with his contingent to loop around to the east. Twenty minutes after that, when Jim nodded to Washington that Greene and his men were ready, the General gave the command to attack.
They made it all the way into the edge of town before a Hessian wandered outside for a piss and spotted them. He stood stunned for a frozen moment, then pulled up his rifle and shot ... but too late, for an American soldier had already taken a bead on him, and he was the first man to fall in the battle. The shots startled others awake, and they scrambled out of their beds and hastily pulled on boots and coats, grabbing their weapons as they streamed out of buildings all over town to find American soldiers swarming all over the place. Cannon began blasting the town, the thundering roar of artillery and the resounding blasts of explosions ripping through the morning quiet. Muddled by sleep, confused by the stark, shocking surprise of the attack, the Hessians were fatally unorganized. Their commander was the last to rise, so confusion reigned in their ranks. When Colonel Rahl finally did struggle out of his bed, sluggish after a night of revelry, he was almost immediately cut down by two shots, and he died not long after.
The Hessians fought desperately, but the Americans were all around them, coming from every direction, or so it seemed. And when their commander fell, panic took over and they ran ... or tried, only to be blocked in every direction but south by their enemy. The fighting was fierce, desperate, and often rifles or muskets failed on both sides, because the powder was wet from the still falling snow. Both sides resorted to bayonets, charging into close, bloody conflict. Jim turned at one point, after dispatching an enemy soldier, and saw another lunging toward Blair with his deadly bayonet. Too far away to help, with no time to reload, he watched with his heart in his mouth as Sandburg blocked the blow with his musket. But the man was big, heavy, determined to kill and kept coming at him. Seeming to give way, Blair feinted to the side and then, having looped his battle club around his wrist earlier because he hadn't trusted his musket in the damp weather, lashed out with it in hard back-handed blow, whirling to put all his weight behind it. He caught the enemy soldier on the side of the head with a resounding crack, and the man dropped in a heap at his feet. Blair lifted his gaze, anxiously checking to ensure Jim was still standing, and then he gave a quick smile as he loped closer - and then they both returned their full concentration to the fight.
The battle raged for an hour and a half, not long when most confrontations lasted for hours, and was decisive. Nearly nine hundred Hessians were captured and more than a hundred killed, though about six hundred managed to escape to the south because the other two contingents of the Continental Army had failed to get into position. The weather had prevented one group from crossing the Delaware at all, and the other was so delayed as to only arrive in time to help remove the prisoners and the thousand rifles, several cannon and ammunition and much needed stores that were confiscated. The Americans suffered less than half a dozen men wounded and the only men who died were the two or three that had dropped during the march, frozen to death by the blizzard.
By afternoon, the prisoners and the Continental Army, more warmly garbed and shod in good Hessian gear, were back in their camp on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware. They were beyond exhausted, but were also elated - they had just won their first pitched battle against the enemy's regular soldiers, and not just the redcoats but against Hessian mercenaries who were infamous for their skill and deadly, ruthless, almost savage competence.
But the battle had taken its toll. By the next dawn, more than one thousand troops had fallen ill. Anxious to know what the British were up to and how they were responding to the loss of Trenton, Washington sent Jim and Blair back across the river to keep watch and report back to him by the evening of the twenty-ninth. The General knew he had only days to consolidate the win, to get back to Trenton with his full Army and stake claim to the Fort. He certainly had no time to rejoice in his unequivocal triumph; he was too aware that the end of the year was coming fast and that the enlistment period of the vast majority of his troops expired with the advent of the New Year. The men were, as he knew only too well, exhausted, even if they were somewhat less demoralized than they'd been before their success at Trenton. They'd not been paid for months and were legitimately disgruntled by that fact, for they had families who suffered in their absence, many of them subsisting on the edge of starvation. But he couldn't let them go. He needed them too desperately to consolidate the American position before winter put a stop to all action. The defeat of the Hessians at Trenton wasn't enough to assure other volunteers would rally to him - if these men left, went home, he would have no army, no means of continuing the fight for freedom.
Though he seemed typically calm and thoughtful when he ordered the men to muster on the twenty-ninth of December, he felt an urgent sense of desperation. Mounting his white charger, he rode out before them to ensure all the men could see and hear him clearly. Gazing out over the assembled ranks, his eyes filled with compassion and he felt both a tremendous sense of gratitude and profound humility that they had endured every hardship to stand with him so long, and to fight so bravely against impossible odds. With all his heart, he sorely wished he could wish them well and send them home to rest.
