Written in haste, this day 07/04/04, for the Tavington Fiction Site 4th of July Challenge.
Disclaimer: I do not own
the rights to the Patriot. Those thinking otherwise are in need of treatment.
BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY
He hated change. All he had ever hoped of life was that it would remain the same: cotton and indigo would sell high; horses would be fast and women beautiful; plentiful fish and game would provide sport; and the year would see the same reliable and pleasant round of planting and harvesting, of visits and parties, of hunting and holidays.
James Wilkins shifted carefully on the flimsy cot, and thought regretfully of his big oak bed, made to accommodate his six feet, six inches. It was ashes now, along with the rest of Greenwood House. He had dreamed of Greenwood again last night. He was a little boy, and had wandered into the kitchen, where Cookie and Daisy had fussed over him and given him some hot biscuits heaped with peach preserves. He could almost taste the ghost of peaches as he woke.
It was damp in the tent. The smell of cookfires and the clanging of pots made any more rest impossible. He might as well face another day as a Green Dragoon. He recalled, with a flicker of self-pity, that today was his birthday. He had always had a party on his birthday; first, when he was a loved and indulged only child, and then later, as master of Greenwood, inviting all the families in the neighborhood.
He dressed carefully and went out into the humid morning air. Coming back from the officers' latrine, he saw Bordon entering the mess tent, and went to join him.
Bordon was his usual dapper self. "Good morning to you, Wilkins." It was always hard to tell what Bordon really thought about things. He had talked Wilkins into transferring to the Green Dragoons, and Wilkins felt there had been bad and good in the change.
"'Morning," he answered, looking with resigned disgust at their breakfast of murky tea and cornpone with molasses. He chewed the hard, gritty stuff, and tried not to think about peach preserves. "We're going out again?"
"No rest for the wicked," said Bordon, and he gave Wilkins a half-smile.
Unlike many boys, Wilkins had never dreamed of being a soldier. He had always been happy at Greenwood. The cycle of life and death was there, of course, and he had grieved bitterly at his parents' deaths; but he was a good Christian and understood that it was all part of the divine plan. He would have brought Ada home to Greenwood to begin the cycle again with her: a gentle, lovely lady with whom he would raise a fine family.
She had heard of his dispossession, and had written to him. At the time it had hurt him deeply, but he now understood that Ada could not be expected to wait for the war to end, and for him to have a home to offer her. Lovely as she was, she would never be his.
He had done everything he was supposed to do—everything his father had taught him. He had been a good planter, a good master to his slaves, a dutiful son, and a loyal subject of His Majesty. When the South Carolina Assembly had debated rebellion, he had spoken up for the Crown.
Disputes with his neighbors that once would have been settled over supper and some wine, grew strangely bitter. Politics reared its head in every conversation. He had come home from a trip to Charleston to find his home burned to the ground, his slaves and stock stolen, and a party of drunken men, who were shouting about "Saratoga," waiting to celebrate some rebel victory by beating him nearly to death. He had cracked a few skulls himself. Only Frank Gordon, a boyhood companion, had saved his life, by knocking him senseless with an ox yoke.
"This is what we do to Tory bastards," his old friend had snarled. Wilkins supposed he should be grateful they had not tarred and feathered him, or burned him along with his home.
He had lain there in the empty horse paddock, and had nearly drowned when it rained later in the night, filling the hoof prints with muddy water. Later he had crawled into a ruined pigsty and waited for his body to heal.
A few days later, Loyalist militia led by Bloody Bill Cunningham had come through. Wilkins had had no other option than to ride along with them, but he had hated it. Cunningham's men were little better than robbers, using the name of Loyalist to despoil the countryside. He was not a robber, or a murderer, or a rapist; and he scorned men who were. When he had met Bordon and been offered a commission in the Dragoons, he had jumped at the chance.
