“We began a contest for liberty ill provided with the means for the war, relying on our patriotism to supply the deficiency. . . [W]e must bear the present evils. . . .”
~George Washington, 1781
Outside the thick canvas of General Washington’s tent, the snow was piled high and the soldiers–weakened by hunger and too near the end of their enlistment–were losing fingers and limbs to the bitter Valley Forge cold. Will, His Excellency’s mulatto valet, shifted the basket of breads and wax-wrapped cheese to his other hand long enough to work open the tent flap.
A blast of dank, warm air greeted him, bringing with it the out-of-place smell of freshly turned earth. Within, Washington knelt beside the makeshift bed where Miss Martha lay, pale and still, just as she had lain for the preceding two and a half days.
“I told her not to come,” the large man said, his voice almost too soft to be heard. He shook his head. “And I know what needs to be done, but God help me, I cannot bring myself to do it.”
Will said nothing, placing the basket of bread on an upended wooden crate covered by a scarlet cloth. He stamped his feet and moved closer to the coals. These will need freshening soon, he thought. He burrowed one hand within the pockets of his great fox-lined coat and withdrew a letter sealed in yellow-green wax.
Washington noticed his valet’s presence and stepped away from Martha, taking the letter from Will’s hand and moving his large frame toward the basket of bread and cheese. He withdrew a knife and slit the seal apart, then carved some of the food before he seated himself on a wooden stool and began to read.
Will set some water to boil over the bed of banked coals and gently removed the cloth pressed against her neck. The twin wounds had not bled, just as her chest had not moved with regular breathing, since the scouts who found her body had brought it to the camp. Yet there had been no stiffening of death; Miss Martha’s flesh was still peach-supple and milk-smooth. Will knew what this meant, and so did Washington; but the master had blocked out the grief.
The sun would be going down for the third time since she was attacked, and Will Lee was nobody’s fool. Miss Martha was going to be waking up soon. Thirsty.
His thoughts were interrupted as Washington rose from the chair and set the letter onto the coals. It smoldered in an instant, leaving an unreadable blackened curl in its place.
“Do you remember Boston Harbor, Will? The poxy men I sent in first?” Washington put a hand to his own cheeks involuntarily, fingers exploring the marks of his own brush with the pox years before in Barbados.
Will nodded at the great man. Despite their long association–Will had been bought at auction when he was but seventeen–Will found that Washington was warmest when Will said the least. “Them redcoats took on like they never been ill in their life.”
Washington stared upward, absorbed by the peak of the tent. Will feared he had said too much. He glanced at Martha’s body, glad to see that there hadn’t been any change in her condition.
Washington put both hands behind his back, began pacing in the half-bent manner of a large man accustomed to much higher ceilings. His long ambling strides carried him back and forth across the tent. Three paces one way, three paces the other.
“If she–” he began, then stopped, changing his tack entirely. “Do they know? The troops?”
“They know whose valet I am, so don’t say much to me. But I still got ears.” He knitted his thick brows together. “I don’t think they know. The scouts brung her in after midnight, and you sent them running a packet for Philadelphia within the hour.”
Washington’s long straight nose bobbed. “Do they–the soldiery, I mean–Do they realize how dire the Continental Army’s plight truly is? What bodies the winter doesn’t take from this poorly trained rabble, the end of their enlistments will. If King George doesn’t get to them first.”
Will moved to where the water was bubbling and just beginning to wisp steam. He prepared a cup of tea for Washington with practiced hands grateful for the warmth. The master accepted it distractedly, then dropped it to the frozen earth. Washington’s mouth hung agape in a rude manner, his eyes shiny with held-back emotion. Fearing what he’d see, Will twisted his head to look over his shoulder.
“She’s risen!” Will heard Washington exclaim dimly, just before he felt cold, soft hands pulling the scarf from his neck. “My Martha is risen!”
“[L]iberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us, at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood.”
~John Adams, 1765
Will was feeling weaker every day, but knew that he was providing the utmost service his master could ever ask for. He kept the marks on his neck covered and despite Washington’s orders of a double ration of meat for Will, the stores were low this late in the winter. A double portion was barely enough to fill a man up. Especially one who was losing so much of his life’s blood every time the stars came out.
Stubbornly, Will refused to let his other responsibilities go untended just because he felt lightheaded and fatigued all the time. Even this afternoon, at a special meeting with Washington’s immediate subordinates, he managed to wait on all in attendance. What he heard there chilled the scant blood still in him.
“Traditional tactics will not go in our favor, I’ll grant you that,” said one rounded man with an upturned nose.
Arnold, a soft-handed druggist-turned-general rumored to curse like a sailor when not in the company of gentlemen spoke up. “The pox in Boston was one thing,” he said, making a point of not looking at Washington as he rushed on. “But this. . . This is something else entirely. And to call it ‘special conscription’ merely masks the villainy! Liberty will be bought with the blood of patriots, but not in this manner.”
