“No chance to get away to see Beth tonight, I take it,” Major Charles Andrews ventured.
Brigadier General Jonathan Carleton threw his aide a brooding look as he urged his bay stallion forward, farther out of earshot of the riders trailing down the road behind them. It was nearing two o’clock, Sunday, July 2, 1775. Pulling off his wide-brimmed slouch hat, he wiped his brow with the back of his gloved hand before settling it back on his head with a jerk.
“We’ll undoubtedly be tied up with the generals until late.”
Andrews pulled his mount alongside Carleton’s. “I thought you’d break away yesterday when we stopped at Watertown to meet with the Provincial Congress.”
Carleton shook his head in frustration. “The General insisted I stay. But I intend to see Beth tonight, even if it’s past midnight before we get there.”
“Washington has kept you on a short rein ever since we met him in New York.”
“All to your credit, Charles. If you hadn’t felt obliged to share every minute detail of my arrest and imminent hanging, we’d have been in Roxbury days ago.”
“It’s a good thing the General is being cautious,” Andrews countered.
“If Isaiah hadn’t been on the alert on the road to New York, Gage’s agents would have us aboard ship to England by now, trussed up like a covey of Christmas geese.”
“And thank you for contributing a report on that little incident too,” Carleton returned sourly. “You managed to persuade Washington that the price Gage has put on my head—and on yours—will prove too tempting for someone whose need for cold coin is greater than his allegiance to the cause of liberty.”
Andrews returned a grin. “I’m a small fish. It’s you Gage wants. Considering the reward he’s offering, he obviously means to exact revenge for his humiliation at your hands. After all, you did pluck him clean of all the intelligence the Committee of Safety could have hoped for—while nestled sweetly in the General’s bosom.”
Carleton’s face clouded. “That’s what I despise about this. I should never have allowed myself to be persuaded to take on such a dishonorable role.”
“But spying in time of war is an ancient and necessary profession— even a biblical one. Don’t forget the twelve Hebrews who spied out the land of Canaan for Moses.”
“Yes, and because they listened to the ten who had no faith instead of the two who trusted God, the children of Israel wandered in the desert for the next forty years,” Carleton responded with a short laugh.
The day was hot and humid following an early morning rain. Lazy wisps of cloud drifting inland from the ocean dotted the cerulean sky overhead. At ground level, between the low, wooded hills four miles from Boston Harbor, the breeze barely stirred the trees that shouldered each other along the road’s edge, and each plop of the horses’ hooves onto the sandy soil kicked a plume of gritty dust into the air.
“I hate to admit it, but in this heat these buckskins are no more comfortable than our new uniforms would have been. And it occurs to me they’d make a better impression on Ward and his staff than Indian dress.”
Andrews surveyed Carleton’s dusty leather hunting shirt, leggings, and moccasins that matched his own. “You’re undoubtedly right. They’re already suspicious enough of you southerners being foisted on them without their having any say in the matter. I can imagine what they’ll think if your former connection to the Shawnee comes out. But, alas, it’s a tad late to transform ourselves into proper officers now.”
“I’d as soon arrive in war paint with my head shaved,” Carleton growled. “Let them think we’re true savages, and maybe they’ll mend their ways. But then, I’ve never been renowned for being exceptionally politic.”
“That’s an understatement, my friend. And speaking of diplomacy, how much have you told the General about you and Beth?”
Carleton grimaced. “Too deuced much, I fear. He seemed extraordinarily interested in Beth’s role as spy and smuggler for the Sons of Liberty. But when I mentioned our intent to marry, he changed the subject rather abruptly.”
Andrews raised an eyebrow. “Do you think he opposes your plans?”
His mouth tightening, Carleton turned in the saddle to measure the distance to the officers who rode at a leisurely pace behind them. All except their commander appeared too involved in conversation to pay him and Andrews much attention. As Carleton’s glance met his, however, Washington spurred his stallion forward.
“I suspect I’ll soon find out,” Carleton said in an undertone as Washington closed the distance between them.
