The crack of the pistol’s report came from directly behind the
courier. Sizzling past so close to his ear he could feel the heat of it, the
musket ball whined off into the windy night.
He brought his head close to his mount’s straining neck. “Go! Go!”
The mare responded with a burst of speed, stretching the distance between her and the pursuing British patrol. Flying strands of mane whipped tears to the courier’s eyes as he fumbled beneath his cloak for the handle of the pistol shoved into the waistband of his breeches. His hand shaking, he tore the weapon free and cocked it with his thumb.
“Hold! Pull up and surrender, you blasted rebel!”
The shouted command reached him faintly above rushing wind and pounding hoofbeats. Mouth dry, stomach knotted with fear and exhilaration, he searched the shadowy landscape for an escape route.
In the darkness off to his right beyond a high stone wall, wooded hills loomed up. Inside the line of trees the woodland dropped to a winding creek, then rose again into the hills, the courier knew. Reining his mare hard right, his breath coming in sharp pants, he glanced over his shoulder as the wind shredded the clouds high overhead.
Shards of moonlight rippled across hill and hollow, gleaming on icy remnants of a late snow that still clung in sheltered areas. Touching the irregular stone walls that wound through the rolling farmland, the light glimmered across the blood-red uniforms of the soldiers stampeding after him through the murky Massachusetts countryside.
There were three in the patrol. The soldier who had fired had dropped back, and the officer now held the lead. He hung stubbornly close, trying to aim his pistol while he swung wide in the attempt to cut his quarry off.
The dim bulk of the stone wall raced toward the courier. A tangled growth of brambles topped the wall on the far side, reaching thorny fingers well above the stones. With reckless determination, he urged his mount on, rising in the stirrups at the exact instant the mare gathered her haunches under her and took flight.
She skimmed over the seemingly impossible height as effortlessly as a gull and lit softly on the other side. Hardly breaking stride, she fled toward the line of trees. A crashing sound reached the courier, and he threw a swift glance back.
The officer had angled his mount off to a partial break in the wall some yards down. One of the two soldiers was riding hard toward the wall’s far end.
The other had tried the wall at the same point as the courier, but had miscalculated the jump. The courier caught a glimpse of dislodged stone slabs spilled across the ground and the thrashing legs of the fallen horse before his mare swept around a bend that for the moment cut him off from the patrol’s sight.
He urged his mount between the trees. A dozen strides into the woods he pulled up hard behind a head-high outcropping of rock screened by slender saplings and dense undergrowth. Shoulders hunched, head bent so the wide brim of his hat shaded his face, he sat motionless, calculating that his black cloak and the midnight black of his mare would render them all but invisible in the shadows.
The mare stood silent, head down, lathered sides heaving. Gripping the reins tight with one hand, the courier aimed his pistol with the other, holding it steady with difficulty. His heart beat so hard he was overwhelmed by the irrational fear that his pursuer must hear it.
He could hear the sharp crackle of fallen branches and rustle of dry leaves underfoot as the officer fought his way through the dense growth, cursing in frustration. The creak of leather and jingle of metal drew steadily closer.
The courier became aware of the stinging tickle of perspiration that wound past the corner of his eye onto his cheek. He could make out the dim shape of a horseman riding toward him between the ghostly trunks of the trees. The thud of hoofbeats slowed, then for long, heartstopping moments paused within eight feet of his hiding place.
He held his breath, his pistol aimed at the rider’s breast at pointblank range, his hand of a sudden grown steady, finger tightening over the trigger. The mare’s ears pricked, but she made no sound. When the tension reached the point at which the courier feared he must snap, the sound of other hoofbeats approached from the left.
“Captain, Scott’s horse fell on him,” a hoarse voice called out. “He’s in a bad way.”
Muttering an oath, the rider reined his horse around and moved past the courier’s hiding place, fighting through the low-hanging branches. Within seconds he vanished into the night as completely as though the earth had swallowed him up.
For some minutes longer the courier waited, every sense strained to the breaking point. But no sound reached him except for the moan of the wind through the bare limbs of the trees and the creak of interlaced branches high overhead.