“So instead you’d rather watch as our serfdom–our slavery–is purchased by English gold and Hessian lead. Need I remind you, sir. . .”
There was more, but in the end, each of Washington’s top men acceded to His Excellency’s proposal. Not one of them seemed to realize what–or who, rather–lay within the oblong crate they used as a table.
Will couldn’t say that he was qualified to debate the right or wrong of what Washington wanted to do, but he knew one thing: If his master won this rebellion and gained Liberty for his countrymen, Will himself would have a much brighter future than if Washington’s forces were overrun by the Redcoats. But there was another, more personal reason he found himself supporting the General’s plan. Miss Martha would have others on which to feed, and to her heart’s content. Will Lee would be left with the energy he needed to take care of his master in a proper manner.
Whereas I once said ‘Give me liberty or give me death’, I now know these two are not mutually exclusive. The greatest patriots of our time are those whose love of Liberty does not flicker out at the approach of mere death, but instead burns all the more brightly, bringing the torch of everlasting Freedom to these United States.
~Patrick Henry, 1779
A large second tent had been staked up adjacent to Washington’s own, and Martha’s quilt-lined crate brought into it. On Washington’s orders, any man who fell ill was to be brought there immediately, and ordered to spend the night there. Elsewhere in the camp, the din of carpenters making man-sized crates could be heard day and night.
Will Lee marveled at how fast the army of special conscripts grew. Where there was at first one or two consumptives and frostbitten soldiers turned over to Martha’s ministrations, there were now nearly sixty of them, all bursting with pride at having cheated death and being given a chance to put British control of the colonies to a rest more final than their own.
Word had gotten out through the camp and some of the healthy men had even been whipped for malingering. It seemed like everyone wanted to be one of the new breed of patriotic soldier. Washington had his leading men read aloud orders that “should any man be judged to have intentionally placed himself at death’s door, he would be denied entrance to the conscription tents.” Will wasn’t sure how many took him seriously, but nonetheless, the tents and the boxes within them continued to multiply.
By May, the Continental Army under Washington numbered 9,600 living men and enough special conscripts to form a small regiment. Support units had been established to move the special conscripts by day when needed, huge wagons stacked with the most patriotic of soldiers.
It was not long before the Continental Army found itself engaged with a large British contingent en route from Philadelphia to New York. The fighting had begun near noontime and within hours, it was clear that the Continental Army was taking the worst of it. Will attended Washington as best he could, riding just to his master’s left as the various reports came in.
“What is that fool doing?” Washington screamed, dashing his spyglass to the ground. Will unsaddled and rushed to slip the glass back into the loop where it normally hung. One of Washington’s aides-de-camp cleared his throat.
“Retreating, sir. He’s ordered his entire regiment to retreat.”
Washington kicked his heels into his mount, narrowly missing Will’s fingers, and galloped in the direction of the retreating troops, saber flashing. Will rushed to his own horse and hurried after, watching out for any threats to Washington as the great man bellowed orders and gradually stanched the flow of Continental soldiers from the battle. The tongue-lashing that regiment’s commander received in the middle of it was one of the worst Will had ever heard–and he had heard many, for Washington tended to find clear thinking in short supply among his lieutenants.
“But your orders have always been to avoid risk and general actions–“ the little man sputtered once from behind a wispy black beard as cannonades arced across the meadow and a soft breeze made the snake on the Don’t Tread on Me flag writhe back and forth.
Near the end of the day, as the British withdrew for the night and the patriots did likewise just over a hillock, Washington assembled all of his officers in a formation and rode his warhorse back and forth in front of them as his booming voice carried across the entire camp.
“Henceforth,” he said, “The Continental Army shall not surrender, shall not retreat, and shall not be guided by anything, apart from the certainty that God has granted us a great boon in the guise of our undying special conscripts, the greatest patriots of all, who will be put to their first martial use tonight.” He glared with steely eyes at the rows of uniformed gentlemen and beyond them, the common soldiery he knew to be listening. “Any man who shall retreat, or desert, or fail to give his all in the name of this Great Endeavor; I say to you that any man such as this is no Patriot at all. Tonight, men, Americans, we unleash the fury of God upon those who would enslave us, make us bark at their leash and beg at their tables to share in the bounty which we provide to them.
“These are my orders: When the special conscript regiment awakens, the first and second battalions will attack the British camp directly. The third battalion will attend to those patriots near death in the infirmaries and throughout the field. The living men of the support details, begin constructing more wagons and crates for our newest conscripts. And ensure that you have adequate stakes and mallets at hand, for on the morrow, we must deny the British even one special conscript of their own. General officers, meet me in my quarters with your reports two hours hence.”
