Conceived in Liberty (6 page)

Jacob poured some thin corn broth from a pot next to the fire and offered it to me. I drank it slowly, enjoying the warmth of it.

“It's a hard thing to get the cold out of yer bones,” Ely said.

The Jew looked up and said, in Dutch: “The cold of Siberia bites deeper—”

“Siberia?”

Green understood no Dutch, but he caught the word. “A frozen land in Asia.”

“You were there?” I asked the Jew. “What great journey took you such distances?”

He groped for words, for space that was the length of the world. “Two thousand of us went there—the Czar's prisoners.”

“From what land?”

“Poland.”

“I knew a Polish man,” Jacob said. “He died on Brooklyn Heights.”

“You escaped?” Ely asked curiously.

“I escaped—” He opened his coat and shirt, showed us a cross burnt into his breast. “They branded the Jews—said we made the revolution. But I escaped.”

I closed my eyes; I tried to see a journey across a world. When I glanced up, the Jew's head was bent over, his lips moving slowly.

“Why were you fighting?” Ely said in English.

The Jew didn't answer. Kenton said: “Tell us, Ely, why are we fighting? I swear, by God, we'll be an army of corpses before this winter's out. I keep saying to myself why—why? I didn't have no call against the British. I never seen a British man before the war that did me a mite of harm. We had two hundred acres clear, and we would have cleared a thousand two years come. We never paid no taxes. All right, I did it. I was a damn-fool kid. I told my paw there was a sight of Boston men making an army to war on the British. I told him I was going, and he laughed in my face. He said he knew Boston men and he'd seen the British fight. He gave two months before they'd hang Adams and Hancock.”

“Why'd ye go?” Jacob demanded.

Kenton put his face in his hands.

Jacob said, bitterly: “By God—there's no army to be made outa swine like you.”

“Easy, easy, Jacob,” Ely whispered.

“On a night like this—Christ was born,” Vandeer said tonelessly. “In the name of liberty you're ridden with whores and scum. Ye're a stubborn, hard-necked people, and God's hand is on you.”

“To hell with your preaching!” Charley cried.

Kenton's woman screamed: “Shut yer dirty mouth! You ain't no men—ye're a pack of filthy, rotten beggars!”

Jacob rose, took two long strides to the door, and plucked his musket from its rack. He faced Kenton's bunk and said:

“Another word outa her and I'll kill her, Kenton! No damned whore can make mock of me!”

Ely sprang in front of him, pushing the musket to one side. Vandeer said, shrilly:

“If you need to shed blood for the black hate in you—kill me, Jacob!”

Kenton's woman was sobbing hysterically. Ely took Jacob's musket. In Ely's hands, Jacob was like a baby, mouth trembling. All the terror of the past week had come to a head in him—and finally burst. Ely led him to his bunk.

“We're a long time together, Jacob,” Ely said softly.

Now there is silence—as if we had used ourselves up for the time. Only the sobbing of Kenton's woman, and Kenton makes no effort to quiet her. He sits with his head in his hands. The Jew is motionless by the fire.

We hear the wind outside. A wolf howls—mournfully. I look from face to face, bearded faces with long, uncut hair, men who have lost all pride or consideration for their bodies, men in rags, huddled together for warmth. The women are not women any more. I tell myself that; I have to; otherwise I'll go insane. I tell myself that there are beautiful, clean women somewhere, beautiful, clean men. I think of a woman's body the way I used to dream of a woman's body, white and perfect——

Kenton's woman sobs: “We come along with you—you go to hell, but we come along with you.”

Nobody answers. We listen for something, the way men listen when the silence is deep and lasting. We hear steps outside in the snow—to the door.

“It's the German lad,” Ely says. “Why won't he come in?”

We wait, and then I get up and fling open the door. A rush of snow, and then a figure stumbles into the room.

“Who the hell are you?” Jacob demands.

I force the door shut. She lifts her head, and we see a woman, wrapped in a blanket, barefooted, her feet blue and broken open from the cold.

“Jesus Christ,” Green whispers.