But he could not.
Finally, when full silence fell and they were all listening for his words, his voice ringing with sincere affection and regret, he called out, "My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do and more than could reasonably be expected." Pausing, he shook his head regretfully before continuing with compelling power, "But your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships ... but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay only one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you probably never can do under any other circumstances. The present is emphatically the crisis which is to decide our destiny."
He looked into their earnest faces, worn by deprivation and illness, held their eyes, and then asked those who would give just one more month to step forward. Immediately, the gazes that had held his own fell away as if ashamed and shoulders that had been proudly squared sagged as heads bowed or turned away from his searching eyes. He waited as they struggled with their own so understandable need to have an end to it. Some cast him furtive glances, and he was profoundly moved to see tears in their eyes before they again turned their faces away from him. Silence hung thick in the air, stretched until it became awkward and uncomfortable and not one man moved; but still he waited, respecting their need to wrestle with their own consciences. Finally, one man sighed and stepped forward, with a muttered, "Ah, well, t'is only another month." Others moved forward then, too, a goodly number, as if that one man's brave folly released the reins they'd held on their own courage ... but not enough men stepped forward. Not nearly enough to face the days ahead and the battles that must yet be fought.
But Washington couldn't find it in his heart to condemn those that stood firm, refusing to grant him more time and effort. Why should they step forward after all? They might have drunk excessively most nights to fuel their courage, but they'd stayed when so very many others had already deserted. They'd lived up to their word and served their time. They'd faced hideous hardship and privation, and had fought with resolute bravery against staggeringly overwhelming odds. And their families sorely needed them back home.
He bowed his head a moment in defeat, but he could not give up. Resolutely, he lifted his chin and squared his shoulders. They wanted to stay - he could feel it, see it in their eyes, their postures, but they needed to be met halfway, needed to have their legitimate needs as free and responsible men acknowledged and respected. Trusting his instincts, he shouted into the tense silence, "I promise every single man who agrees to stay another six weeks a ten dollar bonus."
Heads jerked up toward him, and relief flooded their faces at the unexpected boon of nearly a year's pay that made staying for a wee bit longer more than reasonable and of real value to their families. The lips of many men trembled and tears of relief blurred their eyes for, in truth, Washington was right in his assessment of their motives - they were there in the first place because they believed passionately in the cause they were fighting for. They were loathe to abandon Washington and their fledgling nation of free men, most especially when they'd just proven so decisively that Americans were as good as any European soldiers.
Washington voice rang out again, his shouted words a rallying cry in the crisp morning air, "Who will stand with me for but six more weeks? To change the course of our future, our destiny! To win our freedom!"
In answer to his call, every last man there proudly and determinedly took that step forward, to stay and fight, to give him six more weeks that would decide the future of their world; for they all knew that if the army faltered now, the revolution was truly lost.
Washington's eyes burned and his throat thickened; he'd not dreamed he'd be able to hold them all and he was overwhelmed by their devotion and courageous commitment. Pressing his lips together to contain the emotion that surged in his breast, he nodded and lifted his hand to salute these brave and so noble men; men who quite evidently had only hesitated to face more peril out of concern for their families and who, in truth, needed so very little tangible encouragement to justify staying to follow him into further danger.
"Thank you," he called when he could trust his voice, releasing them from parade, and they cheered him enthusiastically as he rode off the field. Back in his quarters, he wrote a hasty note to the Continental Assembly, begging for the ten dollars he'd promised to each man ... and he resolved that, if he was refused, he'd pay the sum out of his own pocket, if need be, to keep his promise to reward their uncommon loyalty and courage.
Jim and Blair, weary to the bone, scruffy and unshaven, heard about the extraordinary events of the day when they returned to the camp at dusk. Going immediately to the General, they regretfully told him that Cornwallis - alerted to the defeat by the retreating Hessians - was preparing to march on Trenton, to retake the Fort for the British; what had been won could very shortly again be lost. Looking away, his expression thoughtful, Washington listened intently as they also recounted the more hopeful news that they'd seen the local inhabitants tearing down the red flags that signaled support for the royals - word of their triumph on the twenty-sixth was apparently spreading like wildfire all across the New Jersey colony, and confidence in the Continental Army was growing again. The General sincerely thanked them for the intelligence they'd garnered, and sent them to get some food and much needed rest.
