Monday, September 2, 2013

 

"Shame's Squeezing My Heart," Pages 215-220

 

     Safe in the wood lot next to the burying grounds, Sylvanus Wood had tried to attach meaning to particular sounds. The beating of a drum had preceded the shouts of individual officers. Later, he had heard the strident voice of one officer. A colossal musket volley had made him start. Three massive, deep-throated shouts had quickened his pulse. Hoarse commands had followed. Finally, he had heard the marching sound of hundreds of feet.
     The trill of fifes and the tattoo of drums told Sylvanus of the column’s fading proximity. Leaving the grove of pine, catching sight of trailing militiamen on the Concord road, Sylvanus felt the strong tug of obligation. His compulsion to return to where he had stood, to where comrades had died, was stronger.
     Sylvanus Wood walked abashedly across the Common’s sparse grass. From different edges of the field other men were converging, six contorted bodies their lodestone. Three, Sylvanus saw, had fallen where Captain Parker had stood!
     A militiaman who had hurried across the grass from the northeast side of the field was staring at them. He was John Munroe. Staring back at his nephew, arms out, hands open as if to embrace him, old Robert Munroe was as indifferent to life and death as the hat that lay next to him. Blood stained the leather coat below the neck, where the ball had penetrated.
     Sylvanus walked past them. Several feet away lay the twisted corpse of Jonas Parker, his coat and the grass beside him recipient of the esteemed veteran’s blood. His hat lay open to the sky. Sylvanus saw inside it the musket balls, wadding, and flints that Jonas had intended to use. He recalled how the man had touched the brim of his hat when Sylvanus had been introduced. Jonas Parker had said that he would not run from the British. Because he had fled, Sylvanus had lived.
     “I saw what happened. He got hit and dropped t'his knees.” Someone behind Sylvanus had spoken. Sylvanus did not recognize the man. Tolerating Sylvanus’s stare, the militiaman nodded. “He fired his musket just the same! Lobsterback stuck him.” The stranger stared at the Concord road. “Old Jonas never had a chance.”
     Sylvanus grimaced agreement. He walked, morosely, toward the Meeting House. Halfway there, he paused to watch two wounded men being tended. He recalled the beating of the drum, the cordiality of strangers, the talk of old veterans. Like an excited child he had courted Captain Parker's favor. How easily he had been chased away!
     Striving to rid himself of shame, he loitered beside the large oak stump near the back of the Meeting House. Close by, Jonas Parker had asked, “What's it t'be, John? Hide or go out on the Common?” Live or take a musket ball or the blade of a bayonet!
     Sylvanus walked past the southwest corner of the building. Two men were carrying a wounded man to the front door. The man’s face was the color of slate.
     “The Captain was wounded in the leg,” a tall, dark-haired man exiting the building said to someone behind Wood. For a moment Sylvanus thought the man was speaking to him.
     “Where’s he at?”
     “Over at the Reverend's house, I figure.”
     The two men were silent a moment, each staring northward.
     “Does … Captain Parker know his cousin's dead?” Sylvanus asked. His tone of voice surprised him.
     The taller of the two looked at Sylvanus. After a moment, he nodded.
     “Probably the first thing he knew, I'd say,” the older man answered.
     “So you were there?” Sylvanus responded. He grimaced. Needing to say something, he had misspoken.
     The taller man stared at him an entire five seconds. “We don't know you,” he said.
     “I'm Sylvanus Wood; no, you wouldn’t.” He paused. “I live in Woburn. I stood near the Captain, 'til after the first volley, when he said t'take care of ourselves.” Looking down, he saw a gash mark across the top of his right shoe.
     “So you ran.”
     He had made an enemy of this man.
     “It's all right. We all ran. Except those that got shot.” The older man likewise stared at his shoes.
     The taller man walked away. After glancing at Wood, the older man strode after him.
     The two men who had carried the wounded man inside the building, having exited, stamped their feet. One of them, a stout man with graying temples, glanced sideways at Sylvanus. “Need your help carryin' in the wounded,” he said.
     Sylvanus walked over to them.
     A third man, who had come around the far corner of the building, joined them. “Some were wounded on the Bedford side,” he said, without introduction. Sylvanus felt even more the outsider.
