January 30, 1777.
Yonkers, New York.
Tim heard a girl scream. It sounded like his sister, Sadie. They had been playing tag with the children. She had just been with them.
“No! Don’t!” came her shout, from around the corner of the street. Tim turned and ran back. There she was! A man had hold of her. It looked like he was pulling her through a door.
“Stop it!” yelled Tim, grabbing her arm. Sadie shrieked in pain as he pulled her back. “Let her be!” Tim demanded and the man turned. It was Thomas Pellis. His eyes flashed with anger as he raised his walking stick. Still holding onto Sadie’s hand, he swung at Tim, hitting his shoulder. But the man had shifted his weight, allowing Tim to pull the two of them back out the door. Boys attacked from all sides. Thomas stumbled and then they were all down in the dirt fighting.
“Help me!” Thomas begged. “Someone help me!” He struck one boy and then another. One of the boys had hold of Thomas’s free arm. Tim managed to pull the stick from the old man’s hand and he struck him hard across his forehead. Thomas fell back stunned.
“Cease this!” shouted a young man as he came out from a shop door. It was Nat Pellis, the man’s nephew. He grabbed the stick, wrenched it from Tim’s hand and grabbed hold of his shaggy straw-colored hair. “Stand off!” Nat demanded in a voice worthy of a drill sergeant. “Let him up!”
“He tried to rob me!” sobbed the old man who was crouched on his knees, holding up his hands and looking pathetic as a trickle of bright red blood ran down his forehead. “The wicked boy! He tried to rob me, he did!”
“No! He didn’t!” cried several children, and they all started to shout out their own versions of the fight.
“Quiet!” Nat demanded as he threatened them with the stick, “or you’ll all be clapped in irons! Now you!” he said to Tim who was struggling to get loose. “You’re coming along with me!”
“Good fellow, Nat,” said his uncle. “You take him in! To jail with the scoundrel!”
“He had hold of Sadie!” Tim pleaded as Nat held him bent half over. “She’s only fourteen! He meant to have her inside!” he said as he stumbled along with both hands gripped around Nat’s wrist to ease the pull on his hair.
“He lies!” said Thomas. “A thief is what he is. A robber! Attacked and robbed, I was! And in front of my own home!”
Thomas lived alone in a one room hut next door to the store. He had been living there for a year and he hated the children who played in the street. They were always shouting and shrieking.
The children did not think much of Thomas either. He liked to swat them on the backside with his stick when they were in his way. They were afraid of him, too – afraid of the look he had in his small pig-like eyes. He was a fright just to look at, with his pale leathery skin and gray whiskers poking out in every direction. At one time, he had been handsome, but now his skin had yellowed and wrinkles had formed around his smug squinting expression. Since the arrival of Thomas Pellis, a new threat had descended upon the children of Yonkers. It was not just because of his playful cruelty and nasty sense of humor. Sadie had recognized it right from the start, just by the look in his eyes.
“Stand aside! What’s the matter here?” asked the town’s watchman when he met with Nat and the small mob that had assembled on the main street. He was a carpenter and one of a group of volunteers who took turns at keeping order. When on duty he carried a five-foot-long staff with a polished brass tip, just like a constable would in a larger town.
“Well sir, we have two stories,” said Nat in his clear, mature voice. “Mister Pellis says this little scoundrel tried to rob him. And then there’s the children here,” he said with a smile, “friends of the boy they are, who claim the old fellow tried to nab a girl.”
“He did!” called out three boys at the same time but the watchman silenced them by raising his hand.
“The boy’s a scoundrel!” said Thomas, whose face was still streaked with blood. “He tried to rob me, he did, and then he beat me with a stick! Always been a bad one, he has.”
“Indeed ’tis true,” agreed Nat. “Quite a reputation, this one.”
“You’re apprenticed to John Gainer?” asked the watchman as he took hold of Tim’s collar.
“Yes, and my name is Tim Euston.”
“Well then Tim Euston, by the authority vested in me, I place you under arrest. You shall come along with me and you’d best come along quietly or you’ll make it worse for yourself.”
The watchman began to lead him along, but Tim started to argue and then to resist, for he knew the crime of robbery would likely mean a long sentence at hard labor. The watchman shook him harshly and turned to the boys who followed. They were shouting in defense of their friend. “Stand off! All of you!” the watchman commanded. “Or I’ll have the lot of you carted off to the jailhouse!”
The boys fell silent. They watched poor Tim stumble as he was led away. Thomas marched alongside, on his way to swear out a formal complaint to the justice of the peace.
Nat was arguing with Luke Lauper, one of the boys who had fought with Tim to save Sadie.
“He’d never do such a thing,” Luke insisted. “Tim’s never stole nothing! And Thomas had hold of Sadie! He was dragging her in through his door!” Luke could speak out loud and clear now. His father had just arrived and Luke now had courage enough. Jack Lauper looked like his son – black haired and wiry.
“I know what I saw,” said Nat as he started to turn away. “It was robbery.”
“No no no, he’s a good boy!” said Jack, with one hand on his son’s shoulder and the other held palm up, as if holding back Nat’s words. “Surely you’re mistaken.”
“It is now a matter for judge and jury to decide,” drawled Nat. “I know what I saw with my own eyes. The boy had hold of the stick that struck down Mister Pellis. They were all beating him and it was Tim Euston who led the pack.”
While this went on, another man had his hand on Jack’s sleeve, tugging on it and trying to talk while coughing, hacking and gasping for air. He had a peg leg and leaned on a crutch, and looked half crazed as he tried to make himself heard. He wanted to tell them he had seen it all. He had seen Thomas Pellis with his hands on Tim’s little sister but he could not get enough words out to gain anyone’s attention.
Finally, Nat threw up his arms in exasperation. “Well then, I suppose we should all go to the hearing. We’ll give our testimonies together and let the justice of the peace decide. All of you!” he called to the crowd with a dismissive wave of his arm, “back to your business!” He turned and strode off, leaving them to their gossip and speculation.
“It’s that old Thomas who’s the bad one,” said a woman holding a crying baby.
“Yea, I’ve suspected him of sinful desires,” agreed her friend. “You can see it in him, can’t you? In his eyes. Wickedness, it is!”
. . . . .
Tim was at the back door of the mansion that belonged to the local justice of the peace. A servant told them Colonel Philipse had guests and could not hear their complaint now. The steward asked what it concerned. He was in charge of both the Philipse mill and the family’s other operations, and he was entertained by some vivid testimony from Nat and Thomas Pellis. Both were clever with words.
The steward turned to the accused and gave Tim a long look, from the freckles on his nose down to the mud on his shoes. Tim was small for his sixteen years, but he stood like a soldier with his shoulders square and his lower lip thrust out in defiance. “Well well well, my boy,” the steward said, “and what have you got to say for yourself?”
“I am innocent!” insisted Tim. “He had his hand upon my little sister and he had the devil in his eyes and he was pulling her toward his door. For sure, he was!”
“He lies,” snorted Thomas. “He’s a known thief.”
“Is he?” asked the steward with a look to the watchman.
“That’s not been brought to my attention.”
“And,” said Nat, “he’s the son of a woman of ill repute.”
“She ain’t neither!” shouted Tim.
“Quiet!” growled the watchman as he yanked Tim back by his collar and slapped him hard on the ear.
The steward had heard enough. “I will take your complaint to the master and he will try to find time for a hearing.”
Apologies were made for the demand on the steward’s valuable time and they turned to leave.
“One more thing,” said the steward to the watchman. “You take the boy for a moment,” he said to another man. “Over here,” he said, and led the watchman through the stable door. “What sort of a boy is he?” he asked in a low voice.
“Tim Euston? He’s been in town for three years only, bound to John Gainer. I’ve not heard he’s a problem – never been brought to me. But they say he’s kept company with some of the boys who went and joined with the rebels – fallen under a bad influence, perhaps. I could ask around.”
“That’d be good. Find out what you can before the hearing,” said the steward with a nod. They came back to where Tim was waiting. The men wished each other a good evening and Tim was taken in the direction of the town’s little jailhouse. It was not really a jail, but just a storehouse. In the fall, when space was needed, it would be filled with sacks of grain, but for the rest of the year it could be used to house drunkards, lunatics and other troublemakers.
The watchman stopped at his home to get a lantern. His hired hand went to the fireplace and shoveled a small iron cauldron half full of burning embers. They went back out. There was just a hint of red left in the western sky. In the lantern, a yellow flame flickered behind thick glass.
At the jailhouse, they climbed an outer stairway to a small loft. On the floor was a trapdoor secured with a very large padlock. The watchman unlocked it and pulled back a heavy bolt. Hinges creaked as he opened it wide. Nothing but blackness could be seen down the hole. It looked like it might be a hundred feet deep. The hired man knew the procedure. First he lowered the pot of embers down to the floor twelve feet below. Next, he took hold of a rope that hung from a pulley above. At the end of this was a short stick.
“Climb on,” he said. Tim put the rope and stick through his legs so he could sit on the stick while gripping the rope with his hands. The watchman turned a large crank to draw the rope onto a winch. The wooden axle creaked loudly. Tim was raised up and swung in place over the hole. The crank was reversed to lower him into the darkness.
“You’ll find firewood in the corner,” said the watchman. “Don’t build it up too high or you’ll run out of wood before I bring you more.”
“I won’t,” said Tim just before he heard the trapdoor slam above. He felt around. The fire pit was a shallow box filled with sand in the middle of the room. He found some wood, poured the embers out of the iron pot and laid a few sticks on top. He sat cross-legged and blew on the embers, making them glow bright orange, to start the wood burning. He would have to be careful to keep it going. It was the end of January, a cold time of year to go without a fire. But will it make a difference in the long run? he wondered as his memory went back to the last time he’d been up to White Plains for the County Court of Sessions. There had been a hanging. It had been a young man the crowd had watched – a boy practically – and he had been convicted for the crime of robbery.
In recent decades, children have been growing up sooner, maybe because of better nutrition. When you try to picture a teenager in colonial times, think of someone who looks two years younger.
We know what they’re thinking.
As a ray of sun struggled to break through gray winter clouds, a rough looking man limped back and forth on his crutch and peg leg – his free hand moving fast and an excited look on his face. His name was Amos Short. He was the one who could not talk for coughing when Nat Pellis and Jack Lauper had been arguing. But today Amos was up to form and he was coaching the witnesses for the defense.
“We’re all here, yea?” said Amos, waving to the last of the boys to come close. “Good then. Now… now remember all, we’ve only to tell the truth plainly,” he said with a finger raised. “We’ve only to say what we saw and heard, and then to put our trust in God Almighty, and surely our dear Tim shall be delivered! Now let us all join hands together and lift up our hearts with hope and hold ourselves firm in readiness for our struggle for justice!”
“And we’ll tell ‘em he had his hand upon her,” said Luke Lauper, “and that he was dragging her through his door and that he had evil in his eyes.”
“And that he held a knife to her throat!” said the youngest of the boys.
“No no no,” said Amos, “we don’t have to be making up anything. When you’ve nothing to hide, then you’ve nothing to gain by the inventing of a story. And besides, they’ve only to ask the watchman or Nat whether they saw a knife, don’t they? They’ll both answer with a ‘no’ and so will any other witness that was there. And then the justice of the peace will wonder whether every word you’ve said is a lie and then they’ll wonder about the rest of us, too. All just making up stories, they’ll say. No no, boy, a lie is the last resort of a man who knows he’s guilty.”
“You tell a lie, boy,” said Luke “and you’ll send Tim to a hangman’s noose and then his death will be your doing and all will know you for a liar and a scoundrel and you’ll not have a friend left in this town or any.”
The boy stared back at Luke in shock.
“Ah… ah…well said,” said Amos with a nod. He had not expected so strong a statement from a boy of sixteen. Luke was like his father. Both carried themselves in a half crouch, as if ready to pounce.
“We’ve right on our side, we have,” said Luke, “and they’ll know it’s the truth by the easy way that we’ll tell it. Won’t they? They can bring us in one at a time and we’ll all tell the same story, for it’ll be the truth and there’s only one version of it.”
“Ah… well… ah,” stammered Amos, but then their attention was distracted by a young man who walked up, as if looking for someone.
“Amos Short?” the stranger asked when he noticed the crutch and peg leg.
“I am, himself.”
“The hearing’s been called off. The justice of the peace has unexpected visitors.”
“So I’m told.”
“Well! What are they to do with Tim?”
“Well then!” said Amos, turning back to the boys, “ain’t that an odd thing? You’d think such an event as this would be important enough. Why… it’d even offer something for the man’s unexpected visitors to watch, wouldn’t it? Something to talk about afterward.”
“What’re they going to do with Tim?” asked one of the boys.
“I don’t know,” said Amos. “Normally the trial would be up at White Plains; held there when the circuit judge came around for the County Sessions. But what with war and disruption, that’s all off now, ain’t it? Down on the Isle of Manhattan, it be martial law, now that Major General Billy Howe and his redcoats have hold of it. And up north of the Croton River, it’s George Washington that rules. But as for hereabouts – betwixt and between – well, who knows? They’re a-calling this the neutral ground, ain’t they?”
“It ain’t very neutral,” said Luke, “when our local gentry has raised up a militia and is going out on patrol.”