When he was certain the patrol was well out of sight and sound, he spurred the mare out of their hiding place, urged her down the slope and across the shallow creek. Silent as a specter, they moved up the flank of the hill on the other side and slipped over the summit.
Thus unnoticed, the courier—known to General Thomas Gage and the British garrison in Boston only by the name “Oriole” for the whistled notes of his characteristic signal—melted into the impenetrable cloak of the forest beyond.
It was a quarter of midnight that Friday, April 14, 1775, when the courier reached the nondescript tavern on the outskirts of Lincoln. The building faced the dusty road that pointed through the hamlet toward the village of Concord some six miles northwest.
In spite of the late hour, the flicker of candle and lamplight illuminated the lower windows of the tavern and the one-story addition at its rear. Half a dozen horses still switched their tails patiently at the hitching rail along the building’s side.
The courier took the precaution of scouting the area before approaching the tavern. The road was deserted in both directions, the windows of the houses visible along the road, blank and black. Reassured, he dismounted and found a place for his mare at the hitching rail.
Slim and straight in stature, the courier had regular features markedly more handsome than those of the average farm boy and a pale complexion that had been reddened by the fast ride in the icy wind. His sole concession to the April chill was a frayed black cloak, beneath which he wore the loose tan frock and brown breeches common to the region’s farmers. Straight brown hair pulled back and tied with a black ribbon was visible under the drooping brim of his dusty, sweat-stained hat.
As he unbuckled the leather pouch behind the saddle, the door of the tavern’s rear addition creaked open. A lanky figure slouched in the doorway, outlined black against the candlelight.
“Will, tell Pa he can quit worrying,” said a terse voice.
“Hey, Levi,” the courier greeted his cousin wearily.
Slinging the pouch over his arm, he strode to the door beneath the peeling paint of a worn wooden sign that proclaimed the establishment to be simply “Stern’s.” The tow-haired youth who held the door open with one spare, sinewy arm was about the courier’s age. He moved out of the way to allow the courier to step into the passage between the kitchen of the main building and the enclosed lean-to at its rear.
Once inside, the courier pulled off his hat and wiped the clammy sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. Levi scrutinized him, his pale blue eyes growing keen.
“You’re more’n an hour late. Any problems gettin’ through?”
“You could say that, Cuz.”
To his left, through the door of the tavern’s kitchen, the courier could see into the taproom. The long, narrow room was crowded, the atmosphere thick with the yeasty aroma of ale and the blue tobacco smoke that gathered in a dense haze against the blackened beams supporting the low ceiling. The grim-faced patrons who bent their heads together over their pints were all members of the local militia.
Farmers, merchants, and tradesmen, they sported clothing that showed varying degrees of prosperity. Most were dressed, as was the courier, in simple homespun, a necessity for the vast majority of colonists because of the despised taxes Britain had imposed on imported goods. Even the more prosperous members of the group were soberly suited in a reflection of their Puritan stock as well as the temper of the times.
“Was Uncle Josh expecting trouble tonight?”
“Naw.” Levi shrugged. “Will dismissed the company a couple hours ago, but most of ’em decided to hang around a while. I guess we’re all thinkin’ trouble’s bound to come right soon.”
The courier’s nod was rueful. “I got a taste of it tonight.”
Before Levi could question him, a tall man stepped out from behind the door to their right. About thirty years of age, he was lean and tanned as a hunter, though spotless white linen, a waistcoat of dove-grey silk, breeches of fine black wool, and the silver buckles of his shoes marked him as a member of some profession.
The courier grinned at his oldest cousin in grudging admiration. A lawyer who was gaining some reputation in the area, William Stern was also captain of the Lincoln militia and chairman of the local Committee of Correspondence, which was responsible for distributing information about the activities of the British to other committees throughout the thirteen colonies.
He was, as well, a delegate to the illegal Provincial Congress currently convened in Concord under the direction of thirty-four-yearold Dr. Joseph Warren. Samuel Adams’s right-hand man, Warren was considered to be the most personable incendiary in the colonies, reluctantly admired by his enemies even while they despised his politics. “You’d better get in here,” Will said with a relieved grin. “Pa’s been fretting. He’s about worried himself sick.”