He had found himself confronted by the famous Colonel Tavington, who had sneered at his loyalty and asked why he should trust a man who had betrayed his neighbors. Wilkins had had years of dealing with shorter men—since nearly every man he met was, indeed, shorter. Instead of sneering back, he had simply given a pro forma answer about traitors and traitor's deaths. It was pointless to tell his life story to some pampered English aristocrat.
Tavington, however, he soon discovered, was not a pampered aristocrat. For all his airs, he was a penniless adventurer, and had even less than Wilkins—who at least owned the deed to Greenwood plantation. His metal deedbox had survived the fire, and though charred, the document was still legible. Tavington had nothing of the sort—no ties to the land, no family, nothing but ambition to give him a stake in this war.
Now the troops were mounting up, and Tavington was leading them out on a raid to look for the newest militia band. Wilkins had grown up in the saddle, and could endure long hours in it well, but fox- hunting and man-hunting were not at all the same thing.
Their Cherokee scouts had alerted Tavington to a small band of rebel militia encamped along the Santee. They had attacked a convoy a few days before, and were now resting and caring for their wounded. The Dragoons hoped to surprise and capture them, for one militiaman always knew others and the bands were loosely associated, not usually infringing on other bands' territories.
"Capture their leader, if possible," Tavington ordered. "He's the one with the most information, and he's the one whose loss will hit them hardest."
The ride grew miserable as the morning passed. The hot July sun and the horrible humidity combined to make Wilkins' uniform an instrument of torture. Sweat ran in rivers from under his helmet, getting into his eyes and stinging them mercilessly.
Tavington had flung up his hand, and the Dragoons were slowing to a halt in a cornfield. Wilkins saw his Colonel, conferring with War Stick, and then looking around for him; and joined him. Bordon rode up as well, and Tavington quickly gave his orders.
"War Stick and the two other scouts are going ahead to see if the rebels are still there. I want you," he said, looking at Wilkins, "to go along with them. See if you know anyone there. Note the dispositions of the band. See if they have any lookouts, but don't be seen yourself."
It was only a few hundred feet to the woods along the river. Wilkins mopped his face again. The air was slightly cooler among the trees, but still heavy with moisture. War Stick peered through the brush and waved Wilkins closer.
They were still there, all right. Resting at their leisure in the shade; coats and waistcoats thrown aside, shirts open or discarded completely, the men were lolling about, eating melon and roast pork (from the smell), and drinking from stone jugs. Wilkins stared, unbelieving. The rebels were having a picnic!
The sight made him painfully nostalgic and then furiously angry. On a hot day in July, James Wilkins should be resting in the shade with a cool drink, hosting a birthday party for his neighbors. Instead, these miserable rebels were the ones resting, and had forced him to ride all morning in the hot sun, dressed in a woolen uniform.
He looked around the campsite. He indeed knew a few of the men by sight--mostly small farmers and tradesmen from nearby towns that he had dealt with occasionally. Never again. How could things be put back together? Even when the King's men won the war, there would be a legacy of hatred and bitterness that would last for years. He wondered how he and his old friends would manage to live in peace after burning each other's houses, and beating each other bloody.
He recognized Jack Prince from Shellbank. Probably the leader, he guessed. He was the only one sitting in a chair. Jack still owed him twenty pounds for the sale of a bull, back in '77.
War Stick got his attention, and pointed out the lookout, resting against a tree, more intent the pork ribs he was gnawing than on the woods around him. Wilkins nodded back grimly, and the men withdrew silently and made their way to the waiting Dragoons.
Tavington tended to mask his impatience with a sharp tongue and a supercilious expression, and today was no different. Wilkins controlled his own irritation at it by reporting as swiftly and clearly as he could.
"They're still there, Colonel. Sixteen of them. Their leader's Jack Prince, a planter from around here. He's there too—he's the one in a chair, dressed in an unbuttoned blue coat. Medium-sized fellow with light brown hair. They're not expecting us, because they're having a party and their lookout is busy eating."
Tavington's impatient look changed to one of pleased contempt. "Can the horses penetrate the woods easily?"
