Conceived in Liberty (3 page)

Jacob stood up, said: “He's cold.” When he said that, we knew.

The boy's eyes were open. Vandeer had stopped laughing. I bent over Moss and pulled off his thin cloak, scattering snow. I forced my hands to go to his eyes and close them.

“It's a hard man needed to stand many nights like this night,” Brenner said softly.

“He's dead?” Jacob asked me, and then demanded, querulously: “Where's Ely? This is no time for Ely to be away from us.”

“Ely went for fire,” Edward said, dully.

“Why'd he go for fire? It's too late for fire, ain't it? There was a time for fire before, but it's too late for fire now. The fire will not bring Moss alive.”

“He went to wheedle a little fire out of those Pennsylvania men—he has a way, Ely——”

“Shut up!”

“We couldn't be starting a fire with flint. Ely'll come with a burning brand. Cold hands can't hold flint.”

“There's nothing Ely can do now, Jacob.”

Jacob knelt down by Moss. I went over to the fruit tree and sat down with my back against it. The cold was all through me, but it was not such a cold as Moss Fuller knew, nowhere near such a deep and silent cold.

“You're sure he's dead?”

“He's dead,” Jacob said.

The bugles were blowing, and all along the line, brigades were picking themselves up and starting to move. The sun came up, showing through the stretch of forest east of us. Along the forest, men were moving in a thin line. They wore the shapeless grey smocks of Virginian riflemen. The officers were prancing their horses, shouting orders. In a long file, McLane's cavalry rode from behind the grey stone house and paraded across the fields. The Massachusetts men were laughing with their women while they formed into ranks.

He's dead,” Jacob said again, covering over Moss' face with the cloak. He said to me: “Come and give me a hand, Allen.”

I stood up. The broken branches of the fruit tree brushed my face. Past Jacob, I saw Ely Jackson coming back with a piece of burning wood in his hand. It was a wonder how Ely got things, how he could work men.

“A fine fire soon!” Ely called.

Then he came up, saw how we were standing. He glanced from face to face, puzzled, meanwhile kicking the snow off the ashes of last night's fire. He said:

“Take an axe, Allen, and bleed the tree a little. Just a little, Allen—it's a fine tree.”

I didn't move. He said: “Moss is sleeping? Wake him—or he'll not be able to march.”

“Moss isn't sleeping,” I said.

“He's dead,” Jacob said. “The boy's dead, Ely.”

“It was a fierce cold last night, and too much for him,” Kenton muttered.

Ely stared stupidly, shook his head, and let go the torch. It fell into the snow, spluttered a little, and then went out. Nobody moved to pick it up. Ely went over to Moss and uncovered his face. He knelt there for a while, and I could see how Ely's feet were a frozen mass of ice and blood. The thought came into my mind immediately: Moss had shoes. They were worn thin now, but they were boots nevertheless. Jacob had pulled them off a dead Hessian a month before and given them to Moss. I wondered who would speak about it first. I couldn't understand that Moss was dead; only his shoes mattered now.

Looking at Ely's feet, I told myself: “Ely will have them.” I glanced down at my own feet. I told myself that Ely had seen his youth already and that Ely would die soon. That was not true. Ely would live. His feet could become rotten stumps, and still Ely would live. I cursed him, and then I hated myself for cursing him—for his strength.

Ely stood up, but said nothing. He looked at me.

“He was a fine, tall, Valley boy,” Edward Flagg said. “I wouldn't have thought him to die so soon.”

“He had a cough——”

“He died for wanting home. It's a long distance to the Valley country.”

We nodded. We stood around, striking our hands together. Clark Vandeer came and stood above Moss. We watched him.

“You'll bury him and I'll say a few words,” Vandeer said. His face seemed to be remembering.

“The ground's uncommon hard,” Lane muttered.

Ely said: “Go to the Massachusetts men, Charley, and ask for a bugler to sound a call.”

We took our bayonets and jabbed at the ground. I chopped with my axe. The ground was frozen, hard as stone. Once Jacob stopped, and I saw him looking at Moss' boots. I knew what was in his mind.

We dug a foot deep, and it seemed to exhaust us. We stood back and waited for Green to come back with the Massachusetts man. We stood there thinking, and maybe we were all thinking the same thing.