“No it ain’t!” said Amos. “And they’re under the command of Billy Howe, ain’t they? But no one quite knows for sure who has the true right to lay down the law here in Yonkers town. They’re saying it’ll be our own justice of the peace here in Yonkers who’ll make the decision on whether Tim’s to go to trial, and if he does, it’ll likely be down in the city.”
“But he doesn’t have to send him down there, does he?” asked Luke.
“Yea yea, no he don’t. So they’re a-saying. And that’s why we’re all here to give our sworn testimony in Tim’s defense, so he’ll turn Tim free.”
“And if we don’t, they’ll send him to New York City to be tried before a military court, won’t they?”
“That’s what they’re saying,” said Amos with a shrug, “for neutral ground or not, ‘tis Billy Howe that’s the power that be hereabouts, ain’t it? And he must be wanting them sent down too, for he could tell Colonel Philipse to handle it himself, couldn’t he? Even to order a hanging, maybe. If the Major General says so, it’s so. But… but still, what I’d like to know is…” he asked, turning back to the young man who had brought the news. But he was gone.
. . . . .
“And what in blazes are you doing in here?” asked John Gainer when he finally found Amos in the tavern. John was Tim’s master. He was an ordinary looking man and he dressed like most tradesmen with a hat cocked on three sides.
“Well John, I’m having me a sit down and I’m enjoying my pot of beer,” Amos replied. “Have yourself a seat too, why don’t you? It’s been a long day.”
“Where… where are the boys?”
“Sent home, home to their mothers. Not much use for them now, is there?”
“What about the hearing?”
“Who knows?” Amos said with a sigh as he lifted his mug for a sip. “Maybe tomorrow, maybe next week. It’s out of our hands now, ain’t it?”
“Are you daft? It’s tonight, up at the mansion! You knew that!”
“Ah, but you haven’t heard. Called off, it was. And for what? The arrival of a surprise visitor, I’m told. And ain’t it almost predictable, too. A poor boy like your Tim, when he’s in need, he’s forsaken by him who could see justice done and set him free. Left to the…”
“It’s on!” insisted John. “The hearing’s on! The justice of the peace is waiting for you and the boys!”
“Nay nay, it’s been called off. It was not a half hour ago that I was brought the news. Sent the boys home, I did, for there was nothing left…”
“It’s not called off, you blockhead! The justice and Nat and Thomas are all there a-waiting for you!”
“But I was told…”
“I don’t care what you were told. I’ve just come from there and they’re waiting. Where are the boys?”
“Sent home, like I says. We were told it was called off.”
“Who told you?”
“A young man! A stranger he was!”
“You were misinformed then! We’ve got to get the boys back and get down there.”
“They’ve gone home!”
“Listen to me! You go up the east half of town and I’ll take the west. We’ll find as many as we can and go straight up to the mansion!”
John chose the larger part of town as he could run faster. They were able to round up all but one of them, but with delays and questions from the boys’ parents, it took time. John was up to the mansion first with three boys. He met the steward coming out.
“Is there still time?” asked John, but he knew the answer from the look on the man’s face. The hearing had gone ahead with no one to speak other than Nat and his Uncle Thomas.
“It’s over,” said the man. “Your boy will stand trial. The justice had little choice. Where were you?”
“A stranger – a young man – he came and told Amos Short the hearing had been called off. He sent the boys home. I tracked down Amos in the tavern and we had to go out after the boys who had all gone home.”
“It’s too late?” asked Amos, as he came up with three more boys.
“What’s this about a stranger?” asked the steward.
“Indeed, a young man, he was,” said Amos. “Came to tell me it’s called off. I’d no reason to doubt him. He looked respectable enough. An ordinary sort.”
“And I’ll wager you had Thomas and his nephew there,” huffed Amos, “telling a fine pair of stories. And who do you suppose might have been behind the mysterious young messenger?”
“It’ll be best if we not make accusations in public,” said John quietly.
“Where’s Tim now?”
“Back in the lockup,” replied the steward. “He’ll be on his way down to the city tomorrow.”
“In chains?” asked John.
“Of course. But he’ll go up for trial in a couple of days only, so if you can make it there, then there’s still hope.”
“If I’m not stopped by a young man,” muttered Amos. “And you know who would be a-hiring him, don’t you?”
“Now now,” cautioned John as he glanced to the side. “Don’t make any accusations that you can’t prove. You’ll have a hard time defending yourself against a charge of slander. They’ll outtalk you, for sure.”
Amos looked in the same direction as John. By the side of the road stood Thomas and Nat Pellis. Nat gave them a dark look and turned away. Thomas followed along, looking like he was laughing at a joke.
“We know what they’re thinking, don’t we?” said Amos.
The alternative is death.
Moonlight shone through a barred window in the town’s jail, lighting up the smoke as it drifted up and out into the crisp night sky. The window at the top of the wall served as a chimney. Tim sat bored and angry, as he kept his toes warm by the fire. He was trying to decide whether to throw on another log when he heard footsteps.
“Ooo, a fine little jailhouse you’ve got here, captain,” said a young man. The good humor of a prisoner always rang false.
Leather-soled shoes stamped up the stairway, the trapdoor opened and in the light of the lantern, Tim saw the tired face of the watchman on duty.
“Climb on!” he said impatiently.
“Ooo, a swing! What fun!” The creaking started and the stranger was lowered down. “Do I climb off now?” he asked.
“Do you want to eat before tomorrow night?” was the reply. The rope creaked back up and the trap door slammed.
“Good evening,” said Tim, trying to sound older and braver than he was. The idea of being locked in a room with a drunken stranger did not please him.
“And good evening to you,” said the man as he bent forward and squinted to get a look at Tim in the dim light offered by moonlight and glowing embers. “And I’m pleased to find you here. I was hoping I’d have some company.”
“What brings you here?” asked Tim. He was trying to sound calm but his voice shook. The man did not sound much older than Tim, but there was enough light to tell he was bigger.
“Battery, they call it,” the man sighed as he felt around to select a good place to sit. The floor was covered with straw. Tim had heard mice crawling through it. “The name’s Dan Eliot. And what’s yours?”
“’Tis a pleasure, Tim Euston,” Dan said as he sat down. “Euston, eh? The watchman said your name’s Tim Useless. You must be tired of hearing that one. The boys always called me Dan Idiot. Eh? Dan Eliot? It’s too tempting not to.”
“I’m Tim Useless, because I’m useless for carpentry.”
“I keep making mistakes with counts and measurements.”
“It’ll come to you, by and by.”
“So I’ve been told, but I’ve been apprenticed three years now and it ain’t come yet. I just keep on making stupid mistakes.”
“That’s no good for carpentry,” said Dan quietly.
“No good for much else either.”
“You could be a sawyer.”
“Until I get a sore arm.” Tim knew a sawyer whose family half starved while waiting for a sore arm to get better.
“It does happen.”
“Who’d you batter?” asked Tim.
“Oh, it was just brawling. Acting like a ‘Dan Idiot’, you might say. Just two days ago I came to town looking for work. I know a fellow who lived here until recently. You know Theodore Andres?”
“He took his family and moved north last December. There’s a few who have moved out.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“How’d you end up getting arrested for brawling?”
“I’d looked up a friend of mine by the name of Thomas Pellis. You know him?”
“I do,” said Tim after a pause.
“A comical fellow he is, eh?” chuckled Dan. He waited a moment, got no response from Tim and went on. “Well, we went down to the tavern and we drank ourselves a couple of pots, and then in comes some young fellows who start to poke fun at the poor old fellow. Some clever jests, they were, that implied he had improper desires for young girls. Old Thomas had his own clever jests to offer in response and that led to fighting words. At the keeper’s suggestion we took it outside and then push led to shove. I took on the worst of them in a good boxing match – all fair and square – good to amuse ourselves with. Well, to no one’s surprise, it was Dan Eliot who emerged as the undisputed victor. I even bought them drinks to celebrate – the ones who stayed. But word got back to my opponent’s mother, who then went to her husband, who happened to be a man of some rank around these parts. The justice was ready to act at a moment’s notice and Papa saw to it that I was arrested and charged with the battery of his little boy.”
“A rather harsh interpretation of events, I’d say.”
“I’d have thought,” said Tim after a pause, “that he’d just convict you for a common nuisance and let you work off your fine, filling ruts or sawing firewood.”
“You’d think so! What do they gain by sending me down to the city to stand trial?”
“Perhaps they’re in need of cheap labor down there.”
“Perhaps,” chuckled Dan. “Not enough forced labor to be had in New York City, it seems. Only four thousand of them! Prisoners of war!” After a pause he asked, “What are you in for?”
“We’ve something in common then.”
“Ooo, and that too, eh? Well well! You might swing from a rope for a crime like that.”
“I ain’t guilty though,” insisted Tim.
“Ha! And neither am I.”
“No, truly I’m not! I never stole nothing from him and I never meant to! He lies, he does, that fine old friend of yours!”
“Your friend! Thomas Pellis!”
“Old Thomas? You battered him?”
“He had it coming, too.”
“When did this happen?”
“Day before yesterday.”
“It did indeed!”
“It was you who gave him that bruise upon his forehead?”
“I did that much. And he had it coming! I did it only in defense of my sister!”
“He had his hands upon my little sister, he did, and he meant her harm! I saw the look in his eyes.”
“Did he? I would not have thought that of old Thomas.”
“And he’s got his nephew out a-telling lies for him, too. And I had witnesses, I did! I had my friends! But somehow they never showed up for the hearing. So here I am awaiting trial.”
“I heard the watchman talking to someone about that, when he escorted me over here. Something about a stranger having gone and told someone that the hearing was called off due to an unexpected visitor.”
“Is that what happened?” asked Tim, after a pause.
“That’s what I overheard.”
“How old’s your sister?”
“No!” responded Dan, sounding disappointed. “So that’s what was behind the clever jests in the tavern. I’d not have thought that old Thomas would… would stoop to that sort of devilry.”
“He had the devil in his eye – indeed he did.”
“And here it was I who fought to defend him. We had been a-drinking and talking about all we’d been up to, and he didn’t mention a word about it. And now here I am in jail for defending the likes of him.”
“He told you nothing about it?”
“I’d asked him about the cut and bruise on his forehead. A good lump he’s got. I’d asked him and he said he’d been coming up to a door when someone was coming out.”
“Not the first lie he’s told in the past couple of days.”
“How do you like that! I defend a friend from public abuse and for my reward I’m criminally charged. And worse yet I’m associated with the sort of blackguard who preys upon the weak and innocent.”
They sat in silence, listening to the crackle of the fire and the rustle of a mouse.
“They need cheap labor to repair the roads,” said Tim. “I should thank you on behalf of the county for the work you’ll be doing.”
“The city, not the county. I’m being sent to be tried in the city.”
“Well then, I thank thee on behalf of the City of New York. Perhaps you’ll be helping to improve the fortifications, too.”
“And I’ll thank thee, Tim Euston, for the work that you’ll do on them. We’ll likely be on the same chain gang together. Yea, toiling elbow to elbow and working for good King George and the common weal.”
“A fine pair of public spirited fellows we are,” agreed Tim, as he contemplated working long hours in winter weather with poor food and a cold shackle upon his leg.
“And it’s always that way, isn’t it?” said Dan, half to himself as he scratched his head of curly blonde hair. “’Tis the ‘better sort’, and the ‘middling sort’, too. They’re the ones who have control of the courts, and with them, they hold dominion over the ‘lesser sorts’ like ourselves. And here we’ll be wrongly convicted and enslaved. That’s what it is, ain’t it? Enslavement! That… that Thomas Pellis. Why should beating him get you in here? He shouldn’t be above us.”
“No, but he has family who are merchants and landowners.”
“And that is all it takes. That gets him preferential treatment. Them that has gets. Had your father been a landowner and a merchant with more money than the Pellises, then who’d be in jail now? It’d be old Thomas, wouldn’t it?”
“Likely,” said Tim with a shrug.
“What’s your father do?”
“My father is off in Boston. He’s a merchant with a sickly old crow for a wife. My mother was his ‘kept woman’ and me and Sadie are his bastard son and daughter. Had his wife died like she was supposed to then he might have married my mother. That’s what he’d promised. I might have been well off but the old crow lives on forever so he never did marry my mother. Then when Mom’s teeth all started to rot away, she got to be less pleasant for company. So he had her put away. Paid off and sent away, she was – all three of us. We lived down in the city and he kept sending her money until he went bankrupt and after that, Mom found work up here in Yonkers, work for all three of us.”
“A sad story,” said Dan, quietly.
“My sister serves the same master as my mother. Their mistress is Matilda Walker. She was a Pellis – a niece of old Thomas and she’s the sister of his nephew Nat. And it’s my sister, Sadie, that old Thomas has an eye for.”
“All in the family, is it?”
“Nearly,” huffed Tim.
“You a servant too?”
“Mom had money enough for me to be bound as an apprentice to a carpenter – John Gainer.”
“You could do worse than that.”
“Indeed, it could be worse.”
“Not tonight though,” laughed Dan. “Not for Tim Useless.”
“Is it much better for Dan Idiot?”
“No! Well… though, we could be lying on our deathbed with a heart so hardened by hatred that we’ve no hope of salvation.”
“Indeed we could be.”
“Count our blessings, we should.”
“Accept with humility what hath been accorded unto us.”