"No, sir," Wilkins replied. "They're too dense. We'd do better on foot. Less likely for them to hear us, too."
"All right, then." Tavington signaled to the other officers to join them and ordered, "Captain Wilkins' troop will dismount and approach the rebels on the riverbank on foot. There is to be no talking, and no noise. I want to surprise these men and take their leader, who is of medium height, and dressed in a blue coat. I want none of them to escape. I want their horses as well. Captain Bordon's men will remain in reserve and will kill or capture any rebels who slip past us. Is that perfectly clear?"
It was hardly a question a man under Tavington's command would answer in the negative, but Wilkins needed to clarify one point.
"Colonel, you said 'us.' Will you be leading the party on foot?"
Tavington's mouth quirked in a slight smile. "Of course, Captain Wilkins. A leader must lead." He swung off his mount, and the order to dismount and remain silent was passed to Wilkins' men.
Tavington waited for the men to form a line around him, and motioned them forward. They ran silently through the field, making a strange rushing noise as they brushed past the knee-high corn. They stopped and moved into position at the trees.
Tavington was still surprisingly well-groomed after his run, as he followed Wilkins' signs to get a look at the rebels at their festivities. He turned and gave Wilkins a frightening smile, and whispered in his ear, "Rude of us to appear at the party uninvited, don't you think? Perhaps they'll find a way to make us welcome."
Tavington pulled his pistol, and the men aimed their carbines at the oblivious rebels.
"Fire!" Almost instantaneously, the gunfire roared forth, and all but a handful of the rebels fell to the ground. A few screamed—some with pain, some with surprise. Jack Prince was hit by a piece of jug that was shattered by a bullet as he held it to his mouth. He started up, flinging the ruined vessel away, and fumbling for his sword. His chair fell backwards, and he tripped over it.
"At them!" Tavington shouted, and drew his sword with a metallic hiss. Wilkins followed suit and headed straight for Jack.
Whatever fight had been in the man dissipated at the sight of Tavington and Wilkins, swords unsheathed, running at him with murder in their eyes. Prince dropped his sword and shouted, "We surrender!"
The unwounded rebels heard him, and hastily threw down their weapons. The unhappy lookout, who had not had time to arm himself, was relieved of his pork ribs by a hungry dragoon.
Wilkins gave Prince a shove, knocking him to the ground, and blurted out the first thing on his mind. "You still owe me twenty pounds!"
Prince, on the ground, but not entirely cowed, shouted back, "I owe nothing to any filthy Tory! You can whistle for your twenty pounds!"
Wilkins aimed a kick, but was restrained by an amused Tavington. "Now, now, Captain. Play nicely." He looked down disdainfully at Prince. "I was under the impression we were at war, sir. You seem to be under the impression that this is a holiday."
Prince glared up at him and spat, "It is a holiday for all true Americans. We were celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776." He got up carefully, and dusted himself off. "But that's not something a traitor or tyrant's lackey would know about."
"You know this man?" Tavington asked Wilkins. "He's not very polite, is he? He hasn't even asked us to join the party." He gave Prince a cold smirk, and called out, "Round up the rebels and put them under guard! Sergeant Davies! Report to Captain Bordon, and inform him that the rebels are taken, and that he and his men are invited to join us in celebrating the rebels' Fourth of July!"
The sergeant grinned and hurried away. Tavington righted the lone chair, upset by Prince, and sat down in it complacently. "Well, Captain Wilkins," he said. "Let us cap our victory with a picnic." A dragoon hustled Prince away to join his fellows, ignoring the man's insults.
Wilkins pulled his belt knife and set about serving some roast pork to his Colonel and himself. A decent meal was always welcome, but the events of the day whirled unpleasantly about his mind.
Now the rebels even had their own holiday. It was an added aggravation that it fell on his birthday, the fourth of July. They were changing everything: the customs of the year, the rules of trade--and life would not be the same.
As he attended to his share of the succulent pork, a last, unwelcome thought occurred to him.
If the rebels won, they would have a new nation: but it would never be his.