She lets fall the blanket; she's half-naked, wearing only an old pair of men's breeches under the blanket. Blue with cold, thin, her breasts the small breasts of a girl, her face sunken, long black hair, curious thin features that might have been lovely once. I stare at her the way we are all staring. Henry Lane wakes and stumbles out of his bunk. He moves toward her, a haggard, bearded, sleep-ridden figure, and she shrinks back against me. I' pick up the blanket and cover her shoulders. She gropes toward the fire and crouches next to it.

“Who are you, lass?” Ely asks her.

“Leave me alone,” she says. “God's sake—leave me alone.”

Kenton's woman says: “I'll tell ye who. She's a fair whore of a Virginian brigade. Her name's Bess Kinley.”

“Leave me alone—”

Jacob gets up. He goes to her directly and takes hold of her blanket. “Get out,” he says hoarsely.

Vandeer joins him. “Get out—there's enough of rotten women in here. You'll make blood flow between us and the Virginians. Get out.”

“Leave her alone,” I tell them. I force myself in front of Jacob.

“Boy—get away. The woman's no good!”

“She'll stay,” I tell Jacob. “Her feet are bleeding. Let her stay and warm by the fire.”

Jacob grips my shoulder, raises his hand to strike. Ely's sharp voice stops him. He stands there, watching the girl.

“They're drunk,” she says. “They'd kill me. Look at this.” She opens the blanket.

Kenton cries: “They're drunk—drunk. That swine Quiller swore there was no rum, but the Virginian brigades are drunk!” Quiller is the commissary.

“Lead her out,” Vandeer says tonelessly.

Green's woman says: “You stay there, honey. Let them try to put me out! A man wouldn't put out a dog on a night like this!”

The door opens, and a man stoops through. He wears the long grey hunting shirt of a Virginian. He's bareheaded, panting. There are others behind him. Some of them carry their long rifles. They hold the door open and the cold eats into the room.

“Close the door,” Ely tells him.

“I'll have her—she's our woman.”

“She's a Virginian woman!” someone behind him yells.

“Close the door.”

“You can go to hell!” I say. “You can get to hell out of here!”

He starts across the room, and I fling myself on him, bearing him back. His fist crashes into my face, and then I hear Jacob's roar as he beats the Virginian through the low door. Ely follows with Kenton and Vandeer. I get up and stumble after them, Lane and Green with me. I catch one glimpse of the Jew, sitting by the fire like a figure out of time.

Outside, there is a mad tangle of figures. I direct all my hate and resentment into the fight. Voices break the night's quiet, and the Pennsylvania men pour from their dugouts. Muskets are clubbed—knives.

The cry goes up: “Virginians!”

There aren't many of the Virginians—a dozen perhaps. They're beaten back. They're overwhelmed by numbers. We stand panting—warm even in the cold.

“Drunk,” a Pennsylvania man says.

“We're rationed on rum—and those damned Virginians drink.”

We go back to the dugout, grumbling, but feeling that the fight has kept us from madness. We crowd in, close the door; body heat and heat of the fire. The Jew stares at us, as if we were things beyond his understanding.

“Ye're Pennsylvania men?” the girl says. “You'll let me stay tonight?”

“We're no Pennsylvania men,” Jacob says.

“What's your name?” I ask her.

“Bess Kinley.”

“Sit by the fire and warm yourself” I tell her. “No man will drive you from the fire.”

I look at her, and something passes between us. I feel bigger than before, different.

“She'll stay,” I tell them.

“She'll stay tonight,” Ely agrees.

I sit close to her. She doesn't speak. I look at her face, and for once try to read the mystery of a woman who follows the army.

Finally I say, sullenly: “Why don't you get out of the camp? Why don't you get out of here?”

“Where would I go?” she asks me.

Kenton's woman sobs softly; silence takes hold of us. Occasionally, someone puts a piece of wood on the fire.

“I'm hungry,” she says.

We give her some gruel, and she holds the wooden cup with both hands, drinking it slowly. Nobody speaks. Henry Lane is sleeping again. Green and Kenton crawl into their beds. Already they have lost interest.

Edward comes in, blue with cold, shaking off the snow. He stands and looks at the girl.

“She's Allen's woman,” Jacob says. Thus our morality. Thus our years of prayer on the hard floors of hard wooden churches. She was mine without marriage, without the word of any man of God. Because I took her, she is mine.