“Humility has never been one of my gifts,” said Dan with a half smile, after taking a moment to think it over.
“No! I can’t imagine that!” laughed Tim.
“But who would stand to gain, were I as humble as I ought to be?” asked Dan, sounding like he was about to deliver a speech. “It be King and gentlemen who want us lesser sorts to humbly obey – pay the King’s taxes and plough the gentleman’s fields. Ain’t that the fact? And what sort of a preacher is it who preaches the wisdom of obedience? It’s the preacher who has a gentleman landowner for a brother. And can we blame them – any of them? Don’t we feather their nests with our humble labor? Isn’t it the sweat of our brow that puts the butter on their bread and the meat on their plates and the logs on their fires and the lace on their sleeves?”
“Indeed it is,” said Tim with a nod, “though, I suppose, more so over in old England. But there’s many who want it to be that way here too, isn’t there?”
“Do you think so?” said Dan with a smile. “Sounds like you’re a patriot then, and for the cause of freedom.” There was just enough light for Tim to see his expression.
“I wouldn’t admit to that, not to a stranger. Not in the town of Yonkers – not these days. They call patriots ‘rebels’ hereabouts.”
“They’re all tories here?”
“Half-and-half it was, but most of the patriots have gone north. What’s left behind have either declared for the King or they’ve kept quiet.”
“You’re for the cause of freedom, though?”
“Why should I admit it to you?” asked Tim, with suspicion in his voice.
“Smart boy,” chuckled Dan. “You never know, these days. But I’m idiot enough to admit that I would have gladly fought under Washington and the Continental Congress. I would have but I missed out on the chance. I was at sea. I didn’t even hear the news of it until the battles of last fall were all fought and lost. Maybe this spring, I’ll go sign up, if there’s still battles to be fought.”
“And I will too,” said Tim quietly, “if they’ll take me.”
“Well, bless you, my brother!” declared Dan. “Let me shake your hand!” and he waved his hand in the darkness, trying to find Tim’s. “Bound by our word, we are! But… what do you mean, ‘if they’ll take you’?”
“They wouldn’t last summer. I was fifteen and short. The sergeant said I’d be needed on the home front.”
“They laughed at me when I walked away.”
“Six of us walked down to the city to sign up and… and they took five out of the six.”
“And you went home alone?” asked Dan, with sympathy in his voice.
“There were others who weren’t taken.”
“Nobody can say you didn’t try.”
“I’ve grown an inch, since then.”
“There was just talk of war,” sighed Dan, “when I signed onto a merchant ship and sailed away. Now they can say I suspected it was coming and that I ran off in fear.”
“You couldn’t have known it would all come so fast.”
“Yea, indeed,” said Dan quietly, after a pause. “Well, at least the two of us are alive and able to fight again, aren’t we?”
“If we ever have a chance. Everybody’s talking about peace talks coming soon.”
“Around here they may be talking about peace talks, but up north, they say they’re in it to the end. No compromise. That’s what I’m told.”
“We can only hope,” said Tim.
“At least one more battle, eh? For those of us who missed out – a chance to take a stand and show ’em what we’ve got to offer.”
“Just one!” moaned Tim quietly, sounding almost desperate.
“How’d the war go for your five friends?”
“One died of camp fever and one was wounded up at the battle of White Plains and now he lays about his mother’s house mending. Two are prisoners down in the city and the other one is over in Jersey with the Army.”
“Only one out of the five still able to fight on?”
“Two. The other one’s getting better.”
“And the others might get out. They’re saying there’ll be another prisoner exchange.”
“I hope so,” said Tim. “We’ll need them once fighting season comes.”
“I’d hate to spend the summer marching up and down a parade ground while peace talks are going on. There are some who say a young man could serve the cause better by hiring onto a privateer and helping in the capture of English shipping. And not working for a tory shipper, like I did last year! But what do you think about privateering? Get onto a good American privateer and fight the enemy and get a share in the booty? What do you think? They say that it’ll be the capturing of their ships that will injure the interests of the ruling class in old England – more than fighting battles. And if we were on with a privateer we’d stand a chance for riches, wouldn’t we? I’ve heard tell of boys no older than yourself who came back with more than he could earn in ten years of working – enough to get themself started in life.”
“Make up for the misfortune of their birth,” said Tim.
“Maybe the two of us should bust out of this shack and aim our feet for Boston. Come spring, there’ll be many a privateer who will sail from that port and they’ll be looking for boys like us, won’t they? And too short and too skinny ain’t no problem for a sailor, is it? They’ll want you as long as you’ve courage enough to climb the spars in any weather. Could you do that?”
“I’ve climbed to the top of the tallest trees hereabouts.”
“Didn’t go stiff and start to whimper when you looked down?”
“Well, there you go. You ever been to sea?”
“Doesn’t matter. They’ll be taking all comers, so long as you’re young and strong. Yea, there’s riches to be had on the sea. Though I must say, I did promise myself I’d never ship out again. You know what some sailors do for three hours out of four, out at sea? They knit! Knitting needles a-clicking away! Some did carving or leatherwork. They’d pay me to help, sometimes. Yea, we’re all needed when the sails need to be trimmed, but the rest of the time we’re idle. And a few balls of yarn or a few pieces of leather don’t take up much space. There’s some who earn themselves a few pence ever day, doing their handiwork, and that’s on top of their pay. And there was one fellow! He could argue politics or lay bets or tell stories or sing songs and keep on a-knitting all the while and never drop a stitch! One stocking after another! Click, click, click went them needles! It can drive you daft! But still, there’s money to be made at sea these days at privateering. Legalized piracy, it is! How hard do you suppose it would it be to break out of a wooden jailhouse like this?”
“I looked it over during daylight. Without a hammer and chisel, it’d take a while.”
“You got a knife?”
“They took it from me.”
“Days then. Weeks,” sighed Tim. “We’d have to break a rock and use it to scratch through oak. We may as well gnaw through it with our teeth.”
“Well then, wouldn’t you think we’d best start gnawing? The alternative is likely to be death by hanging, ain’t it?”
This story is set in February and March of 1777, in the second year of the American War for Independence. It had started with battles in Massachusetts when the Royal Governor had sent red-coated regulars to seize military equipment stockpiled by a rebellious colonial assembly. Local militias drove them back and surrounded Boston. The militia was an “irregular” military force made up of the larger part of the colony’s adult males. Most owned their weapons and had been training more frequently than the traditional one day a month. As news spread through New England, revolutionary committees took control of local government. In June, a force of 2500 British redcoats drove 1500 patriot militia from a hill that overlooked Boston harbor, but almost half the British were killed or wounded, far more than expected. From New Hampshire to Georgia the uprising spread, and by May of 1776 not one British soldier remained in arms in the thirteen colonies. The Americans hoped they had achieved the military credibility needed to persuade their mother country to return things to the way they had been before it had started to try to impose new taxes. At this point only a small minority wanted full independence.
Twelve years earlier, the capture of Canada by the English had ended the threat posed by the French. King George III decided the Americans should pay more taxes to cover the cost of their own defense. Until then, the only taxes paid to England had been customs duties and these were often evaded. The Americans felt they should pay no new taxes without the right to vote in their own members of Parliament. This tax protest was a part of a movement favoring political and legal reform, with rebellion in Corsica and riots in Madrid, Ireland and London.
An assembly of colonial representatives calling itself the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. Delegates insisted they were loyal and issued their demands in the King’s name. During the early months of 1776, the mood changed and in July they voted in the highly controversial Declaration of Independence. America had a regular army with George Washington as commander. The American Army, often called the Continental Army, grew to 23,000 men. King George replied with a force of 32,000, commanded by Major General William Howe, and it landed on an island at the mouth of the wide Hudson River. The British were better trained and equipped, and in a series of battles they captured the islands around New York City and all of New Jersey. 3,600 Americans were killed, 4,000 taken prisoner, and thousands more were sick or had deserted. This represented about one in forty of the thirteen colony’s white, adult males. Starting in December, after the British had gone into winter quarters, Washington revived confidence in the patriot cause with victories at Trenton and Princeton, and in many other small actions in New Jersey. By spring they were able to be hopeful again.
’Tis a risky business.
“I just want to go and tell him to think about making himself presentable,” said Sadie Euston to her mother when halfway out the back door.
“Just don’t be long then,” said Abby over her shoulder. “We’ve work to do and I can’t do it all myself.”
“I will be back shortly!”
“Make sure of that,” Abby grumbled, turning away and holding her hand to her cheek. It was swollen from a toothache and the damp air that blew in through the doorway felt very cold.
Sadie looked back to see if her mother was watching from the door. She almost always had a toothache. It was frustrating because she did not have to suffer the way she did. Matilda had said more than once that she was willing to pay to have them pulled. What twisted desire, Sadie wondered, possesses the heart of my mother to make her want to cling onto rotten teeth?
Everyone spoke well of the local surgeon and said he was excellent at pulling teeth. Abby’s teeth were so far gone, they’d “pop out like corks,” as the surgeon claimed. But instead, thought Sadie, the foolish woman chooses to suffer day after day with her face swollen and red! And spending good money on medicines that hardly work at all. And she likes to praise the soldiers for their courage in battle. Why can’t she show some courage herself?
Snow lay on the fields and rain was starting to fall. The weather had been miserable for weeks. Sadie’s mother was just as miserable and her brother was in jail and his one adult witness would likely get drunk today and still be drunk tomorrow when he testified in court. A stinking, dirty drunkard! Sadie told herself as she walked along. All we’ve got is him and boys. How will their testimony stand up to Nat and Thomas Pellis, who will be dressed up in fine clothes and looking like a pair of gentlemen?
A big wagon loaded with barrels passed by, the horses at a trot. Their hooves splashed in the ruts, splattering Sadie’s white apron. The rain was now a steady drizzle and she slouched along, holding onto the ends of her hood and the ties of her cloak, trying to keep the rain from going down her neck. Amos Short lived at the edge of town, down a trail and into the woods in a one room shack. She would give him a good scolding, turn around and leave. What more can I do? she told herself. I can’t force him to stay sober, can I?
Sadie was almost there when she saw him – Jack Lauper, Luke’s father. He was creeping out the door of Amos’s shack and looking around, like he was afraid someone was watching. He always walked in a half creep. So did Luke but this time Jack was creepier than ever. He did not see Sadie because she was peeking around the edge of a thicket of brush at a bend in the trail. The look of him frightened her. She ducked down further behind the branches and then behind the trunk of a large tree. The dead leaves that covered the ground were wet and made little sound. As he passed by, on the same trail she had come up, Sadie kept hidden behind the tree. She did not know why she felt a need to do this. She knew him well and had no reason to fear him. But the look of him today – it warned of something sinister.
After a few more steps, he broke into a run; a smooth cat-like run that he could keep up for miles. What’s he running from? Sadie wondered as she came out from the trees. She looked up and down the trail and shook her head. Now she was crouched down and creeping along, like he had been. The door of the shack was open. Why would Jack leave the door open? Something felt wrong and Sadie was tempted to turn back and forget about it all. “Let Amos take care of himself,” she muttered, but then hesitated. What’s happened? she wondered and forced herself to go on. She took another step toward the door and another look back. What if someone sees me? But… but why should that matter? I’ve done nothing wrong!
Inside the door, she saw his foot. He lay face down, just beyond the table.
“Amos?” she asked. She looked back again and could see no one. The only sound was dripping and the distant caw of a crow. Inside the shack she stepped slowly.
“What are you doing there?” she called out in case someone was hiding. No one answered. She felt her whole body going stiff with fear.
“Amos! Wake up!” she ordered. It took all her courage to go closer. There was something red in his hair. Blood? She could hear him breathing. His chest rose and fell. There was definitely a smell of rum.
“Amos,” she whispered. No answer. “Amos!” she shouted. Still no response. She reached out and prodded his shoulder. He did not move. She struck his shoulder with her fist. “Wake up!” she called, but still he did not move.
“Oh dear!” she whispered. All was still quiet. She went out the door, took three steps and broke into a run, just like Jack had – looking side to side as if in fear of getting caught.
It was hard work running through muck, but Sadie found the strength to run all the way home. Matilda was in the kitchen.
“Amos is on the ground and he won’t wake up! There’s blood in his hair!”
“Oh! What were you doing there?” scolded Matilda. She was not an uncaring woman but she felt this would mean an extra burden that was not rightly hers to bear.
“I just went to tell him to stay sober and make himself presentable looking for court tomorrow.”
“Oh! Is it still raining?”
“No, it’s stopped.”
“Come on then.” Matilda tied on her hood, an oblong shaped piece of cloth with the ends twisted and tied under the chin. Sadie got her cloak and draped it over Matilda’s shoulders. She tied it as they were going out the back door. Nothing more was said. They walked quickly toward the home of the surgeon, but he was not in.
“I don’t know,” said the cook. “Someone came and he went with him.”
They went to find the watchman on duty. When the women told him the news, he shook his head and grunted. His wife brought his cloak and hat and she gave Sadie a sour look, as if it was all her fault. He led the way to the shack, going at an easy pace. When they arrived, the door was still open. Inside, they found Jack Lauper and the surgeon. Sadie could tell by the looks on their faces that Amos was dead.
“Someone broke his head with a club of some sort,” said the surgeon. He was a tall man with a narrow nose. “Attacked from behind, he was. No signs of a struggle. Likely he did not know what was coming… and I think it likely he suffered no pain.”
