John Howe fantasized.
Who could say what a resourceful young knave might discover prowling about in the dark? He imagined himself, holding his shoes, stealing out the door while the two officers snored. Thirty minutes later he would be looking at a weather-worn outbuilding, inside which the town’s powder was kept. The next morning, when they were all downstairs, he would mention the building to Innkeeper Jones to see how the grouch-faced proprietor reacted. The secret out -- Jones admitting to it -- De Berniere, flaming amazed, would declare, “I’ll be damned!”
“Howe. Pack our effects.”
De Berniere gestured at the table and the floor. “We are finished here. We leave for
Boston tomorrow morning, by way of Shrewsbury, Marlborough,
Leave my sketching material separate. I will be mapping the way.” Sudbury
They had given up!
He wondered just how useful De Berniere’s sketches of this or any road would be without the General knowing the whereabouts of the town’s powder. It would be like readying the squire's horse for the hunt, he wanted to say, without knowing the day of it. So it was too bad for the Yellow Sashes back at the Province House, and too bad for them. To be defeated, despite all their work, by one sour-faced innkeeper!
Not if he had been in charge.
The next morning Howe had changed his anger to disappointment. Better to have their mission end poorly, he had reasoned, than not to have had it. He had relished the physical activity, the food, and the lodging. He had enjoyed the locals, very much like him, commoners he had sometimes chatted while Browne and De Berniere had kept their mouths shut, trying to be like him! Entertainment! The fun of watching De Berniere get his way without Browne knowing it! Never had he been entertained so much beginning with the day the black tavern maid, flirting with him, had identified Browne.
Captain Browne! Maybe the man knew something about soldiering, but he was not his better!
Walking these roads had given him lengthy stretches of time to think!
Foremost of his thoughts was how much his life had changed since that day he had signed up! A stable boy at Audley, his father a personal servant to the Squire, he had chosen to put on the red coat and white stock and here he was tramping about Massachusetts Colony the servant of a simpleton captain turned spy! Not in his wildest imaginings!
His decision to leave Audley had been plain eighteen-year-old stupid! How quickly he had come to hate soldiering! During the rare occasions when he had been permitted the chance to think, he had analyzed his mistake.
He had come to see himself a beast of burden, each day suffering the same food -- salt beef and beer -- the same work, the same abuse. Several months ago he had had the mind to change that. His father, by example, had taught him how to serve the high and mighty. The company captain's servant having died of the malignant spotted fever, Howe had pressed his case. Here he was on this gray, wet winter morning walking this road because that very captain, wanting to advance his career, had volunteered to try his hand at spying!
Serving Browne had not been that much of an improvement. His food and lodging were better; his work was not. The plow was gone; the bit in his mouth had remained. Walking these country roads, served at the same tavern table with Browne and De Berniere, given a pinch of freedom to exercise his lights, he had enjoyed the bit’s temporary removal. He would be back in
very soon, back to the same drudgery,
to Browne’s daily abuse. Twice this morning he had thought about the lad in the teamster’s wagon. Doing that would be the ultimate right
turn in any young knave’s life, wouldn’t it? The hard part about making that
big a change, he thought, was not the doing so much but not knowing whether the
doing was smart or stupid. What was so special about the lives of these country
people, he wondered, that made them so rebellious? Boston
He heard behind him the clopping sound of an approaching horse. They had been passed twice by disinterested travelers. This one, too, would probably not want to talk. Walking ten feet behind his officers, his head down, he trudged.
Seconds later, he saw that the rider, ahead of them now, had stopped. He was staring at them! Blood and bones! The day’s first excitement! What should he say? “We be intendin’ t’visit a friend,” a friend that had better be living in some distant town, he thought, the rider more than naught a local! And there was Browne, and De Berniere, musket-barrel straight -- he had to laugh -- taking measured strides toward this provincial like soldiers on parade!
The rider turned his horse, moved it forward. The man looked twice over his right shoulder. Seconds later he kicked his horse’s ribs. They disappeared over a hill.
A bit of excitement that! Howe thought. Whoever the man was, he’d gotten his eyeballs’ full! What would his two Jack-Puddings be deciding to do now?
They formed a triangle in the middle of the road.
“That, I suspicion, was a militiaman,” Browne began.
“He takes with him a detailed account of us, make no doubt!” De Berniere answered. “Expect his return, with, at a minimum, ten militiamen!”
Browne rubbed his chin.
The rasp of a crow reached Howe from tree limbs beyond a damp field.
“Since it is some distance to
the nearest settlement,” De Berniere offered, “we are safe, for awhile. We need
not be alarmed.” Marlborough
“An hour would you say?”
“Then we should carry on, locate a copse of trees, a barn, remain there until after they pass,” Browne said.
What would be the sense of that? Howe thought.
De Berniere touched, then scratched his left ear. “Let us not forget, sir, that to carry on we must pass through
Wanting to grin, Howe stared at his shoes.
He almost jumped.
“What, corporal, is your take on this thorny situation?” His hands gripping his elbows, De Berniere waited.
Howe fought the urge to swallow. He swallowed. There stood Browne, eyebrows raised like a magistrate’s, expecting something stupid. “I’ve … I’ve a mind we d’go back t’
he said, facing De Berniere. Worcester
Browne exclaimed. “What in God’s name for?!” Worcester
“By yer leave, Captain,” Howe answered, hiding his resentment. “There's naught but difficulty ahead an' the only other road t’Boston be the old one we d’take.”
Browne stared down his bony nose.
“So I figure we should go back through
Worcester, not stoppin', get on
t’Grafton, an’ spend the night at ,
where we was before.” Framingham
Browne scowled at distant treetops. Staring at the crest of the hill where the militiaman had disappeared, De Berniere slapped his right thigh.
Why did you bother to ask?
“Damme, to turn tail and run! I do not countenance it!”
“But the alternative, Captain?”
“Yes, the alternative!” Brown pressed his right thumb against the side of his jaw. He spat on the dirt. “I allow there is more danger ahead of us than behind. Damme, I allow that!”
Howe realized De Berniere’s purpose.
“Clearly the rider intends to intercept us,” the ensign responded.
He waits, giving Browne time to own his thinking. Howe scraped the soles of his shoes on the road’s gritty surface.
They would be returning to the inn at
which was what De Berniere had expected him to say. Back to the same room,
maybe, he the servant, arranging the basin of hot water, the towels, the
sponge, wringing the sponge over the basin after the two had bathed, emptying
the murky water in the mound of pine needles outside the inn’s rear door. He
was taken suddenly by De Berniere's use of him. It suggested the ensign had
some regard for him. Had he been De Berniere’s servant, his situation might
have been acceptable. But he was Browne’s
“All right! Damme! Discretion having primacy, I agree!” Browne grimaced. “We will walk through
without stopping, allowing us to reach Buckminster Tavern before dark!” He
frowned at the roadway. “The General's troops would not take this road anyway!” he declared. “No need, therefore, to
waste our bloody breath mapping it!” Worcester