The girl turns and looks at me, her dark eyes biting into mine. I say nothing. Ely tells Edward what has happened.

“They're hard, bitter men, the Virginians,” Edward says. “The girl's a slut. Did she expect them to nurse her?”

“Shut up!” I cry.

“I'm not holding for the Virginians, Allen.”

“Where's Brone?” Ely asks Edward. “He should have been back already.”

“I didn't see him,” Edward says. “I thought he was back.”

“I forgot,” I mutter. “The boy was sick with cold. I forgot and I had no thought for him.”

Ely stands up and puts on his coat.

“Ye're a fool to go out,” Jacob says.

I crawl into my coat. I'm sick with weariness, but I know about Brone. Deep in my heart, I know.

I followed Ely out. Jacob came behind me. None of us spoke. We walked across the hillside, away from the dugouts, and then down toward the Gulph Road. It was easy to find the path Brone had beaten in the snow, and follow it. When we came near the end, two low shapes shot away across the snow.

“I should have brought my gun,” I said miserably. “You should have known to bring a gun, Ely.”

We came to Brone. Jacob knelt down. “Wolves,” he said. “Wolves,” he repeated bitterly, his voice rising, “and the lad was too weak—too weak.”

“He was telling me tonight——”

“He didn't know,” Ely said. “He was asleep.” We knelt around him, our breath making a cloud, as if from candles. I had to look. Ely tried to hold me away, but I had to look.

“We'll bring him back,” Ely said.

“The women——”

“We'll bring him back to the fire,” Ely said, and he looked at Jacob and me in a way that made us nod and bend to Brone.

We come into the dugout and put the boy down.

“By the fire,” Ely says grimly. “Lay him by the fire.”

The Jew stands up, his face full of the pain of the world. He bends his head, touches his head simply with his hand.

The girl is crying, as with pain.

We gather around Brone. Vandeer kneels down. He says:

“God—forgive us. Forgive us tonight.” He kneels down, and he prays. He prays with words that we haven't heard for a long time. He prays, simply, gently, compassionately.

PART TWO

THE WINTER

V

I
T IS
the time of the great hunger, in the middle weeks of January, seventeen seventy-eight. The hunger has been on us three days, and for those three days we have eaten nothing. We have eaten nothing that is food.

Snow has drifted up to the roof of the dugout; snow in the valley in drifts twelve and fifteen feet deep. There are no parades, no drills. There has been no parade for two weeks. There is a rumour that much of the army has disappeared, but we have no check on rumours. As our strength goes, we move slowly, fretfully, the way old men move. A path is cut through the snow for sentries. We hate sentry duty, curse it, but it keeps us from going mad.

Today, we lie in bed, huddled close for warmth. The fire gives out no heat. Only Kenton sits close to it, painstakingly carving a rhyme on his powder horn. His big hunting knife glints in the light, his large hands guiding it with difficulty. On and off, for months now, he has been working on the carving of the rhyme and the picture of a child with arms clasped about the end of the horn. He can forget things with his carving, remembering only that he began it in the warmth of the summer. Now and then he asks Charley the spelling of a word. Kenton is not much for writing words or spelling them out.

We wait for Ely, who has gone to the commissary. The light from the fire lingers in the centre of the dugout; the bunks are in the shadow.

With Bess beside me, I lie in a broken dream. Sometimes I speak aloud, and then Bess says: “Allen—Allen, what are you saying?”

I don't know. I try to explain a figment of a dream. I try to explain that my mother's name was Anna, that if we have a child, her name will be Anna too.

“A girl?” Bess asks me.

“A boy and then a girl.”

I sleep again; I wake and my hands grope for her body, frantically. I say: “You slut—you God-damned little slut, you'll go back to the Virginians. You're no fit woman for a man.”

“Allen—what are you saying?”

I close my eyes, and my lightheadedness takes my mind away. I am at all places at once. I am out in the snow, pacing a sentry beat. I am in the deep lush, bottom valleys of the Mohawk. With her hands, Bess tries to reassure me. Her hands travel over my torn clothes, seeking out parts of me. Her hands unravel my beard.

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