“He was breathing when I found him,” said Jack.
“And when I found him too,” said Sadie. “Just after…”
“Just after what?” asked the surgeon.
“Just after Jack left. I was coming up the path when he was coming down.”
“Were you?” asked Jack. “I didn’t see you.”
“I ducked into the bushes,” she replied, feeling self-conscious. They were all staring at her. She pushed a strand of her straw-colored hair back under her white cap and brushed her fingers across her nose, as if to wipe off the freckles.
“When he was coming back?” asked the surgeon. “When he was leaving here and heading back toward town?”
“Yes,” replied Sadie. “Then I went in and saw Amos and tried to wake him up but he wouldn’t.”
“What do you mean, you ‘ducked into the bushes’?”
“When Jack came out he looked so… so… Like he was scared of something! I just ducked in behind a bush – behind a tree – and let him run past.”
“Jack was running?” asked the watchman.
“Well,” said Jack. “I’d just found a friend of mine knocked out. Out cold and with blood on his head! I feared for my own safety, I did!”
“What do you think?” said Jack, with wide eyes, along with a stupid half-grin.
“From the man who knocked him down!”
“What brought you here this morning?” asked the surgeon.
“To see how he’s doing; if he’s going to be ready for the trial tomorrow. I came to advise him to lay off the rum, to make a good impression before the judges.”
“That’s why I came, too,” said Sadie.
“We both know him well!” laughed Jack.
“Knew him well,” corrected the surgeon. “And how long were you here before you came to blows?”
“Came to blows?” asked Jack. “With who?”
“I resent that very much!” said Jack, straightening up and frowning. “I laid not a finger upon him. I came here and found him lying where he lays now.”
“No fighting words? No punches thrown?”
“I see you’ve got a cut on your knuckle,” said the surgeon, pointing to Jack’s hand. One knuckle had a cut with dried blood.
“I… I punched the wall of my own house,” said Jack. “Just this morning.”
“I was a-thinking of Thomas Pellis, I was! Him and his lying nephew!”
“And you didn’t strike Amos a blow this morning?”
“You said yourself there was no sign of a struggle,” said Jack, with a “Hah! I caught you!” tone in his voice.
“I said that, ‘tis true, but I spoke not the truth,” said the surgeon as he went to Amos’s body and knelt down. “Look here,” he said, turning the body over to show the face. The eyes were half open. “Now, as you see, his lip’s been cracked and he has a loose tooth.” The surgeon poked his finger into the half open mouth and wiggled a tooth.
“I did not kill Amos Short! I can tell you that right now – in the sight of God, I can! I did not lay a finger upon him!”
“You’ve been in many a brawl, haven’t you?” asked the watchman.
“Yes, many a brawl. But I don’t go and club and kill my friends!”
“You and Amos brawled out in front of the tavern, just this past Christmastime.”
“I was drunk and he was drunk! It was a good boxing match. There was no hard feelings neither! We were friends again the next day! I’ve no reason to kill Amos! But you and I know who does! Is not Amos Short the prime witness for the trial of young Tim Euston? And wasn’t Tim saying to everybody that Thomas had his hand upon young Sadie here and the devil in his eye?”
“Indeed he was,” replied the surgeon.
“Yes, but nonetheless,” said the watchman, “we’ve Sadie here saying you ran from the shack looking scared, and we’ve a bloody knuckle that matches a bloody tooth.”
“You are not going to pin this crime on me! Were I to kill a man I would plan it out better than this.”
“It was just on impulse then?” asked the surgeon.
“You agree then?”
“That you punched him without forethought?”
“Ah… no! Not that I punched him. That whoever punched him – whoever cracked him over the head! It… it was not me! Thomas or Nat or whoever was the young man who went and told Amos that the hearing was called off – likely it was one of them! You will not pin this on me! I am innocent! I swear that before God Almighty, I do!”
“Your faith is an inspiration,” said the watchman. “But I fear this is now a question for a court of law. By the authority vested in me I do place you, Jack Lauper, under arrest and I’d advise you to come along peacefully or face an additional charge for resisting lawful arrest. Do you understand?”
“Of course I understand. I will come along peaceful as a lamb, I will, and I’ll swear my innocence before any court of law, and may God strike me dead and cast me into hellfire if I speak one word of a lie.”
“Good for you. I’m taking my other two prisoners down to the city today and tomorrow the court sits. If the judges believe your story, you could be a free man again by tomorrow evening.”
. . . . .
“A man who can afford a big lawyer,” said Dan Eliot, “will be tried according to law and precedent, but if he can’t it’ll be trial by whim and convenience.” He was sitting on the floor of one of New York City’s many new jailhouses. Until recently it had been a church, but with four thousand prisoners of war to house, the generals had commandeered a few buildings for use as temporary prisons. This particular church had promoted a brand of dissident religion favored by people who supported the rebellion. After the British had invaded Manhattan Island the October before, at least half the city had fled, including most of the congregation. The prisoners from Yonkers were put in a small room. The jailers felt that if they were put in with the rebels up in the nave, they would fall under a bad influence.
“I don’t know,” said Jack with a shrug. “Would a gentleman get a proper jury trial either? Not these days, I don’t think. Not with war and martial law.”
“Perhaps not,” said Dan, “but likely a rich man could improve his position by the right coin into the right hand – bribe his way out of almost any charge, I’d think. I’ve been hearing stories. There are captains and colonels and generals who seem to think there’s more than one way to plunder an enemy. Let the lesser soldiers strip the corpses and loot the houses but the higher-ups will gain even more by the demanding of bribes. And from who? Not just the criminals. From any merchant who hopes to sell provisions to the Army, that’s who. And that’s not the limit either. There are red-coated soldiers selling stolen arms and supplies. And who are they going to? To their own enemy – the American Army – the King’s own weapons going to the rebels. But not directly though. They’re employing middlemen. A crooked redcoat will steal weapons – outright stealing it is! And then he’ll trade them to a middleman who smuggles them out and sells to the rebels. Then they’re trading the gunpowder for firewood and the muskets for beef – and for high prices. And sometimes these are the same merchants who have paid bribes so they can sell provisions to the British.”
“They say there’s a lot who are getting rich these days.”
“Oh indeed yes. Almost thirty-two thousand soldiers they still have hereabouts – here and down on Staten Island and across in Jersey – and there’s thousands more civilians too, now that the city’s filling up with tory refugees. It’ll take a lot to keep them all fed and warm and they can’t bring it all across the sea, can they? And they can’t bring it in from enemy territory – the enemy territory that surrounds them. Upstate and most all of New England and down the coast – it’s almost all firmly in patriot hands now, isn’t it? The prices in the city are sky-high.”
“Everybody’s out to get what they can get,” agreed Tim.
“They are. And just you wait and see if someone doesn’t come here and take you out to be ‘questioned’ and then ask how much you’d be able to offer for a good word directed to the gentlemen who will stand in judgment of you.”
“Yes, that may come, I suppose,” said Jack. “But I suspect our watchman has already told them a few things about us. Me and Tim don’t have no relatives willing to buy us out of a scrape – and the watchman would know that, too. And how about you, Dan Eliot? How are you set for the paying of bribes to crooked officers?”
“Not at all,” replied Dan, shaking his head. “No, there’s no rich grandmother in my family. I got relatives upcountry and over in Massachusetts, but none of them are any wealthier than I am – not any more – and I don’t know that they’d help if they could. I was the black sheep, you might say.”
“The black sheep?” laughed Jack. “No! I can’t see that!”
“We are all in need of witnesses,” sighed Dan. “Or at least you are. I suspect my goose is already cooked. He was a rich boy and I got in a few good punches before he conceded defeat. A bit of a mess, he was.”
“Well, your goose in no better cooked than mine,” said Jack. “I’ve no witness, except for your sister,” he said with a smile to Tim. “And she only saw me running from the scene of the crime so she’s a witness against me, though it’s no fault of her own.”
“But surely it was Thomas or Nat,” said Tim. “They’re the ones that got the motive.”
“I don’t know,” said Jack. “I was into the store that same morning and Nat was there and I heard him say that his father was feeling poorly again. Sick in bed, he said he was. That means Nat would have been in the store right through the whole day with no time to nip out and kill somebody.”
“He was in the store too but I don’t know where he was earlier. He has a motive, for sure, but do you think he would ever have nerve enough to be so bold? It is not anyone at all who can go out and kill a man.”
“The watchman knows Thomas had a motive. Surely he’ll ask around.”
“He ought to,” said Jack, “but he might just decide the town’s better off without my type. A sailor that don’t want to go to sea no more. I have no tradesman’s skills to offer and I have a reputation for drunken brawling. When an extra hand is needed for harvest or haying I’m a sought after man, but this time of year my type is not too attractive in the eyes of the better sort.”
“And ain’t that just the heart of the matter right there,” said Dan as he shook his head. “A man’s only worth what he’s worth to the higher-ups – to those with power and position – to those with land to rent and those who know the law and know how to use it to their own benefit. The rest of us have no property so we can’t vote. We’ve no money to pay for lawyers so our legal rights are beyond our reach. Without a trade a man’s little better off than slaves. Indeed, if we were slaves we would at least have a master who would be looking to protect his interest in us. We’d have ourselves a market value – what our master could fetch for us at auction. Then we’d have someone able and willing to buy us out of a scrape. Indeed we neither of us might never have been in this jail now had we been slave to a man of substance. The watchman would have let us go, out of consideration for our master’s financial interests.”
“But I’m a bound apprentice to a carpenter and I’m still in jail,” said Tim.
“You are, but didn’t you tell me that you’re Tim Useless,” Dan said, smiling, “who can’t be relied upon for accurate counts and measurements? Sure, you’re bound to a master but word is going around that you’ve been a poor choice and the watchman likely knows that.”
“Well… what are we to do then?” asked Jack, who did not like to hear poor Tim called down like this.
“I say we ought to break our way out of here,” said Dan quietly. “Break out, ‘borrow’ a boat, cross over to the Connecticut shore and make our way up to Boston. There we find ourselves a privateer who’s looking for a crew. Then once we’ve won prize money at sea, we’ll be able to get ourselves a good start in life. Buy a farm or pay someone to train us in a valuable trade.”
“We could hardly walk that distance before spring,” said Tim.
“We could end up back in a New York City jail,” said Jack, “just as easy as we could end up rich.”
“But what’s the alternative? If we stay here and wait for justice, then we might end up at the end of a rope. Jack, you’ll almost surely hang. And if you don’t, then as an alternative you’ll starve in jail or freeze your toes off doing forced labor under the eyes of a red-coated soldier who’s waiting for an excuse to shoot somebody. Think about it a while. There’s some things worse than death, ain’t there?”
At this time a surgeon was a skilled tradesman whose status and training was comparable to a carpenter or blacksmith. He would provide hands-on care: setting bones, draining abscesses and bloodletting. There were physicians as well; a small number of gentlemen with university educations. Usually the physician would interview his middle or upper class patient and make a diagnosis. The patient would then go to an apothecary who would suggest a medicine.
I do thank thee most humbly.
While Tim was sitting in jail, weighing in his mind the potential benefits and costs of employment aboard a privateer, his master John Gainer was on his way south. The rented wagon he drove bounced and swayed along the wet, rutted post road. It was loaded with firewood, potatoes and boys. The eighteen miles down to New York City would usually take four or five hours. These days it took longer with red-coated soldiers at checkpoints. If their superiors had heard rumors of rebel saboteurs on the way, or of arms being smuggled out, they would be asking more questions and searching more wagons. The trip could take all day.
“Now listen! I want all you boys to be staying close by when we get to the bridge,” said John for the second time. “You start looking around and they’ll think you’re paid to look around.”
“I want to be a spy,” said one boy.
“No, you don’t want to be a spy,” said John. “You want to be a scout.”
“What’s the difference?”
“There ain’t always a difference, but if you’re in uniform and you just ride out to take a look around, then you’re definitely a scout. If you’re a sneaky little scoundrel who will buy information from whoever and sell it to either side, then you’re definitely a spy. But either way, you won’t be liking it much when somebody decides to beat the truth out of you.”
“I wouldn’t talk!”
“You’d squeal like a pig,” said Luke Lauper as he reached over to yank his pigtail. The boy squealed.
“Were you to be recruited as a spy,” said John, “you’d likely start out by meeting with an Army officer, be he one of the regulars from down here, or a rebel from up north or over in Jersey. He might be in uniform and he might not. He’d tell you what sort of information they wanted. How many enemy soldiers did you see coming through, or what sort of ships came upstream or down, or what sort of rumors were going around. Then he’d tell you that from time to time a man would come to you and give you a password. It might be, ‘So how’s old Widow Dunrea a-doing? I’d heard her leg was trouble.’ ”
“Why’d he ask that?”
“Because you don’t know any Widow Dunrea. And that’s how you’d know it was your ‘contact’, as they call them. You might say that she was much better since the doctor was brought in, and then you’d tell him all that you figured was worth telling in the way of military intelligence. That means useful information – something a general would like to hear to help plot his strategy – and strategy means his plans for ambushes and battles. And that’d be it.”
“Would he pay you?”