With that he rode off, leaving the officers to buzz about what they had heard and get to work on their orders. Will met Washington at the tent, helped him dismount before sending the horse off with a stable boy as the last feeble rays of Pennsylvania sun began to wane.
Inside, Martha was already pushing open her now cushioned and well-carved quarters–Washington refused to let anyone refer to them as coffins. She smiled at her husband as he came into the tent, eyed Will hungrily.
“There will be plenty for you, my love,” Washington said. “In the infirmary.” He strode toward her, leaning down to kiss her. Will admired his master even more for the way he could bravely kiss a woman with such fearsome appetites.
“I think it would be delightful to exercise the horses tonight, George. I hear there will be much excitement.”
Washington raised a brow. “You heard?”
“Your voice is not one meant for keeping secrets.” Her eyes flashed. “Let’s ride together.”
“I cannot abide the thought of you being injured, lost to me again, Martha. What will be happening across that field tonight makes it no place for as fair of a creature as you.”
She pressed her lips together, smiling at Will as he tried not to stare at the way her longer teeth pushed out against them. “If not for me, you would have no ‘special conscripts’. But I suppose all the musketry and bayoneting would become tedious. I will find something to wet my throat among the injured.”
With that, she flipped open the tent flap and stepped into the night, leaving it open behind her. An owl hooted somewhere in the distance. The evening mist crept into Washington’s tent, bringing with it the smell of cookfires.
Washington stood there with his hands clasped behind his back, saying nothing. Outside the tent, officers and sergeants shouted orders. Will Lee saw the first special conscript race silently across the darkening field. Then another and another. In the British camp, the Redcoats fired a few surprised, almost half-hearted shots before the sounds of melee and dreadful, confused screaming rose and eventually faded to nothing.
“What those patriotic soldiers do this night,” Washington said, “secures for the American States all the blessings of Liberty which our Creator intended. Though I wonder at their treatment after the war, when they still hunger and only fellow citizens surround them.”
Will took his master’s powdered hairpiece and set it on the dressing table, trying not to remember the first few nights when Martha fed upon him. Even now, he knew she was in one of the nearby tents, draining the life and blood from some wounded soldier who, three days hence, would arise a conscript in the Continental Army. Soon Miss Martha would return and practice her embroidery or read Tom Paine by moonlight, talking with Washington and his generals late into the evening until they retired. She took care to always re-enter her quarters well in advance of the sun’s deadly rays.
“It scares me,” Will ventured, then continued despite Washington’s warning glance, “to think that sooner or later their kind will demand more war just to be fed.”
Washington looked away. “Our nation is too small and new-born to go seeking troubles, Will.” He added, as an afterthought: “Though I suspect some of the stronger black laborers will find themselves well treated in the service of these great patriots.”
Will suppressed a shudder, forcing himself to think of something, anything else. His reeling mind settled on the one granite-sure facet of his life: his responsibilities to the man who led the fight for Continental Independence. “Should I get a special wine from the purser for your meeting with the general officers?”
Washington nodded his head briskly, as if he were trying to convince himself of something appalling. “Fine idea, Will. I think that would be most appropriate. Though their training of the junior officers is lacking, they are all good men, and true. A special vintage would be called for.”
“Which would you prefer?”
“Tell the man to send whatever wine comes closest to the taste of sweet Freedom, for tonight the air is thick with it.”
Will hustled off to obey through the clamor of backslapping patriots and sated conscripts already returning. He saw Martha, ministering in her own way to a man whose cannonaded waist was wrapped in dirty, red-stained bandages and quickened his step.
He took a deep draught of the night winds to steady himself as he approached the purser’s carts. It neither shored up his nerves nor settled his stomach. To Will, the air tasted not at all like his master’s freedom; it was thick with blood and sawdust from the new conscripted “quarters” being built. Lingering behind those scents, making the rest somehow easier to pull into his lungs, hung the smell of meat roasting over campfires, a victory dinner for those lesser patriots not yet given the chance to die for their country.
Lon Prater is an avid Texas Hold’em player, occasional stunt kite flyer, and connoisseur of history, theme parks and haunted hayrides. His short fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future XXI, Frontier Cthulhu, and the Stoker-winning anthology Borderlands 5. To find out more, visit www.lonprater.com. He says:
The Atrocities of King George was inspired by rendition, torture, and the elaborate web of rationalizations some have used to justify such behavior as patriotic and “American”.
Lon Prater lives and writes on the Florida Panhandle, which he sometimes refers to as the Genre Gulag. His fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future XXI, Borderlands 5 and many other venues. You can find out more about him at http://www.neverary.com/notes.htm.
This poem was inspired, at least in part, by a bit of poorly capitalized roadside scripture, lots of standing water left over from one of the many hurricanes last year and a recent encounter with a soccer mom.
Like many of my poems, the association “clicked” while I was driving, and I had to pull over and scribble this one out before I could go any further.