Both officers saluted as the newly elected commander of the Continental Army drew up beside them. Forty-three years old, with auburn hair and grey-blue eyes that smoldered with an inner fire, General George Washington exuded an immense physical energy that was both intimidating and highly attractive. A born horseman, powerful in build despite narrow, sloping shoulders, he possessed a natural charm that equally drew men and women to him.
On occasion, however, Carleton had witnessed the prodigious temper that lay beneath that charm. Most of the time it was clamped under iron control, but it was a force Washington had learned how to unleash to the greatest effect when other means failed to motivate those under his authority.
Studying his commander, Carleton harbored no doubt that the Continental Congress had chosen the right man for the difficult and delicate responsibility of molding into an effective fighting force the undisciplined and often contentious militia units besieging Boston. Considering the conflicts between the various factions in the Congress, e was confident the choice had resulted from much more than a merely human decision born of political considerations.
“I expect you are impatient to call on that young lady of yours,” Washington observed.
Carleton forced a smile. “Indeed, I am. Miss Howard and I—”
“Unfortunately, I am going to need you at Cambridge until late,” Washington cut him off. “We have urgent business to settle with Ward and his staff before any of us will be free to attend to personal interests.”
Carleton felt Washington’s penetrating gaze on him, but deliberately did not meet it. Keeping his expression and tone carefully neutral, he said, “I wait upon your convenience, sir.”
Frowning, he stared along the curve of the road that stretched before them to the small town of Cambridge, currently the center of the rebel army besieging Boston and its garrison of British troops commanded by Lieutenant General Thomas Gage, commander in chief of His Majesty’s armies in North America. To their right, the land sloped to the banks of the Charles River, where the knee-deep grasses had been mowed and raked into windrows to provide fodder for the army’s horses.
He drew in a deep breath of the drying hay’s heavy, sweet fragrance but could take no pleasure in it. Once more the subject of most interest to him had been abruptly turned aside. And the feeling that this boded no good to his hopes sank to the bottom of his gut like a leaden weight.
Three-quarters of a mile ahead, past the handsome mansions dubbed Tory Row for the politics of their wealthy owners, the road terminated in a wide, grassy field at the town’s center. Formerly a pasture for the townspeople’s animals, the Common had been entrenched and turned into a campsite for soldiers, as had every available field in and around Cambridge—around every town surrounding Boston, in fact, from Dorchester to Winisimmit.
Along the Common’s farthest boundary Carleton could make out the three-story red brick buildings of Harvard College. With the beginning of the siege, they, as well as many other buildings in the town, had been commandeered to house rebel troops.
As they drew steadily nearer, Carleton noted idly that on this quiet Sabbath large groups of soldiers lounged at ease among the weathered tents and ramshackle huts dotting the Common. Here and there the smoke of campfires twined upward, adding another pungent scent to the sea tang blowing off the bay. At the field’s far side a group played a game of rounders, hitting a ball with a stick, then running from one base to another.
Washington followed his gaze. “What is your estimation of the troops’ discipline and abilities?”
Carleton wrenched his thoughts back from the subject that had occupied very nearly every waking moment since he had left Roxbury a fortnight earlier. “Judging by their performance on Charlestown peninsula, their abilities are excellent. As far as discipline is concerned, there’s much work to do, not only among the rank and file but among the officers as well.”
“New lords, new laws,” Andrews put in, his tone dry. “What’s needed is some extensive housecleaning.”
Washington shot him a keen glance. “Which will not be welcomed by anyone. We need to tread carefully if we hope to gain the army’s cooperation.”
Each occupied by private concerns, they rode without speaking until they reached the street that curved around the northern boundary of Cambridge Common. This terminated at an intersecting thoroughfare that ran southwest through the town and on into the country, a road with which Carleton was well familiar. After crossing the Charles River, it curved back to the southeast toward Brooklyne. Four miles farther along it, the village of Roxbury nestled on the bluffs above the bay, overlooking the narrow neck of land that connected Boston to the mainland.
As it crossed Stony Brook on the edge of this village, the thoroughfare passed the mansion of Tess Howard, who with her niece Elizabeth played the part of loyalists to the crown. From the beginning of the conflict between Britain and her colonies, however, both had secretly used every wile and resource to aid the Sons of Liberty.