The next day, the General resolutely led his army of five thousand men, made up of sixteen hundred regular army and the rest militia, back across the river and into Trenton to make the point that the British no longer controlled the whole of New Jersey. Nor was Washington prepared to stop there; he knew full well the British would allow them no respite. He only had weeks - really, only a matter of days - to not only hold the line, but turn the tide. He had to prove that Trenton wasn't a fluke occasioned by the accident of weather, but that the Americans were worthy adversaries; only days to rally the support he needed amongst his countrymen to keep the dream of freedom alive. Jim and Blair he tasked to continue ahead, to Princeton, to keep watch on Cornwallis and alert him as soon as the British were on the move.
The very next day, late on the afternoon of the last day of 1776, Jim and Blair hared back to Washington to tell him Cornwallis and six thousand troops were on the march to Trenton and that more than a thousand had been left behind to hold Princeton.
Washington immediately increased the building of fortifications and pickets on the south side of Assumpink Creek, just north of town and, the next morning, he sent twelve hundred of his men out to loop around toward Princeton, to hold the reserve British force left there. Cornwallis already out-numbered him and he didn't need even more British redcoats to come marching down the road. Tensions built as the slow but steady progress of the British army's movements was reported. Washington and his generals moved amongst the men, encouraging them, being visible, letting them know that he'd not have them face an enemy he wouldn't face himself.
Late on the afternoon of the second of January, Cornwallis finally arrived. The British made a number of charges upon the bridge across the creek, but the Americans repelled them from their strong, consolidated position on the south side. Finally, as it grew dark, believing Washington was trapped between him and the Delaware River, Cornwallis called a halt to allow his men, tired from the march, to rest. There'd be time enough on the morrow to root out the stubborn Americans.
Washington gravely considered his position. True, they'd held off the immediate attacks, but he knew he didn't have the resources to withstand a strong, prolonged assault by a superior force. Once again, as he'd been in August, he was trapped with his back against a river. This time, however, he was determined not to retreat to the safety of the far shore. But ... his thoughts on the similarities with the situation on Long Island months before, he paused in his quest for options and then smiled wolfishly. Holding a leash on his excitement, he called in his subordinate generals and his scouts.
"We're moving out," he told them briskly, "under the cover of darkness. If we do this right, Cornwallis will be none the wiser and we'll steal a march on him to Princeton."
The others first gaped at him and then chuckled, encouraged by his audacity. Swiftly, they made their plans and then set about executing them. Four hundred men were ordered to remain behind to keep all the campfires burning and to make the sounds the British would associate with an army encampment. Just before dawn, they were to slip away and rejoin the Army. The wheels of the cannon carts were wound with rags and greased to muffle any sound of movement. At one in the morning on January 3, 1777, Washington again entrusted the leadership of his column to Captain Ellison's extraordinary sight and hearing, as well as his intimate knowledge of the area, fully confident that Jim could lead them through the darkness and choose a path that would easily keep them well distant from the British lines as they skirted around to the north.
Jim and Blair led the army along old, ill-used pathways, little more than ancient rutted, muddy tracks. But the ground was frozen hard, and the men and cannon traveled easily and swiftly. As the fog-shrouded dawn broke, they were close upon the heels of the force Washington had sent out days before, to hold the line if the remainder of the British troops marched out of Princeton.
Just ahead of them, they heard musket fire break out, and they stepped up their pace. Before long, they encountered militia men running in panic toward them and, grabbing hold of one, Washington listened as the man gabbled that the British were coming. In the fog, the British apparently had not realized until the two armies were nearly upon one another that the blue-coated Americans weren't actually Hessian troops. The American leader, Mercer, had bravely led his men forward and formed a line - but, when he'd been killed, his ill-trained militia had broken.
Cursing, Washington raised his voice and his sword, shouting for order, and the fleeing men who had slowed upon encountering the main force of their army milled around uncertainly. He, Greene and Sullivan moved amongst the panicked men, calming them, and then Washington led off, telling his generals to follow with their regiments at their best pace. In minutes, they'd encountered the British and began firing, slowing their advance. Washington ordered his army into battle lines less than thirty yards in front of the British force. On his order, they fired, advanced and fired, again and again.