“If you’d demanded something. And maybe he’d give you a new password for the next time somebody else came to see you. And that’d be all he’d say. You likely wouldn’t get to know anybody else either. That’s the way it ought to be, too. That way, if you were caught and tortured, you’d have nothing to tell. No names. No secret plans. Nothing except the name of a well-known officer – the one you’d seen at the start – if you’d seen one at the start. That way you’d be a benefit without being too much of a cost. And that’s the way they’d want it. It’s hard not to tell all if they go to work on you. If you’re picked up and you’re kept awake for three days, you’ll likely be too daft to remember why you’re not supposed to talk.”
“How’d they keep you awake for three days?”
“When you nod off, a couple of big men hoist you up by the elbows and walk you around the room, and if you fall asleep on your feet they leave you to fall. You’ll surely wake up by the time your nose hits the floorboards.”
“That’s how they torture you?”
“I thought they cut your fingers off.”
“No no no. Not if they mean to turn you loose. They don’t want you to go home and show everybody your stubs and tell them heartrending tales of outrageous cruelty. That way you’d just fire up the hot heads and have them all angry and swearing revenge, and then going out to join the enemy’s Army. They’d not want that, would they? What they’d want is for his friends to be saying. ‘Tortured? You don’t look too bad to me, boy. You sure you were tortured?’ ”
“That’s smart,” said Luke.
“And don’t you think it won’t happen to you – whether you offer to spy or not. That’s the treatment my cousin got, just last fall. He wanted to mind his own business and not fight for either side. He was out walking down the road one day, off to visit his mother, and some horsemen rode up – loyalist militia. One of them had been suspicious of him and he got questioned. Four days later when he got home, he looked five years older and he was useless for work for a week after. He still has nightmares of falling and hitting the floorboards. His dad makes him sleep out in the hayloft so his hollering doesn’t wake up the whole house.”
“And he didn’t do nothing?”
“Just minding his own business,” said John with a shrug. “Mistaken identity it was.”
By this time they had made it to the bridge that led across the Harlem River that separated Manhattan Island from the mainland. There was a row of wagons and packhorses waiting for their turn to cross over. After John’s story the boys were all scared of being taken in for questioning and they stayed close by the wagon.
. . . . .
It was almost dark when they made it into the city. New York was big, covering an entire square mile – the whole south end of the island. They had been told there would be little chance of finding a room in any hotel. It had a population of twenty-two thousand before the war, making it the second largest city after Philadelphia. Half of the population had fled but others had come to take their place. But a third of the city’s houses had been burnt to the ground the previous September, and space was at a premium.
John was lucky. Before dark, he found the house he was looking for. It belonged to the brother of a Yonkers man. Like a lot of property owners in the city, he was willing to take them in for a few pence worth of firewood. John and the boys were given a bowl of soup in exchange for the potatoes they had brought with them.
After supper everyone gathered around the fireplace. They sang songs, told stories and listened to a skinny boy who read from a book of poetry. Finally the master of the house announced it was bedtime. He and his wife had the curtained four-posted bed in the corner of the front room. Everybody else either squeezed onto two bedframes or simply had to find a patch of floor big enough for their bedrolls. Thirty-three men, women and children were already crammed into this three-room house. None were resentful about an additional seven being added in for the night. Even the little ones knew they needed all the firewood and potatoes they could get.
. . . . .
John and the boys were up before dawn and over to the courthouse by nine o’clock. The opening ceremony was impressive with so many military men in uniforms, and with lace and brightly polished buttons and swords. Finally, the presiding officers of the court took their places upon the bench. They were elegant in rich fabric but they were also scary to look at with expressions of cold command on aristocratic faces. The oldest of the three started by delivering a short sermon about justice and duty to one’s anointed highness. Next, a gray-haired man off to the side shouted out something in Latin and called the first case. The lesser charges were dealt with first. Clerks sat at a table below the judges and seemed to know ahead of time which of the accused was guilty – and that was nearly all of them. A man in fashionable attire did the talking and he performed like a master. Charges, testimony and judgment slid past with the efficiency of hands of cards played at a high-stakes poker table.
Eventually, Tim was led in with chains on his hands and feet. He was placed upon a raised platform behind the prisoner’s bar, with an enormous guard just behind him, ready to give him a cuff to the back of his head if he spoke out of turn. Everyone in the large and crowded room turned to look at Tim and he glanced fearfully back and forth. It felt so strange to him – so nerve-racking – to be the center of such interest.
Some of the witnesses had been interviewed earlier in the day by a clerk, and during the luncheon break, the judges had heard a summary of conflicting claims. With the threatened abduction of a maiden in distress and a hoard of villainous young bandits, this case would be the highlight of the day. The judges were sure to please the crowd by allowing plenty of time for testimony.
The first to have his say was Nat Pellis. He stepped up to the witness bar in a fine looking suit of dark blue linen edged with a modest amount of lace – just enough for a member of a family of small merchants. In his strong, clear voice, he told of running to his uncle’s calls, to find him besieged by young rascals – beaten and terrorized – his face streaked with blood.
Next came the old man himself, looking elegant in a new suit of pale brown. With too much rented lace on his cuffs and collar and a powdered wig on his head, he looked to be the equal of any of the judges. They might consider him overdressed for a man of limited wealth and education but Thomas offset this risk by speaking in a humble, apologetic tone.
“I must confess I had been drinking a bit too much that day and…and when I found the children all at play – playing a game of tag they were and... well… well, just on an impulse I crept up behind the girl and… and just to be playful, I suppose, I snuck up and I poked my fingers in her ribs and I shouted ‘You’re it!’ Well! She shrieked so loud… I jumped a foot off the ground, I did. And then I felt I had to beg apology, so without thinking I grabbed hold of her arm before she could run away – not wanting her to get away before I could explain and… and fearing the reaction of others were she to claim she had been rudely assaulted. And then… and then while I pleaded for her to understand, well… well, she just kept on a-hollering ‘Let go! Let go!’ I didn’t even realize I still had hold of her arm and first thing I knew the boys were attacking from all sides. It was only then that I realized that I had been deceived! I was victim of an attempted robbery – a planned and deliberate robbery!”
Next was the testimony of the boys. The judges heard the oldest two, who told similar accounts of hearing Sadie’s cries, and running back to see her being pulled toward the door, and of the look of anger and guilt in Thomas’s eyes.
Finally came the decision of the court. The evidence was insufficient to convict Tim of robbery and he was free to go. Though the question was not before the court, the judge also expressed his opinion on the evidence against Thomas. There was clearly not enough to consider a charge against him for an attack on the girl. There was no way of telling whether he intended anything more than an ill-considered prank or had attempted anything more than an awkward effort to beg apology.
The next prisoner to be brought to the bar was Dan Eliot. The surgeon described the victim’s cuts and bruises in vivid detail. Another witness agreed that Dan had beaten the boy severely. After this, Dan begged forgiveness and insisted he had lost his temper in the heat of the moment, no doubt due to his foolish decision to drink too many mugs of beer.
A stern but brief lecture from the judge was followed by a solemn pronouncement of guilt. Foolish Dan Eliot found himself sentenced to one year at hard labor.
By now, it was well past suppertime and the judges were in a rush to finish the day’s business. Jack Lauper came out, looking guilty in his usual slouch, with his shifty eyes and his hands clasped under his chin, as if to deliberately show off the iron cuffs and chains. First the surgeon was questioned, then the watchman. The final witness was Sadie, who could only tell the truth, no matter how harmful it might be for poor Jack. She finished by turning a shamed face to the prisoner, who offered his forgiveness with a kind smile and a shrug. The judge scolded Jack for his wickedness, found him guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced him to fourteen years at hard labor. The relief on poor Jack’s face was visible to everyone. He, and almost everyone else, had expected the death sentence.
Before the court adjourned for the day, Dan was called back into the room and brought to stand before the judges’ bench, next to Jack. The judge said some consideration ought to be offered to Dan because of his youth, and to Jack because he had no prior convictions for a major crime. “I am willing,” said the judge, “to reduce your sentences by half if you are willing to serve out your time upon a vessel of His Majesty’s Royal Navy.”
“Surely I would m’lord, if you feel me worthy,” said Dan without hesitation.
“Indeed yes, your grace,” said Jack, almost at the same time as Dan. “And I do thank thee most humbly.”
The guilty were led back into the prison below and the innocent were unchained. Tim got smiles and hugs from his crying mother and sister, and all his friends were grinning and teasing him about his good luck. Even Luke managed to smile at him, though he was still thinking of the look his father had given him just before he was led through the door. It might be seven years before Luke saw him again. It might be never. Many sailors died on a voyage, especially during time of war.
As everyone was turning to make their way out, Tim gave Luke a look and they both knew what the other was thinking. “The innocent are to be punished and the real killer will walk free in the town of Yonkers.”
Just a daydreamer and a dullard.
Life went back to normal for Tim Euston. Two days after the trial, he was at work with the crew of woodcutters led by John Gainer’s seventeen-year-old son, Josh. Since the arrival of General William Howe and his enormous army, there had been few calls for carpentry on the neutral ground. John had even considered moving down to the city, expecting a rush of work on barracks and prisons. He went there, asked around and changed his mind. The invaders had brought carpenters and more were included among the refugees. The high prices offered for firewood and lumber meant John could do better at the harvesting of wood than he could at his skilled trade. The invaders held only a small region around New York City and local producers had themselves a captive market. Since December, John had gone from five employees to fifteen and he would have hired more if he had access to more woodland. Everybody was into the game and local landowners who had not gotten around to burning and breaking their land for crops had found themselves with a wealth of wood.
Halfway through the day, Tim was sent to the Pellis store to get an axe handle. He took off running, but once around a bend in the trail, he slowed to a walk to enjoy a break from the swinging of an axe and the pushing of a saw. When he got to town, things were quiet. They had been for months. Many of the whigs – the patriots – who stood for liberty and supported the Continental Congress, had left for safer ground to the north. Few of those who supported the King had come to take their places. These royalists, who called themselves loyalists, were going all the way down to the city. Having already been chased out of their homes, these refugees could not feel safe enough on the neutral ground.
When Tim went into the door, he saw Nat at the counter having a hushed conversation with a stranger. Both turned to give him a look. The stranger stepped back and made a gesture with his hand to tell Tim to go ahead.
“Just a handle for a felling axe,” said Tim as he looked down to the floor to show he was sorry for disturbing them.
“I’ve a nice one – fine quality,” said Nat as he strode down the aisle, behind a counter which ran around three sides of the store. “A good strong piece of hickory, it is. Thy master will be well pleased.”
“I thank ye,” muttered Tim as he reached out to take it. Nat would mark down the cost on a ledger. John would likely pay with firewood. “And good day to ye,” added Tim as he went out the door, just as Thomas Pellis was coming in.
“Timothy Euston!” he said with a yellow-toothed smile and a pat on the boy’s shoulder. “Back at work, eh? Good to have you back in town.” This was his usual way of talking. He had been a trader all his life and was charming by force of habit.
“And it’s good to see you out of jail, Thomas,” said the stranger with a smile. Tim heard this just before he closed the door. It was good to hear someone teasing him. Usually it was Thomas Pellis who did the teasing.
Tim went around the back of the store. On his way into town he had stopped in to see his sister and mother and had found them both out. “Sadie’s likely over at the Pellis store,” a neighbor had said when he left. The store belonged to Nat’s father. He was old and sickly though, so Nat was the one almost always seen behind the counter. Most days, they had a hired woman working in the kitchen and when she fell behind, Nat would get Sadie to come help. She did not get paid anything extra for this. It was seen as part of her labor for her own master and mistress. And the mistress, of course, was Nat’s sister.
Tim went through the back door of the store without knocking. This would save the cook from getting up from her work to answer the door. “Good day?” he said quietly as he peeked around. No answer. Likely they were all together somewhere, doing laundry. Women often made a social event out of washday. Misery loves company, thought Tim with a smile. Sadie hated washday.
Tim went back around the outside, eyeing the clapboard siding of the building. Like any woodworker, he was always looking at wood. The subtle variations in quality and variety held so much meaning after three years of working with it. He then saw the stranger, the man who had been talking to Nat. He was looking right at Tim and he seemed angry about something. Tim lowered his eyes and hurried along, muttering “good day” as he passed by.
. . . . .
“All went well enough,” said Thomas with a shrug. He and Nat were alone in the store.
“As well as could be hoped,” snorted Nat. “The whole town’s been talking of little else.”
“Let them talk.”
“It’s a stain upon the name of Pellis. A stain upon the whole family when one’s suspected of that sort of thing.”
“What sort of thing? All I did was have myself a bit of harmless merriment by teasing a girl. It’s her and others who jumped to conclusions and the wise judge as much as said so before the court.”
“Lack of evidence isn’t proof of innocence,” drawled Nat.
“What made it all into a scandal was when someone went and secretly hired a stranger to deliver a false message saying the hearing’s being called off. That’s what got the whole town a-talking, eh? And who was behind that little prank?”
“I could hardly sit by and do nothing,” said Nat as his ears began to redden.
“But don’t let it grieve you, boy,” said Thomas with a smile. “What’s done is done. We’ve all just got to look ahead to all the opportunities that are opening up to us, eh? Time of war is time of profiteering, it is. But it’ll be only the clever few who will answer the call, eh? Those clever traders who will provide what’s needed to those in need. Think of the fortunes that were made in the last war and here we are set to see it all happen again.”