It had been two weeks since he and Andrews had left Tess’s home for New York following Carleton’s rescue from a British scaffold, two weeks since he had held Elizabeth Howard in his arms and tasted the heady wine of her kisses. But although the longing to see her, to reassure himself of her love, had intensified into an almost unbearable ache deep in his breast, he took care to reveal nothing of his thoughts.
Also to the right along this intersecting road and directly opposite Cambridge Common stood an imposing gambrel-roofed mansion formerly owned by Harvard’s steward, Jonathan Hastings. Currently the house served as headquarters to General Artemis Ward, commander of the left wing of the rebel army encamped around the perimeter of Boston since the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord two and a half months earlier. There another road branched off, one Carleton could not keep from mentally tracing as well. It angled northeast, leading inexorably to Charlestown peninsula, where the charred ruins of that town bore mute testimony to the savage battle fought on the heights above it while he had suffered the agonies of the damned in a British gaol.
Fighting the dread certainty that Elizabeth was in the midst of the battle. Terrified that she would be killed. Wrestling with physical extremity brought on by brutal beatings, deprivation of food and water, fearful anticipation of the hangman’s rope that awaited him. How could he not have known that she would find a way to save him? She had led him back to the Lord, after all, had been the instrument God had used to impart forgiveness and reconciliation to his prodigal son.
All Carleton wanted now was to spend the rest of his life loving this remarkable woman. But relentlessly the fear tightened around his heart that even as the physical distance between them grew shorter, the sweet hopes he cherished were slipping ever further out of his reach. He would not allow that to happen, he reassured himself. No matter what the consequences, he would never again allow any obstacle to part him from Elizabeth.
“Please! Don’t take my leg! Dear God, don’t let ’em take my leg!”
With the assistance of the two surgeon’s mates, Elizabeth Howard wrestled the screaming soldier onto the makeshift surgery table. Satisfied that the mates had their patient under control, she cautiously relinquished her hold.
While they held him down, she deftly buckled leather straps across his chest and arms, his pelvis, and his healthy leg. Finished, she covered him with blankets and slipped a small pillow under his head.
“Whatever happens, hold the leg steady until I finish the cut,” ordered Dr. Benjamin Church, directing a frown at his assistants. “I don’t want to splinter this limb.”
“God, help me! I cain’t tend my farm if I’m a cripple!”
Elizabeth dabbed the perspiration from her forehead with the edge of her apron and impatiently pushed out of her eyes the dark auburn curls that had escaped from her chignon in the struggle. Wringing out a cloth in the basin of water, she leaned over the anguished soldier to sponge his face, fighting not to gag at the stench of rotting flesh, blood, and sweat that pervaded the room.
“Other men have managed quite well,” she soothed him. “You will too. You still have one good leg, and before we release you, you’ll be fitted with a peg leg that will allow you to do most of your farm work as you always have.”
He stared up at her, his eyes boring into hers, pleading. “My wife don’t need no useless cripple to take care of with three young ’uns.”
“I suspect she’d rather have you alive and by her side than in a grave. We’ve done all we can. If we don’t amputate, you’ll die.”
“I’d be better off dead than alive and half a man!”
As gently as possible Elizabeth forced a twisted length of cloth between his clenched teeth. “I assure you, Sergeant Wilkerson, your manhood will remain fully intact.”
Both mates guffawed as the sergeant’s face mottled to a dull red.
Grinning meaningfully at each other, they positioned themselves on either side of Church.
Elizabeth shot them a severe look. “Faith, but this is hardly a laughing matter. You wouldn’t be quite so brave, I think, if it were you on this table.”
The two mates studiously applied themselves to holding their writhing comrade still while Elizabeth cut away the bandage that wrapped the sergeant’s right leg from thigh to ankle. Checking the tension of the tourniquet’s heavy, worsted tape that was wrapped around the man’s upper thigh, she adjusted the screw slightly.
Church tapped the curved amputation knife against his other hand. “You gave him plenty of rum?”
With a practiced motion she wound several lengths of tape around Wilkerson’s bare leg just below the site of the cut. “All we could spare. Our stock is so depleted we’ve been forced to water it down. I’m afraid it won’t do him much good.”