Out-manned, the British soon turned and ran back to the safety of Princeton, the Americans howling after them, hot on their heels, driving them through the town and out the other side. Washington was loathe to let them go, but his men had barely recovered from the attack on Trenton days before, and had marched all night. He called them back to regroup. When the losses and gains were swiftly tallied, he learned that there were sixty British and thirty American dead and he had well over two hundred more prisoners.
And, behind him, there were six thousand British troops that had to have heard the artillery fire; had to know by now that the Americans had slipped away from under their noses to attack Princeton.
Once again, he had no choice but to abandon a fort he'd won in battle, for he hadn't the manpower to hold it. The Americans swiftly scavenged what they could of food, armament and supplies. As soon as the four hundred stout men who'd held the line at Trenton throughout the night arrived, grinning gleefully to walk so boldly into a key fortified town that had so recently been held by the enemy, he ordered his army to form up and march out, heading to Morristown. His men were worn to the bone and could fight no more, and the weather was again turning bitterly cold. It was time to go into winter quarters.
He could only hope they'd achieved enough, that the battles for Trenton and Princeton would show that the Continental Army was a force to reckon with.
Cornwallis cursed when he learned that the Americans had virtually escaped out one end of the Fort at Princeton as his force was entering the other. Once again, that elusive fox, Washington, had vanished with his army into the countryside. There was no telling which direction he'd headed in, for the ground was frozen solid and left no tracks. But he couldn't have gone far. After the shocking loss of Trenton and the stunning surprise attack on Princeton, the thought of Washington and his surprisingly resilient army being nearby and perhaps planning yet another unpleasant surprise, was not in the least comforting. They were supposed to be in winter quarters, not chasing all over the wilds of New Jersey after an army that was proving as elusive as a will o' the wisp, and as deadly as a serpent. And Washington wasn't the only leader who realized the tide of public opinion was swiftly turning against the British, for even the Loyalists had been shaken by the brutal Hessian raids. In Cornwallis' view, their forces were spread too thinly, at too much risk in the New Jersey colony and the last ten days had proven that very clearly. Disgusted by the dramatic turn of events against them, Cornwallis sent a messenger galloping to New York to report the disturbing news to Howe and to ask for direction.
When Howe received the dispatch, he scowled as he read and then angrily crumpled the paper and slammed his fist on his desk. He'd counted on the weather to crush Washington and, instead, the man had marched all night through a blizzard and beaten the most experienced and ruthless warriors under his command. He'd relied upon the overwhelming presence of British redcoats to cow the populace and assure their lack of support for the rebels - but the attitudes had shifted and hardened against the royals, and now were swinging back to align with the revolutionaries. The simplest foraging exercise there was now fraught with the danger of ambush.
Breathing deeply to contain and control his anger, Howe shook his head. The war wouldn't fizzle out, as he'd hoped, but would carry on. Though Washington hadn't the resources to confront the might of the British head-on, he'd shown surprising initiative and inventiveness in proving through surprise attacks that the hinterland was no safe place for the royals. And the blasted man seemed to have second sight, knowing exactly where and when the British line was weakest ... his army then moving with nearly supernatural stealth to attack before again disappearing like wraiths. Washington wasn't going to give up and his army apparently wasn't going to abandon him. How did one fight an enemy like that? On that enemy's home ground?
Resigned that he couldn't hold New Jersey without significant risk of loss of life, and committed to safeguarding the lives of his troops as his first, most compelling responsibility, Howe sent the messenger back with orders for Cornwallis to abandon the colony and return to New York.
As he settled into winter quarters in Morristown, Washington was gratified to hear he was being heralded as the hero of the day, a miracle worker of sorts who had wrested victory from the very maw of defeat. The citizenry of New Jersey cheered him and once again accepted the Continental paper money for much needed supplies. Men flocked to join his army, replenishing the ranks and, before long, he once again had ten thousand men to feed and quarter. Congress stopped muttering about his ability to lead and sent fulsome congratulations.
The war was far from over, and the General knew full well that he was hardly in any position to effectively fight the British. His men were still largely untrained and ill-equipped. But he'd learned much in the past brutal year. He'd learned how to hit and run, and he'd harried the British Lion out of New Jersey and back into the fortress of New York.