“Yes, that is all true, but I don’t think we should be getting drunk on expectations.”
“And here comes our new best friend back again,” said Thomas, looking the other way. “I’d best leave the two of you to plot strategy. No need to make a spectacle of ourselves here, all huddled together, eh?”
“Indeed, we should not,” replied Nat, as he leaned his elbows on the counter and watched his uncle leave while the other came in.
“That kid who just came in for an axe handle?” the stranger asked as he stepped up to the counter.
“He’s your dreamy apprentice?”
“He’s Tim Useless,” said Nat with a nod.
“Well well well, so he’s the pretty boy behind the prisoner’s bar.”
“Ah yes, all those freckles and dimples. So pretty, he should have been a girl, as they say.”
“So that’s him. Now tell me, does he have himself a lovely set of ears as well? I saw him putting them to use just now, just below that hole in the wall,” the stranger said with a nod towards an open window at the side of the store.
“Just for a moment, before he saw me watching him.”
“He would have heard nothing important,” said Nat as he went to close the window.
“A nosey boy is what he looked like. And a nosey boy who does too much sniffing might have to have his nose clipped – especially when it’s a boy who surely bears a grudge.”
“No no, he’s more of a dull-witted boy. That’s what they say about him – a dreamy boy who isn’t always listening when he should be. And mistake prone too, they say, or at least Josh says so. He’s as harmless a boy as we could hope for.”
“Well, what was he doing nosing around here?”
“He was probably going around back to visit his sister. She helps out when Bessie can’t keep up.”
“The damsel in distress is here, too?”
“Not right now,” said Nat, sounding defensive. “She’s a good little worker. But you do have to tell her things twice, just like her brother – tell her what to do and then ask her what she’s to do. If you tell her you need the old dog fed and the horse watered, she’ll miss hearing about the horse because she’s still thinking about the poor old dog.”
“Ha! A little scatterbrain, is she?”
“But she makes up for it by looking pretty and rushing about. And Bessie likes to have someone to talk to.”
“To listen and sometimes to hear?” asked the stranger.
“Yes, listening – an important task that always needs doing.”
“And do you still think our Tim Useless is a good boy for the job?”
“He’s as good as any,” replied Nat.
“Not a curious bone in his body? Not a grudge against you and Uncle Promise? No suspicions? You know that suspicions can do damage enough if they’re talked about. He ain’t both a listener and a talker, is he?”
“No, just a daydreamer and a dullard,” chuckled Nat.
Useless you are and will always be.
“Tim!” called John Gainer as he rode up. He had come to where the crew was cutting, sawing, splitting, stacking and bundling.
“Yes sir,” said Tim while running over, hoping to be sent into town on another errand. He had been cutting wood. It was better than sawing planks, but not much.
“I’ve a task for you. Tomorrow, first thing, you’ll go for a wagon and team.” He did not have to say where. The local blacksmith rented horses and wagons. This was where John always rented. “You’ll come back here, load it with bundles and haul them down to the city.”
“To the city?”
“Why him?” asked Josh as he rose from where he was tying a bundle. Driving a wagon would properly go to an older boy who had earned a better job. And it usually went to a man who owned his own horses and wagon.
“Isn’t he the right boy for the job?” asked John, not sounding like he wanted an answer.
“Well… I’d say not,” replied Josh. “I’d say that...”
“That’s enough, son...”
“He’s not ready for a task that...”
“That’s enough!” snapped John in the tone he used when he would take no more. Josh went quiet and took a step back with an expression of sincere indignation. He said nothing more, though. A boy who defied his father could expect to be caned and then shunned for a day or two. He could not even expect sympathy from his best friends. Were a boy of Josh’s age to lose his temper and beat his father, his punishment would be severe. He might as well beat the constable. He could hang for such a crime, though more likely he would get off with a severe whipping and a few months at hard labor.
. . . . .
Next morning, Tim was awake and out of bed before anyone else. He moved slowly, though. He had a few sore muscles. The news of his new status as teamster had got him excited. That had made him go at his work with too much energy. By the time the winter sunset had signaled quitting time, he had been exhausted.
Tim crept over to the fireplace and lit a candle on a thick piece of oak that had kept on smoldering right through the night. He put it in a lantern and went out to the storage room to pass some time sharpening a saw. Once he heard the others getting up, he went back to help Mrs. Gainer with breakfast. As always, each of them got a big bowl of oatmeal with milk and a spoonful of molasses.
Tim could have left for the blacksmith’s, but he waited for Josh and the other workers to get moving. That way, he could leave with them, wish them a good day, and let them watch when he headed the other direction towards the blacksmith’s shop at the north end of town.
Tim whistled a Scottish jig and said “Good morning” to everyone he passed. As he approached the blacksmith’s, he saw a wagon hitched to a team of horses.
Likely mine, he thought, but then he noticed Nat Pellis talking to the blacksmith. They turned to look at him. Nat made a comment and both laughed. Tim was not sure, but it almost seemed like they were laughing at him.
But then Nat said, “Good day to thee, Tim Euston. Can it be true? I am told you’re to be riding down to New York City today, but that can’t be true!”
“It is. My master…”
“That must seem like easy work after sawing planks and chopping firewood.”
“It does. I thought…”
“Now there’s something that I have to say to you, Tim,” Nat said, as he pointed his finger and spoke in a tone that had hardened and with a face turned angry. Tim crouched down, expecting to be slapped.
“I owe you an apology,” said Nat, breaking into a smile. “To think I testified against you before a court of law – a military tribunal – when there you were, innocent as a lamb. What a thing to do, eh?”
“Ah… well… I don’t…”
“I believed my Uncle Thomas when I should have been listening to your little friends. But I suppose family has to hold together, don’t they? And the Old Goat is my uncle, eh? But still, once I heard all the testimony in court, I knew I’d been wrong. And old Thomas as much as admitted it, himself. Telling about how he’d only meant to give her a little scare and how the poor girl had jumped to conclusions and then he had jumped to his own conclusions. What a pair, eh? And we can’t blame her though, for she’s just a girl. But he can’t claim tender youth for an excuse, can he? Silly old fellow, eh? Imagining that he’s being robbed? What a thing to think! Well, justice was done and you’re out of jail now, and all’s well. And here you’ve got a new job! Unlucky one day and lucky the next, aren’t you?”
“I am that,” said Tim.
“Well then, I’d best let you be getting to your task, hadn’t I? While there’s still daylight, eh?”
“Oh, well… ah…”
“Watch out for robbers,” said Nat as he turned to head back to the store.
“Let’s get you going,” said the blacksmith from behind. He had a stable and a few horses attached to his shop. Until Yonkers grew big enough for both a blacksmith and a livery stable, he would provide both services. He gave Tim a short lecture on the proper treatment of horses and how to avoid injuring them by driving them too hard. There was not much he had to say that Tim did not already know. People were always talking about horse problems. Still, Tim nodded his head and said “ah-ha” or “indeed” after every comment. Next, the blacksmith handed Tim his traveling papers. A passport had been written in fancy script by the Justice of the Peace and it stated that Tim Euston, age sixteen, had lawful permission to drive a wagon from Yonkers to New York City and back up to a farm twelve miles north of Yonkers. Tim would need this to get through the checkpoints, past the mounted militia that patrolled the neutral ground, and the regulars who policed Manhattan Island. He would also need a permit to cross at King’s Bridge. He had heard this piece of paper cost two shillings – a good day’s pay for a skilled man. But John had likely negotiated a better price for a permit to allow a wagon to make a regular run. Still, this tax would eat up a large part of his profit on the shipment.
Lastly, the blacksmith handed Tim an old blunderbuss. “It ain’t loaded and I’d advise you not to try loading it. The lock needs work and it’s prone to firing without your having to pull the trigger. You’ll use it if you meet up with some rough characters on the road. You pull this out and you just cradle it in your lap. They won’t know that it’s not loaded. And anyways, if it was, you might be tempted to fire a shot. You do that and then what? The one of them that’s still standing would then know for sure that it’s not loaded any more, wouldn’t he? And even if he doesn’t take a run at you, he could go into town and tell one and all of how an innocent man had been shot dead by a wicked boy. And it’d be your word against his, wouldn’t it? Yea, you’ll be safer with a broken weapon, you will. And I’ll be just as likely to get my horses back.”
Tim had been nodding his head as he listened. When the man seemed to be finished he said, “Yea, I suppose you would be,” and nodded a few more times.
The sun was high as Tim drove out, feeling like a prominent citizen. With no suspension, the wagon rattled along over the ruts and stones, but it was still a pleasure. His first stop was the worksite where the others were at their menial labor.
“Well, here he is at last!” called Josh when Tim reined in the horses. “I was wondering whether you’d ever show up.” Tim knew he had no reason to question the short amount of time he had taken. Josh was just teasing him, out of envy.
“You get that loaded quick now, you hear?” said Josh with a stern tone and a wag of his finger. “You’re already running late!”
Tim rushed at the loading, not because Josh had ordered him to, but because he would have anyways. If he made good time, he would be all the more likely to be asked to do the job again. He piled the bundles of sticks and split logs as compactly as possible and tied them down securely.
“Well, look at that mess,” said Josh once the wagon was loaded. “My blind grandmother could stack a better pile than that! That pile will be slumping down to one side at the first rut that you hit and you’ll be unloading and reloading out in the middle of the road and wasting precious time. My word, a Tim Useless you are. The minister got it right when he heard your mother wrong. Tim Useless you are and will always be, poor boy.” The boys all laughed at this. It did not pay to forget to laugh at one of his jokes. It was Josh who divided up the chores and kept up the pace. Even Tim laughed.
Josh got off a few more good ones as Tim finished tightening the ropes. It was hard tying knots while everyone was watching and laughing. Anybody would be useless under that level of scrutiny. When ready to go, Tim climbed onto the seat, gave the reins a flick and called, “Wish me luck,” but the horses were rattled by all the shouting and would not move.
“They know what they’re in for,” called Josh. “A good horse knows whether a boy’s ready for driving.”
“They’ll get used to me,” said Tim with a smile. “It’ll just take a little time.”
“A little! Ha! A little…” but Josh’s mind had gone blank. The sight of it was too much. Tim Euston was driving a wagon down to the city, a job that should have gone to him, the eldest son.
“A little more time than you’ll need to make it there before dark!” called another boy to fill the silence. Tim had jumped down, grabbed a halter and was trying to pull the horses along.
“Too little time, too small a boy!” called another.
“Do your worst, Tim Useless, you’ve got a reputation to uphold!”
“Mind you turn towards the south, eh? Not north!”
“No no, tell him to go north! Then when he gets it wrong, he’ll get it right!”
“Worry not, my boys,” called Tim, forcing his best smile. He was pulling with all his strength, but the horses were barely moving. They were anxious and at any moment they might bolt. He had to be on his guard, ready to move with them. If he could only get them round the bend in the road. That would have them out of sight of the boys. Maybe then, the beasts could calm down. One of them was now deciding to go ahead and he lurched forward, but the other still held back. When Tim thought the stubborn one was about to give in and go, he let go of the bridle, jumped aside and ran to leap up onto the wagon and into his seat. He grabbed the reins and they were off. With laughter and shouting behind them, the horses were ready to break into a gallop, but Tim pulled hard to hold them back. If they did take off, the wagon would surely tip over on the next corner and maybe break a wheel.
“Whoa boys! Easy!” Tim hissed as he pulled on the reins. One horse was still trying to pull ahead, but the other was obeying. “Easy! Easy!” said Tim firmly, but not too loudly. It worked. They both came to a halt. And at least now they were around the bend. The shouting had stopped. Tim eased off on the reins, waited a moment and then gave them a shake. The horses started off together at a walk. Tim could feel the blood pounding in his head. He had been gritting his teeth so hard they hurt. “Blockheads!” he said to himself. “It would have been their fault, but I would have been blamed!” He silently cursed them with every word he could come up with, until he realized he had just turned the wrong way. He was heading north. “I am useless,” he moaned. “I’ll never make it!”
Pellises going and coming.
Tim reined in the horses, cursing himself for being just as useless as Josh or anybody had ever said. He looked around. No one was in sight. Thank goodness for that, he told himself as he climbed down. He grabbed a halter and led the horses around. One of them snorted, sounding as if he had known all along. Tim tried to ignore him.
Fortunately, the road was wide and flat. It had to be. During wet weather this sort of land would be cut into ruts by every heavy wagon that came along. Enough width was needed to allow the next wagon to go around ruts left by the last one. And the next one along would have to go further out.
Tim climbed back on and soon they were making good time. The weather had been dryer for the past few days. The clouds were clearing and it looked like the sun was still well short of its peak. If all the day’s bad luck was over, he would have the load delivered well before dark. “And all is surely going to go well!” Tim called out to the cattle that grazed in a meadow. “Mark ye one and all! As sure as liberty will triumph!”
Now Tim felt good again. He could forget about Josh Gainer and start thinking about Tim Euston. Driver! Teamster! He was a man doing a man’s job! A new man in a new nation! “O ye that love mankind!” he shouted out, reciting a passage he had memorized from a book. “Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the Old World is overrun with oppression. Freedom has been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger and England has given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.”