     “That's taken care of, Winsett,” the second man, his mouth twisted, said. “They’re bein’ takin' t’ the Reverend's house.”
     They began their walk toward the middle of the Common.
     “After we get all the wounded, we'll take in the dead,” the gray-haired man said, neither looking to his left nor right.
     “How many?”
     The man gave Sylvanus a peculiar look.
     “I seen three or four,” Sylvanus said. He had meant the dead. Had he made this man think he didn't want to carry in the wounded?!
     “More'n that,” the second man said. “John Brown died near the swamp north of the Common, I was told. We'll have t'get him. An' Robert Harrison told me Samuel Hadley's behind a wall in John Buckman's garden.”
     “Asahel Porter, he didn't make it neither.” His lips compressed, the third man, Winsett, shook his head. “He was caught scouting. When the shooting started, he tried t'run down the Bedford road.”
     “How d’y’know that?!”
     “I was with him. They caught me after they did him.”
     “But you didn’t try t’ run, did you?” the second militiaman responded.
     “No.” Winsett looked off across the field.
     “Too bad.”
     “Asahel Porter’s from Woburn,” Sylvanus said, softly. Hard-working Asahel Porter, close to his own age, father of a year old son. Always keen to help somebody. Because of it he was dead.
     “They just rushed away from me. Left me. Then I ran.”
     I would have done that, Sylvanus thought. I wouldn’t have tried right away to escape, either.
     “I hid behind a tree just off the road,” Winsett said. “I saw Jonathan Harrington drag himself off the Common to that house o' his; I was thinkin' a redcoat was gonna see him and bayonet him, but that didn't happen.”
     The man that had been captured and that had escaped brought his left shirtsleeve across his mouth. Having everybody’s attention, he hesitated, inhaled, afterward blinked. “Must have been fifty feet or so,” he said. “He got t’his doorstep. Ruth came screamin' out the door and flung herself down.” His voice quavered. “Went over there as soon as they left. Jonathan died right there on his doorstep. His nine year old boy … saw it all from upstairs.”
     “Caleb Harrington was shot down, too. Just outside the Meeting House,” the second man said. “Him and some other men were inside gettin' powder.” He, too, blinked. “They tried t'run for it, so I heard.”
     When they reached the two wounded men that Sylvanus had seen being tended, three men stood up.
     “Can they be moved into the Meeting House?” the leader of Wood's group asked.
     “They walked out of the trees just awhile ago. Collapsed right here. S'pect so. We'll take them there right now.”
     “Then we’ll be movin’ on.”
     The third man, Winsett, the one that had witnessed Jonathan Harrington's death, hesitated. He looked at Sylvanus’s companions, briefly, then stooped to grasp a leg of one of the wounded.
     “Least he’s helpin’,” the second militiaman said, after they had walked a distance.
     “That’s so.”
     They reached the bodies of Robert Munroe, Jonas Parker, and, five yards away, a militiaman that Sylvanus didn’t know. Sylvanus stared at the pine trees into which he had fled. “We’d best get started,” he heard the gray-haired man say. Sylvanus sensed they were not yet ready.
     “Guess we'll take Isaac Muzzy first,” the gray-templed man said, grimacing. “Someone will have t’tell old John. Maybe he already knows.”
     “He does.” The other man pulled his hat down about his head. “I seen him go off down the road after the redcoats.”
     “All right then.”
     Having stared a bit longer at Muzzy, they took each of the dead man's arms. Sylvanus lifted the legs.
     “I didn't think this would happen,” the second man said when they had stopped half way to the Meeting House.
     “I guess them that did weren’t out here,” the other one said, with restrained malice.
     “Maybe next time they will.”
     “I expect not,” the gray-haired man said.
     They completed the trip in silence.
     Inside the Meeting House the two Lexington men started a conversation with a man tearing cloth. Feeling ill, Sylvanus exited. For a short while he stood at the southwest corner, facing the Concord road. “Shame’s squeezing my heart,” he said.
     Jonas Parker. Asahel Porter. Other men he’d never met. For what?! Angrily, he gripped the barrel of his musket, which minutes earlier he had propped against the building’s wall.
     They’d marched to Concord. They’d be marching back!
     This time he would not run and hide. Nor would he stand in the open. From a secure place off the road he would burn every ounce of powder, fire every musket ball he possessed!