Against all the odds, the hope of liberty still burned bright.
The short days of winter passed quietly, aside from a few skirmishes in which the emboldened militia, having come to the realization that the enemy could be beaten, drove off marauding parties of redcoats scavenging the countryside for supplies, and a night of boldness when some boatmen burned a dozen British ships in the harbour. During the lull in hostilities, Jim and Blair first caught up on their sleep, hardly moving from the shelter they'd build on the edge of the camp for twenty-four hours. After that, they kept watch on the remaining British, helped drive off redcoated foragers, and contributed significantly to the foraging for their own army. Blair proved adept and useful in rooting out foodstuffs he'd learned about with the Indians, as well as an efficient hunter. But the way he developed an easy rapport with farmers and village people was what struck Jim the most. Typically, the kid let Jim take the lead in initiating conversation with a farmer when they hoped to have cattle or a pig or sheep donated to the cause. Ellison would engage in solemn conversation about the need to support the Army, and how badly they needed food, and try to cajole whoever it was to make a donation of something on four legs, or maybe a barrel of flour. And he'd also try to ferret out information about gossip, enemy troop movements and the mood of the folks in the countryside.
He usually didn't get very far. Times were hard and the British and Hessians had already covered a lot of the same ground, needing to feed an even larger force before Howe had pulled so many back to New York. Meanwhile, Blair would be fooling around with the kids of the family, showing them his war club or helping them make toy bows and arrows, letting them stalk him around the barn. At first, Jim found his antics vaguely annoying, and then he thought that maybe the kid was just getting a chance to play and, God knew, he'd not had much chance for that in his life. He'd turned away indulgently then, that first time, and even the second, going back to his haggling with the farmer. But, inevitably, the woman of the house would come out and watch, to make sure the kids were safe with him, and then start to smile and, as if he had a sixth sense, Blair would always, in that moment, look up and get this sheepish look and shrug, before letting the children 'ambush' him and tackle him to the ground. Laughing, he'd pick the smallest one up and stroll over to the mother, to introduce himself and explain why they were there. The woman would take the child from him and together they'd walk over to Jim and the farmer. And she'd say, "Amos, these brave men need our help to keep them brutal Germans and the heartless British away. They got to be fed to stay strong."
And before Jim knew it, they'd be driving a cow or a hog back toward camp, and Blair would be filling him in on everything the children and the woman had told him about what was going on around them, what they'd heard from neighbours or seen themselves. The third time the same darned thing happened, Jim realized it was no accident, nor fortuitous fate; Sandburg was working the children and the wives. Oh, he had fun doing it, but his actions had been entirely deliberate.
"You sneak," Jim called him on it one day, when Blair started laughing about how lucky Jim thought he was that the folks appreciated the time he took with their kids, and that the kids were so talkative. "You're deliberately suborning the children and the women!"
"Well, you've been giving me a real good cover, Jim," Blair teased him, his eyes sparkling. "The serious senior officer being all sober with the man of the house an' all. Makes me look harmless."
When Jim huffed and rolled his eyes and then, feeling as if Blair had been playing him as much as the locals, angrily cursed one of the hogs that had started rooting along the side the road, Blair laughed again. "Ah, come on," he cajoled with those big puppy dog eyes. "You can see for miles and hear even farther - I gotta contribute something to this partnership."
Mollified, Jim ruffled his hair and looped an arm around his shoulder. "You contribute plenty, kid," he said with a smile. "Plenty."
Once, they came upon a house in the middle of nowhere, where one of the children was fevered and they could see the parents were worried sick. Blair quietly asked permission to see the child, and he felt around the little boy's throat and looked inside his mouth, put an ear to his chest to listen to the rasping breathing and the kid's heart. Frowning with concern, he looked up at the rough farmer and his thin, overworked wife and said, "I think I can help, if you'll let me."
"You got training in healin'?" the farmer asked harshly, eyeing him skeptically.
"Some," Blair replied, not telling them he'd learned from a shaman.
"Please, John, if he can help," the woman pleaded.