This was from a book he and Sadie had been reading. It was by an Englishman named Thomas Paine. Everybody was making jokes about his name, but practically everybody who could read was reading it. It was called Common Sense and in it, Paine preached a gospel of independence. It was pure sedition and over the past year it had been read all through the colonies – from Newfoundland to Barbados – and all men were debating its ideas. They loved it or they hated it! Tim and Sadie had gone the whole year without a chance to read it. They had got hold of short pamphlets with excerpts taken from it. They had read other pamphlets, too, with the writings of Sam Adams and Thomas Jefferson and others, but they did not have Common Sense – not the whole book, cover to cover – the book everyone had been talking about.
Then Matilda – Matilda Walker of all people! She had got hold of a copy down in occupied New York City – of all places! When her husband found her with it he threw it on the fire. Moses Walker was as much a loyalist as any and in his house he would not allow any questioning of Parliament’s right to tax colonies, nor the use of any rude and offensive terms like “tory.” Before the invasion of the previous summer, he had kept his opinions to himself and escaped the attention of the rebel Committee and Commission for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies. Once the British had arrived in force though, he felt sure that “law and order” was here to stay.
While he and his wife were still snarling at each other, Sadie had grabbed the book out of the fire, patted out the flames with her dust rag, quickly replaced it with a book of sermons, and snuck Common Sense out of the room. By doing this she was guilty of three crimes. She was guilty of sedition because she had put herself in possession of seditious material, written or spoken words aimed to incite hatred of king and government. She was guilty of theft because she had taken another person’s goods with the intention of permanently depriving her of it. And too, she was guilty of willful damage to property for burning the book of sermons, though likely nobody would notice it missing. But at the same time, Sadie had committed no crimes. What she did was in support of a revolution that had been made legal by the Declaration of Independence, signed in Philadelphia six months before. That document had made all acts of rebellion legal in those colonies that had voted to establish an independent United States of America. From that moment, the new nation had been in existence and had become legal authority. British law was now foreign law, even in the territory the “foreigners” had grabbed back. It was all as confusing as it was exciting.
And now that they had Common Sense, Tim and Sadie had been reading it almost every evening. Tim would come over when she was milking the cows and making butter. With the short days of winter, he was off work early. One of them would take a turn reading while the other milked. They had read the whole book through so many times they had lost count. It would not have been half so interesting had it not been a banned book, and not half so exciting had there not been a war in progress. They would read and discuss what it said, and then compare it with what other writers had to say and what people in town were saying. People like Amos Short, who had an opinion on everything.
Tim and Sadie would copy out the more stirring passages and carry them in their pockets so they could work at memorizing them when they had spare time. Tim would do this while he cut wood. He would take out his notes, read a line, put it back and recite the line over and over in his head. He told others his notes were from the Bible. Nobody could fault a boy for wanting to memorize passages from the Bible, not while God might be watching. Josh was happy with it because he could tease Tim for being a Methodist fanatic. Tim did not mind that, since it was not true. It was always easy enough to forget about Josh.
Today, Josh was all the easier to forget because he was back with the others cutting wood while Tim Euston was driving a wagon. A wagon! Imagine! Tim Euston was out on the open road where he could recite the words of Thomas Paine at the top of his voice. “It is repugnant to reason, to the universal order of things, to all examples from former ages, to suppose that this continent can longer remain subject to any external power. The most sanguine in Britain does not think so. The utmost stretch of human wisdom cannot, at this time, compass a plan, short of separation, which can promise the continent even a year’s security. Reconciliation is now a fallacious dream.” (from Common Sense, December 1776)
But then Tim stopped his recitation. He was coming within sight of King’s Bridge. This was a strategic point where General Howe had set up a large base. Armed soldiers patrolled both sides, day and night. Tim drove up to the end of a short line – not really a line for there was only two wagons, a man leading pack horses and three more on foot. Tim stopped and waited. A sentry in a red and white uniform walked up.
“Where you headed, my boy?”
“The city,” replied Tim, as he handed over his traveling papers. The man read them, handed them back, said, “Carry on,” and walked on to wait for the next wagon that was just coming into view. Someone called out an order and the three wagons were allowed to cross the bridge without any further delay. On the other side, Tim passed by the camp with its rows of newly built log huts and red coated soldiers milling about. Then he was onto the rolling meadows of Manhattan Island and soon to be riding into the city.
That was easy, thought Tim. He had heard people complain about the long delays. Today the redcoats could not have seemed more at ease. There must not have been any rumors going around about smugglers. The perfect time to be one, thought Tim. It’s a shame I’m not smuggling something – smuggling for a rebel army while reading seditious materials. Wouldn’t those two tasks just go hand in hand?
More miles passed without any problems. The sun was shining and there was a mild breeze from the south, smelling of the sea. Another checkpoint came along and the traveling papers worked their magic again. Back on the road, Tim got out his pages of seditious material and went to work. By the time the church steeples of New York City came into sight, he could recite another paragraph by heart.
There was a lot of traffic coming and going – big wagons and small, men on horses and so many people on foot. Tim was in good spirits though and could not help but laugh when he saw the gibbet hanging from its scaffold. The next time I pass by, he told himself, it might have itself an occupant. And some day the corpse it displays might be mine!
Tim had been told to get over to Broadway, follow it past the burnt out remains of Trinity Church and then ask for directions. It was not just the grand old church that had been lost. He had heard it described, but still it was a sad sight – 500 houses burnt to the ground. It had happened when the invaders had seized the city and all that was left were chimneys and foundation stones. The poorest of the refugees, mostly escaped slaves, were living amongst the ruins. The King had offered them freedom if they escaped the rebels and joined with the loyalists. The Army had set up tents made out of old sails. Everyone was calling it “Canvas Town.” Tim had heard that some of these tents had fifty people living in them. Today he could see hundreds of refugees out to enjoy the mild weather. A few boys were kicking a wicker ball around the street and little ones waddled about with dolls made out of corn husks. It was nice to see children at play, but so many of them seemed half starved. They were probably just sickly though, likely with scurvy. It was not just the prisoners of war who were doing without.
“Hey! Keep your eyes open!” yelled a man in another wagon. Tim’s team of horses had seen the man coming and had stopped, but no thanks to Tim’s driving. Nothing had happened, but Tim was still embarrassed.
“Now now, don’t ask too much of the boy,” called a man on foot as he took hold of one of the horses’ bridles. “’Tis just Tim Useless here. You can’t demand too much of him.”
It was Thomas Pellis. Now everyone will hear about this, Tim told himself. Josh will hear about it! And I didn’t hurt anything!
“Lost, are you son?” asked Thomas with his yellow-toothed smile. He could afford to smoke tobacco, but it seemed he could not afford to get the local surgeon to scrape his teeth.
“I just got here,” said Tim, trying to sound calm.
“Just got here and in trouble already!” Thomas chuckled as his voice rose. “Ha! You’re in fine form, you are! True to your reputation!”
“Do you know where Abe Balding lives?” asked Tim quietly, hoping he would not.
“Abe Balding? Which Abe Balding are you talking about?”
“Ah… I don’t know.”
“Well, you should!” laughed Thomas, almost shouting again, “since there’s only one! Ha! Only one with a house in this city!”
“Could you point me the way?” asked Tim as he looked to the side. Passersby were laughing.
“Ah, but wouldn’t it be better if I lead the way? Safer for all, wouldn’t you say?”
“I’d be obliged,” said Tim as he listened to more laughter. While Thomas led the horses along the street, he asked a few questions about where the wagon came from and why Tim was not home at work, insinuating he suspected him to be a runaway and a thief. Tim assured him all had been arranged by John Gainer, though he knew it was hardly necessary. Thomas was just teasing, like always.
“Good evening, Thomas,” said a man on the street.
“And good evening, Abe,” replied Thomas. “Look what I’ve found here, a lost boy who says he’s a-looking for you. Tim Useless he says his name is.”
“Tim Useless?” chuckled the man. “Not Tim Euston? I’d heard wrong then. I’ll have to be getting the wax cleaned out of my ears, won’t I?”
“It’s Euston,” said Tim as he climbed down.
“As I said, Tim Useless. And may I introduce you to Abe Balding. And if you lift his hat you see ’tis so.”
“And you, Thomas Pellis,” said the man. “Now what does that sound like? ‘Promise Tell Us?’ Promise you’ll tell us you’re on your way home, eh? Ha! How’s that one, boy?”
“A good one,” said Tim.
“And now, Tim Useless,” said Abe as he put a hand on his shoulder, “I’ve a job for thee. A job that can’t wait. You take this wagon round back of the house, unload the wood, stack it in the shed and then load your wagon back up with horse manure from the pile. Can you do that before suppertime?”
Tim said nothing. All that would take two hours. He was hungry now.
“Ah, but don’t fret. There’s a couple of boys there who will do it all for you. You’ll eat and drink while they’ll do your work. Now around the side with you and be quick about it. The rest of us are a-waiting upon thee.”
“Yes sir,” said Tim, who was glad to finally escape all the good humor. But as he led the horses he wondered. What was Thomas doing here? First Nat was at the blacksmith’s to see me off and now Thomas is here to greet me. Pellises going and coming!
When Common Sense was published Paine was thirty-nine and had only been in America for two years. In England he had completed an apprenticeship as a corsetmaker and had also worked as a privateer, a schoolteacher, a tax collector and a tobacconist. He failed at each effort, blaming a corrupt monarchy and judiciary, along with bankers and traders. In his writings, Paine said that the achievement of liberty would require more than protests, boycotts and a few battles to improve the colonies’ bargaining position. It would require a long hard war fought for a great objective. Any reconciliation would leave the King free to renew his attacks on colonial liberties. Complete independence would provide the only guarantee of freedom. The simple language and clear logic won over many and this included the commander of the American Army. When Common Sense first came out, George Washington had still been toasting the King in the officers’ mess at Cambridge. But on January 31, 1776 in a letter to a friend, he wrote “the sound doctrine and unanswerable reasoning contained in the pamphlet Common Sense, will not leave numbers at a loss to decide upon the propriety of a separation.”
Looking for trouble.
The next morning, Tim was up and out by the break of dawn. He knew he had many miles ahead of him and he ought to be on his way north, but there was something he had to take a look at. He drove the wagon south towards the harbor to see the sight everyone had been talking about since the summer before. He left the wagon in the street and walked out to the end of a dock. There they were. They had first begun to arrive over at Staten Island on the second of July. They were the ships that had brought Major General William Howe and his thirty-two thousand red coated soldiers. Half of them still sat at anchor in the harbor and it was still quite a sight to see. Through a light mist the first beams of sunshine rose above the clouds and illuminated the lines, yards, masts and hulls of more than a hundred vessels. Most were transports and frigates, but a few were great battleships. Not the biggest ones, but still they were vessels with seventy guns and three and four decks and masts that rose two hundred and twenty feet above the water.
“Yea lad,” said a red coated officer who walked up, “behold them. The guardian angels that protect the good and godly folk from rascals and rebels.”
“They are,” said Tim, but right away he was ashamed of himself for denying his commitment to the cause. For a patriot like Tim, these ships offered no warm feelings of security. They stood before him like a row of muskets all aimed at his heart. This royal fleet was nothing more than the brutish fist of tyranny – the enemy of freedom.
“That’s the biggest of them out there, part of that group of five,” said the man and he went on to brag of its cannons and crews and its service in battle. Next, he pointed out other vessels, telling of their accomplishments.
Tim stayed only for a few minutes until he began to shiver. He resented the fact that this man seemed to be as good and honest as any man. Tim preferred to think of the British as proud fools. He said he had to be going and thanked the officer with so much courtesy he must have left the man with the impression that he, Tim Euston, was as much a loyalist and royalist as any tory in New York City.
Tim gave the reins a shake and turned the wagon around. As he drove up Broadway, he could see the city was getting busy. There were large and small wagons and riders on horseback. There were men pulling carts and pushing wheelbarrows and many just on foot, going every direction. More were coming in than were going out, carrying goods to be sold that day. There were sacks of grain, peas and every sort of bean. And there were all the root crops too: carrots, parsnips, potatoes, turnips, onions, horseradish and beets. These staple foods provided the bread and soup that was standard fare for late winter and early spring. What meat ordinary folk could afford this time of year was usually cooked until almost black to maximize its effect on the flavor of soup. It was getting repetitious and everybody was looking forward to spring’s first green onions.
After a solid mile of heavy traffic, Tim was back out in the countryside, passing field after meadow after field. He helped pass the time with his memorization of Thomas Paine. When he recited the words out loud, he would try mimicking the way an educated man would say them. He would have to go down to a whisper when someone was passing by, but he could go up to a shout when no one was near. “The powers of governing still remaining in the hands of the King, he will have a negative over the whole legislation of this continent. And as he has shown himself such an inveterate enemy to liberty and discovered such a thirst for arbitrary power, is he or is he not a proper man to say to these colonies, ‘You shall make no laws but what I please’?” (From Common Sense, December 1775.)
The first checkpoint was no problem. The soldier had the unsure look of a new man on the job. When he examined the traveling papers, Tim could see his eyes were not moving from side to side. He was just pretending to read. Tim suspected he was filling in for someone else who was better qualified.