Finally, Jacob said: “The boy has an uncommon fine pair of boots——”

“We won't bury him naked,” Ely said. “Two years together, so we'll not bury him naked.”

“I was thinking only of the boots.”

“Let him wear his boots.”

“You need a pair of boots, Ely.”

“I said he'll wear his boots. I swear to God, Jacob, I'll kill you if you take off his boots.”

“There ain't no call to rage, Ely,” Jacob said. “He's dead and no more feeling heat and cold. He don't need the boots, and you need them, Ely.”

Ely said nothing, only staring at Moss' figure on the ground. Jacob went over and pulled off his boots, every so often glancing back at Ely, but Ely didn't move.

“I'm sorry, Ely.”

Now Charley was back with a bugler from the Massachusetts brigade. A good many of the Boston men came with him, out of curiosity. They stood round in a circle, while we lifted Moss' body into the grave. A Massachusetts man said:

“They plough this land come spring. That grave's not deep enough.”

We pushed in the dirt, and Vandeer said a few words. Vandeer's voice clogged up.

“A long way home,” Ely said.

The bugle call drifted up, fine and clear in the morning air. It was what I would have wanted, if I were in Moss' place. There was a drummer, and he rolled several times. That was nice too. The brigades were moving now, and many of them stopped to watch what we were doing. But it was too common a sight to keep them for long. They marched on. The whole army was moving.

Jacob took Moss' bayonet and thrust it into the head of the grave. The bayonet was rusted and bent, and not much good. We gave the musket to a Massachusetts man. None of us was in any condition to carry two muskets, and a good many of the Massachusetts men were without arms.

The Massachusetts brigades were moving, and their men drifted away. We stood awhile, watching Washington and his aides come out of the grey stone building, mount and ride away to the head of the army.

We walked to the road.

“A long march today,” Lane said.

“I don't remember knowing a place called the Valley Forge. An iron smithy, perhaps. This has the look of iron country.”

“It rests on the Schuylkill.”

“Why march north, if he plans a march southward after?”

“They say he's a rare quiet man to tease the British in his own way.”

“He's a great fool if he thinks these an army.”

Clark said suddenly: “Where's Moss?” He had forgotten.

We are on the road again. It is the sort of day when the sun makes a mirror of the snow, and after a while the snow can blind you.

The whole army is moving, slowly, but moving nevertheless. I wonder how that is and what makes us move. I seem to lose myself in the common soul of beggars strung out for six miles.

We march behind the Pennsylvania men. And behind us the Massachusetts brigades. Twelve lumbering wagons pass us by. From inside, there is the squalling of women, of the whores who are almost as many as the men. One of them puts her head out between the canvas curtains, and sticks her tongue out from between her teeth.

Charley Green calls: “Come and walk with us, lassie!”

“She's a pretty little wench,” Edward nods.

We walk along and we don't think of Moss. There's no use thinking of Moss. We're too near to him. The veil between the dead and the living has been drawn too thin.

The Massachusetts men are singing, and we join in. The song runs, rocking the line, mile after mile:

Yankee-Doodle went to London,

Riding on a pony


, and there's a feeling now that we'll go no farther. We're not resting; I understand that vaguely, but still I understand it. There is no rest.

Ely Jackson says it. It's a terrible thing to see a strong, proud man die slowly, bit by bit. Ely says:

“There'll be no march to the south. He was a wonderous strong man, that Daniel Boone, to go on all his journeys. But we won't follow over his wilderness road to Transylvania. We're no more an army.”

“A tired feeling,” I said. “I can't march.”

Kenton says: “We make a stand here—to meet the British. I call to mind how it was at Breed's Hill, with their red coats flashing. A proud lot of good men. Moss cried. He was sixteen of age.”

“Not a thing for a boy to see,” Ely says. “A bitter thing, the way they marched the hill—to be blown to bits. I recall there was a boy drumming for the British. He was shot in the belly, and still he tried to drum. Just a boy——”

That was Breed's Hill—Bunker Hill, they call it now.

“A boy like Moss,” Ely went on. “It put iron into his soul, and he was too young, too young.”

We sit around a fire, this time a great, roaring fire. But it has no power to warm us. The cold is in our bones. The cold beats down the flames and adds up on itself.