When he got a surly, uncertain nod, Blair rifled in his pack and pulled out some of his little leather bundles. "Could I have a bucket of cool water and some rags, and a bowl of steaming water? With a cup?" The farmer sent his oldest boy running to the well, and the woman and her daughter got busy over the wood stove. They spent hours there, while Blair cooled the child's skin with the soaked rags, and then had him inhale steam from the hot water he'd seeded with pungent herbs. And he made a tea with ground willowbark and honey that he fed to the lad, sip by sip. Throughout his ministrations, his touch was gentle and he kept up a low, reassuring murmur to the boy, sometimes even getting the miserably ill child to smile wanly.
When the fever broke, the mother wept with relief and the father looked like he might, too. Blair told them it was a lung infection and they needed to help the child get his lungs clear. He showed them how to cup their hands to gently pound the child's back at least four times every day, and he left them some of the willowbark, and some of the herbs to put into hot water when the congestion again got bad.
That time, they headed back to the encampment with two dairy cows and three hogs that were hell to keep moving in a straight line.
"You did good back there, Chief," Jim observed soberly. "Fever that high? That kid could'a died."
Blair dipped his head and shrugged with self-deprecation. "Wasn't a really serious illness, like cholera or diphtheria or smallpox," he replied. "Fevers ... fever can be good things - show that the body is still strong and fighting off the infection, whatever it is. But that kid was tired and needed a bit of relief. He looked generally healthy - gets enough to eat. He'll be okay."
"You're good with kids," he said then. "You'd make a good father."
And that elicited a wide smile. "You think so?" Blair replied, evidently well pleased with the assessment. "Always thought I'd like to have kids of my own," he added distantly. "Maybe. Someday."
But he hadn't sounded like he thought that 'someday' would ever come. Knowing his friend was again thinking about the war, about how there could be no guarantees, Jim's jaw tightened and he looked away. He didn't want to think about any of that. Didn't want to think that ... that Blair was right. There were no guarantees.
When they weren't out foraging or hunting or watching the enemy, they were in camp. And in camp, once again, Blair wasted nothing, smoking, tanning and curing the skins of cattle and sheep as he'd worked the hides of wild animals the fall before, and then shaping them into moccasins or garments. But, unlike the months past, this time, after the brutal, unforgettable march to Trenton, more of the others in camp were interested in learning from him. Many of the camp-followers also approached him to be taught the skills, and to learn about the use and preparations of herbs and greens and roots he introduced to their diets. Many of the soldiers still called him 'Medicine Man', but there was less sarcasm and more affection in their tones.
Jim got a kick out of seeing Blair relax more amongst the others, his wide grin, sparkling eyes and bright laughter far less rare. And he shook his head as he watched his partner charm the women who followed the army, getting them to teach him their arcane arts of seasoning, or making bread. One day, he was cleaning their rifles a short distance away from where Blair had his hands up to his elbows in a basin of dough, assiduously kneading it and joking with the women who were warning him not to overwork it. Sandburg had flour on his nose and cheek, and was snickering like a little kid when a regular soldier with long greasy hair, stubbled beard, and a superior sneer on his face ambled over to watch him.
"Boy, you one o' them 'Two Spirit' Injuns we hear tell about?" he demanded sarcastically. "Half man, half woman, and not so good at being either one?"
Jim stiffened and the women's easiness grew wary; those who understood the reference to a man who loved other men blushed in embarrassment. Blair glanced up at the man, and quirked his brow, a half smile playing on his lips. "No, Quinn," he replied evenly. "I'm not. Why? You lookin' for some company later?"
The surly soldier flushed at the mildly spoken question. "Why you little ...." And he charged at Sandburg, his fist lifted for a blow.
Jim stood but, before he could intervene, Blair shifted up and to the side and, with his floured hands held in the air in front of his chest to keep them clean, he hooked a foot behind Quinn's leg. Quinn found himself flat on his ass before he quite knew what happened. When he growled and surged forward again, Blair once more shifted his balance and then kicked out, catching Quinn just over the knee - hard enough to disable, but not to break the bone. Howling in pain, Quinn dropped again.
"Gosh, Quinn, you got a balance problem?" Blair asked innocently. "This falling down thing could be something serious. Maybe you should have it checked out."
The women started to twitter in amusement, which only infuriated Quinn more. But Jim appeared behind Blair's shoulder, which gave the man pause. Grumbling that 'goddamned Injun lover would get his', the obnoxious man stumbled away.