“On your way,” the soldier ordered, as he turned away. Tim’s first impulse was to feel sorry for him because he likely never had a chance to learn to read. But, wondered Tim, maybe he had been given the opportunity and he had not cared to make the effort. Maybe he and his friends had just made a joint decision to refuse to learn. Tim had seen that happen before, back when they were living in the city. His mother had sent him and Sadie to a woman who taught reading, writing and figuring out of her home. Tim had kept his studies secret from his friends for fear of what they might think. They regarded themselves as bold and brave for their refusal to allow book learning to be forced upon them. They might not want to have a friend who allowed himself to be pushed around by a mother and a schoolmistress. And what was more, Tim could hardly let them know he actually liked it.
When Tim got to King’s Bridge, there was activity. Soldiers were walking about and there were at least ten wagons in line. A man with corporal’s markings walked up. After he read Tim’s papers he said, “Pull it over there.” His order was not loud, but Tim knew from his tone that he would get nasty if not obeyed promptly. Englishmen were good at that sort of a tone. It hinted at more than was said – the sort of tone that said, “I’d just as soon see you stripped and flogged.”
Tim drove the team as far as he thought he needed to, reined them in and waited for what seemed like a long time. Finally, the corporal spoke to an officer and pointed in Tim’s direction. The officer nodded and the corporal saluted, turned and went into a hut. He came back out with a shovel.
“Pull another ten yards over that way and shovel out half your load, down to a foot deep. Then come over and find me when you’re finished.”
“Yes, sir,” said Tim with a bow of his head. He took the shovel, set it behind him on the load, and with a shake of the reins drove the team forward and around to the spot. He got to work quickly, not wanting to antagonize anyone by looking lazy. When down to a foot – a half a foot in places – he jumped down and went to tell the corporal.
“Keep hold of that shovel and wait here.”
Tim stood there, feeling out of place. Close by were more soldiers and huts built of squared logs and whitewashed. A number of muskets with fixed bayonets were lying against a post. Ready to be grabbed hold of, he thought, were a force of patriot raiders to suddenly gallop over the hill. He slowly stepped over to take a closer look. The latest sort of a Brown Bess? he wondered. His nose was close enough to smell the gun grease when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“You can look, but don’t touch,” said a soldier’s voice. It was friendly and menacing at the same time. “Not even with your pinkie finger. Someone might come bite it off, eh? Though, as for myself, I prefer them pickled to fresh off the hand.”
Tim smiled at him and said, “I won’t.”
“Come!” said the corporal as he picked up one of the muskets. They went back to the wagon. The corporal climbed on and started poking the bayonet into the manure, stabbing down to the floorboards. He covered the box of the wagon in an orderly way, following a grid of imaginary lines. He was obviously looking for a hidden box or sack. For all Tim knew, there was one. And if there was it might be full of something illegal.
“What you looking for?” asked Tim.
“Sometimes these wagons carry more than they’re supposed to. Stolen goods sometimes. And sometimes even a deserter in a box. Did you load it yourself?”
“No? Not a wise move, lad. You should never haul a wagon that you’ve not seen loaded with your own eyes. Otherwise, you might carry more than you’d reckoned on and then we might have to stretch your neck a bit.”
Tim felt an unpleasant tingling in his neck. The man did not sound like he was joking. Tim had more questions, but he kept them to himself.
“Good enough,” the man sighed, sounding disappointed. “Load her back up and be on your way.”
By the time Tim made it through the lineup to the bridge, another hour had passed. The rest of the way up north went as well as could be hoped. He stopped in to see his sister and mother. They might not know about his new job. Sadie was off somewhere and his mother was tormented by a toothache. She had little to say in praise of him, but he could tell she was happy to see him entrusted with a team of horses and a wagon. As he talked, she got together a meal of cold meat and vegetables. Matilda came in and seemed sincerely pleased to see him there and to hear of his errand. “A manly task,” she called it.
Tim left feeling energized by both the food and the praise. Back on the road north he kept at his memorization and recitation all the way to the farm. He had to keep quiet for a while though, when he met with a few of Colonel De Lancey’s “cowboys.” The colonel was from a wealthy family on Manhattan Island and he had raised a 500 man troop of light horse that had been given responsibility for patrolling the neutral ground – hunting for deserters and protecting the Army’s supply routes. This group was as much a gentleman’s sporting club as a military force. They were referred to by their enemies as “cowboys” because they were often seen driving cattle they had gained by plunder or secret purchase from unpatriotic farmers.
The older of the horsemen asked Tim whether he had seen anyone who might be a deserter. Tim had seen many people on the road and more than one could have been a deserter. He said no and showed the man his traveling papers that said he was permitted to continue on to a farm, belonging to a man named Felix, that was twelve miles north of Yonkers. The load of manure he carried would be spread on the fields as fertilizer. It was a long way to carry manure, but the man would understand. The carriers of firewood would rather have a low value backload than none at all.
“You’re headed up into dangerous territory, my boy. We don’t usually patrol that far, unless we’re looking for trouble. You’re aware of that, I hope.”
Tim coolly shrugged his shoulders and said, “’Tis a risky task for sure, but if I’m robbed, I’ll just walk back home and blame it on the robbers.”
“Ha! Well, good for you then. With that sort of attitude, you might make a good soldier someday soon.”
“I’ve been told I’m too young – maybe next year.”
“Come to the city when you think you’re ready and we’ll put you to work for good King George. And in the meantime, you can be one of my scouts. You keep your eyes and ears open for word of deserters or smugglers. You lead me to the smoke and I’ll find the fire.”
“I’ll do that sir,” said Tim with a nod and a smile.
“Good for you then. I await your first report,” he said and then signaled his men to follow.
“I’ll do that,” said Tim to himself as he watched them ride away, “but not for King George, I won’t. Scout for George Washington, perhaps. Yea, and if this gets to be a regular run for me then I’m sure to see things that’ll interest the forces of freedom. I’ll just have to find me a contact to pass the information along to. That shouldn’t be too hard.”
At this time, “cowboy” was not meant as a compliment. The boy who tended cattle got no more respect than the shepherd or swineherd.
“Tory” comes from the Irish, toraidhe, which means pursuer. It was what the English called an Irish bandit until the 1680s, when reformers started to apply it to supporters of the King. During the War for Independence, tories were also called royalists, inimicals, the disaffected and the King’s men. Continental General, Nathanael Greene, prohibited his soldiers from insulting civilians “with odious epithets of ‘Tory’ or any other indecent language, it being ungenerous, unmanly and unsoldierlike” (Colonel’s Hutchinson’s Orderly book.)
Did it not come as a surprise?
The Felix farm was at the north end of the neutral ground, where a sort of law and order was imposed by armed and mounted men who often allied themselves with the American cause. Their activities included collecting an unofficial tax on residents, in the form of whatever the taxpayer had that they wanted. Their victims would joke about how the skinners would take all that a man had, including his skin. Tim, being whig, was sure the better of the skinners would never take more than what was fair. His resentment was reserved for Colonel De Lancey’s “cowboys.”
Tim had to wonder how good his traveling papers would be up north, since they had been signed by a known royalist. The signature that pleased a cowboy might not please a skinner. But no riders came to see if there was anything in the wagon worth taking. That was a relief, but also a small disappointment. Tim had heard a lot about them, but had never actually seen a skinner, not to know that he was one.
It was not yet sunset when Tim found the farm. It was easy to spot from John Gainer’s description. “Just beyond where the road turns to go around a small pond with some young oaks on the far side of it. It’ll be a clapboard house with two chimneys.”
“Tim Euston!” called a gray haired man as he came round the side of the house.
“Yes, sir. How’d you know it was me?”
“I’d been told to expect a slim boy of sixteen years to arrive in the late afternoon with a team and a wagonload of manure – and here he appears as was prophesized.”
“Too easy then.”
“And besides, you were pointed out to me by John Gainer once when you were a-hacking away at a tree like it’d wronged you greatly.”
“Ha! Well, sometimes I get to thinking about politics.”
“Fighting imaginary battles, eh?” chuckled the man. Zeke Felix was gray haired, but he looked like the sort who used to be a redhead. “John said that you were a daydreamer. Said you’re always imagining this and considering that and losing track of what happens before your eyes. Be that a fair assessment?”
“I don’t… I suppose… ah… I can’t say that…”
“Whoa now boy, you start thinking six things at once and pretty soon you be running six ways at once. Then we’ll have to catch you in a net and put you in a cage.”
“Oh… I don’t…”
“Now, you must be hungry as a lost dog,” said Zeke as he took hold of the horse’s bridle. “You go around to the kitchen and get yourself a nice cup to refresh yourself. I’ll have the boys shovel this out upon yonder field and we’ll all be sitting round the table before you’ve fallen in love with the kitchen maid.”
“I do thank you,” said Tim as he climbed down.
“Oh, and she’ll thank you too, she will. And I must thank thee for such a fine load of New York City horse manure. They say there’s none quite like it out in the countryside.”
. . . . .
Tim started out next morning thinking that, with only a few sacks of carrots and beets for a load, he would make a quick trip home. It had been a pleasant stay and they had fed him well. “I could grow fat at this kind of work,” Tim had said to the mistress, who had smiled and patted his head. It was odd though, he thought as he drove along. She kept looking at me as if worried. Does she think I’ll be murdered by highway robbers?
Back in Yonkers, Tim returned the wagon to the blacksmith and assured him all had gone well and he had been easy on the horses.
“Good for you,” the blacksmith said with a smile. “Now you’ll be working the rest of the day here with me. I’ve hired you to do some woodcutting. Out back, you’ll find a stack of logs. I’ve a good bucksaw all sharpened up and waiting for you. You’ll be able to saw and split ‘til sundown and you’ll have barely gotten started, so you’d better get to it.”
“I should,” agreed Tim, trying to sound pleased. He wasn’t. Like most boys, he preferred to work with others, even if one of them was Josh Gainer. At least, he thought, I’ll get plenty of memorizing done.
When sunset finally told him he was finished for the day, Tim had gotten through all the lines of Thomas Paine that he had written down. He would need to copy out more. At this rate, he bragged to himself, I’ll have the whole book memorized in just over two years. Though, I suppose I’ll forget what I did before, as I go along. The minister had once told about monks who had memorized the entire Bible – Genesis through Revelation. That’s too much for me, Tim had told himself.
When back in town, Tim heard the tinkle of cowbells. The town cowherd was bringing the dairy cattle back. Most households had a cow or two and they shared in the cost of pasturing them. It used to be a boy who tended them, but he had been replaced by a “rough looking Roger,” who carried a rifle. This was out of fear of cows being stolen and it meant a higher cost for owners. It seemed the cost of everything was up. Wartime was hard times for those who could not find a way of getting rich off of it.
Tim decided to go see his sister. These days, Sadie was doing almost all the milking and other dairy work, so the return of cows meant she would be in the cowshed for hours. He could go eat supper at the Gainer’s, but Tim was not that hungry. The blacksmith’s wife had fed him, too.
“Good evening, Sister,” he said when Sadie answered the door. She used to leave the door unlocked and he could go straight in. Now she was putting a post against it, in case a deserter or some other dangerous sort – Thomas Pellis, for example – was skulking about looking for food, shelter or whatever else.
“Good evening to you, Tim the teamster,” she teased as she went back to her work. “I hear you’ve been down to the city and way back up north in two days only.”
“My talents are in demand. And I hear you’ve been learning to make cheese when you’re not scrubbing and scouring.”
“Indeed I have been. Aren’t we the fortunate ones to have such opportunities granted unto us?”
“Yea, count our blessings, we must. I’ve got to copy out more Tom Paine. I’ve been memorizing up and down the countryside.”
“I knew you’d be, so I copied it out for you. I’ve got it hidden away right over here.”
“Well, good for you, Sister. How’s your memorization going?”
“Not a lot of Tom Paine. It’s hard in this household. You never know who’s going to look over your shoulder. If the master found a book of such sedition as that, well! I’d have to blame you for giving it to me and then you’d be back in jail again, wouldn’t you?”
“I thought of what I’d do if I’m caught with my notes when I’m going across the King’s Bridge. I’ll just say that I can’t read and that I’d found them blowing about in the street and hoped somebody would give me a reward for bringing them back.”
“Good plan. And anyone would believe that you can’t read, wouldn’t they? You’ve that look of natural stupidity that’s so beneficial to boys who need to avoid suspicion.”
“But if only I was as dull looking as you, Sister. Think of what I could do then as a scout for the Army.”
“Oh, but don’t sell yourself short, Brother. Surely, you’re way duller looking than me. When George Washington sends word that they’re in need for a dull looking boy, they’ll hear your name spoken of from the Jersies to Connecticut and beyond, for surely your fame has spread.”
“Likely it has, but it’s unfair, isn’t it, when ’tis you who are duller looking by far.”
“But I do wonder,” said Sadie in a voice that had turned serious, “just what’s behind your sudden good fortune. I’m wondering whether you’ll be carrying more than just firewood – maybe not now, but later. Once you’re a familiar sight on the road.”
“Why would you think that?”
“Did it not come as a surprise to be called upon to do such a job when there’s old men here in town who would do it cheaper?”
“Well… they need someone strong enough to load and unload.”
“You and the boys could load it up and whoever it’s shipped to could unload. They’ve no need for a strong young stripling like you to be doing the driving.”
“I don’t know about that. If they wanted an older man then why’d they come to me?”
“Exactly what I’m wondering, Tim Useless,” Sadie replied, as she settled herself on her stool to start milking.