We are camped on the top of a hill, forest to one side of us and a sweep of meadowland on the other. All over the hill and down into the valley fires burn. Westward, in the bed of a creek, the valley drops to the Schuylkill. The place is called the Valley Forge. There was a forge once where the creek enters the river, a few, houses there. It goes that the officers are taking up quarters in the houses.

East, across eighteen or twenty miles of the same rolling land, is Philadelphia. We glance again and again in the direction of Philadelphia. We try to picture a British army, correct, uniformed. They sleep in warm houses. At night, they gather in the taverns and toast each other with warm ale. Philadelphia—men, women, and warm beds—is theirs.

We try to understand that this is the end, that we go no farther.

Clark Vandeer shrugs his shoulders. He is crouched close to the fire, so close that his beard singes without his seeming to be aware of it. He has become an old man since Moss died, and many of his former parson's ways have returned to him.

“I'm afraid,” Edward says. That's the way with Edward, who was a strong man once, a heavy farmer man, not dreaming and not fearing.

Ely Jackson shakes his head.

“If our orders are to march tomorrow?” Edward says, anxiously.

In each face is the same fear, that we march. We are too worn to march, too tired. We try to see the way out of the place. The slopes are covered with snow and bright in the moonlight. We crowd up to the fire.

Below us, the Pennsylvanians have built their fires in a wide circle. Each fire is an ember. Between half-closed eyes their encampment might be a crown. My mind is full of fancy, caused by hunger. Jacob sought out the commissary at nightfall. He came back bleeding, with a hatful of corn—for eight men.

“You're too quick for blood,” Ely said gently.

Jacob is silent through the evening. A strange, deep man, Jacob, hard. When he was a boy, he fought in the French war. He was a revolutionist then—and no halfway man. In his mind, the revolution began with the French war. It was all one and the same—drive out the French first, then the British. A land for the people. That was what Jacob preached—for the people, all of it. The Indian must go. But first the French, then the British. Both had played along with the Indians, played them against us. He had fought to destroy the French, and now he was fighting to destroy the British. He would always fight. The land was not for him, but for them who came after. Jacob would fight until a shot found him; then he would rest. But the land would never be his.

“I call to mind,” Ely says, “how Moss spoke about home. They say four brigades of Maryland men walked out of the line with fixed bayonets.”

“It's only the beginning.”

“They're a strange bad breed, the Maryland men. Pope-crawlers and sons of thieves,” Jacob muttered.

“Only the beginning,” I said. “The army's falling to pieces. By God, when I think of that stinking Congress, talking of united states, filling their fat bellies and letting us starve. We fight for Maryland and Maryland walks home. What did Moss die for this morning?”

“Leave him in peace,” Clark Vandeer says quietly.

“He spoke of the Mohawk——”

Ely says, simply: “Where would you go, deserting, Allen? We're all of us used up.”


“I'm not afraid,” Ely said. He looked at me. His swollen feet were stretched out towards the fire, his thin hands trying to grasp the heat. His dark eyes looked at me and through me.

Vandeer says, fretfully: “Why—why, Ely? You don't believe any more. There'll be no peace with Virginians hating the Boston men, with the New York brigades feared and hated. Even if we win, there'll be no peace—only battle and more battle.”

Ely didn't answer. Jacob raised his dark, shaggy head. Above us, against the forest, shreds of song floated down from the New Jersey line. They were singing a plaintive Dutch melody. I lay down, closed my eyes and tried to sleep. Kenton was talking. He was explaining the thing I had heard a hundred times before, how the colonies could send an army into the New York Valleys and destroy the Six Nations. He was explaining why England would never permit the colonies to overwhelm the Indians.

“The moment we become strong,” Kenton says, “we become a nation. It's our destiny.” More of abstract destiny. What has that to do with a defeated rabble?

Other books

Nanny Behaving Badly by Jarvie, Judy
Bound by Moonlight by Nancy Gideon
Secrets of You by Mary Campisi
Little Darlings by Jacqueline Wilson
What You Can't See by Allison Brennan, Karin Tabke, Roxanne St. Claire
DoubleDown V by John R. Little and Mark Allan Gunnells
Writing Is My Drink by Theo Pauline Nestor Copyright 2016 - 2022