"Whatcha doing, Chief?" Jim asked mildly.
"Making bread, Jim," Blair replied with a grin as he again sank down on his knees beside the basin. "We're gonna have fresh rolls for dinner!"
"Sounds good, Sandburg," Jim smiled and nodded at the women. "Thank you, ladies. Appreciate you taking the time to show my friend how to cook something decent for a change."
"You wound me, man," Blair whined, but his eyes sparkled. "Least I cook. If we relied on you when we're on the trail, we'd starve."
Laughing, Jim went back to cleaning their weapons.
Every day but the Sabbath, the Army engaged in drills and exercises to improve their skills, but there wasn't ammunition to waste on target practice, other than targeting a deer or bear for the cookpot. The Americans felt a deep-seated aversion for the bayonet, considering it barbaric, but the officers insisted they work with straw-filled dummies to learn how to lunge and stab with some skill. But the training was haphazard and there was a general lack of discipline. The democratic ideal permeated the Army and the men, volunteers all, paid attention when they felt like it, or drank and played cards to fend off boredom when they didn't.
Washington fretted over supplies and money, writing Congress constantly to complain about lack of support and delays in paying the wages of the troops. He also paced endlessly while he thought about his strategy for the next year's campaign. The Continental Army could not engage in head-on, all-out warfare against a stronger, better trained, better equipped and more numerous enemy. He could keep the war going by defensively striking out and harassing the British, but he could not win the war by those tactics, unless the British just got sick of the aggravation and costs, threw up their hands and went away. Given England's reliance upon her worldwide colonies for wealth and trade, that wasn't likely to happen. He needed allies, strong allies that could help defeat the enemy. Often, he thought about Benjamin Franklin, who had arrived in France around Christmas, to negotiate a treaty with the King of France. Shaking his head and rubbing his mouth, Washington didn't hold out a lot of hope that a King would side with rebels against another Crown. However, the antipathy between the English and the French ran deep ... so there was some, if only limited, cause to retain hope of relief from that quarter.
During the day, hiding his misgivings behind an expression of calm confidence, he was always out amongst the men, encouraging them even as he was assessing and taking stock of how under-matched they were against the Empire's military might. England had sent over two hundred ships, gunboats and the beautiful, deadly man o' war vessels that could sail anywhere and conquer the world; his navy was a sad, small collection of ill-matched, old vessels. He had men of heart and courage, who stood and fought with the passion of their convictions, who had given their sweat to building what they had in the colonies - but who weren't soldiers, weren't warriors by trade. And even if they were, even if they had the most modern weapons and a bottomless pit of supplies, the British outnumbered them by more than two to one. At night, he wrestled with the demons of fear and hopelessness. Their cause was just. They had to try, had to give all they were, all they had. But sometimes ... sometimes he despaired that all they were and had would not be enough.
Howe smiled grimly as he listened to the latest intelligence report on the movement of his foe and gazed at the map of New Jersey spread out on his massive desk. Idly, his finger traced the forts and towns that Washington had moved men in to hold as the British had moved out. Over the past weeks, Washington had made the same mistake he had - had spread his forces too thinly over too vast an area.
Looking up at his men, Howe nodded with grim, even ironic, satisfaction. He'd see how the American fox enjoyed getting a taste of his own medicine.
On April 13, 1777, four thousand British and Hessian troops moved in a four-pronged attack against the five hundred Americans holding the Bound Brook garrison, taking them by complete surprise. Nearly a quarter of the Americans were killed or wounded against one British casualty. But, content to have made his point that resistance was futile, Howe didn't pursue the rest who ran for their lives. He took his forces back to New Brunswick, reestablishing his presence in New Jersey.
Furious at the militia for failing in their duty of watching the border, disgusted at the rumours that a Loyalist had betrayed his men, giving out the password that had allowed enemy troops to close in, and shaken by the almost casual display of staggeringly superior numbers, Washington quickly pulled his men back from the perimeters to consolidate his army. Frustrated to once more have to give ground, he moved them back into the hills, which gave him a vantage point from which to watch British movements, and he ordered General Gates and his men back north, to Fort Tyconderoga.
The winter hiatus was over.
The spring campaign of 1777 had begun sooner than expected ... and the Continental Army was already again on the run.