"Am I made of more than words and good intentions, Benjamin?"
Tallmadge looked at Nathan as though he had suddenly nominated William Howe for leadership of the Rangers. "You? Pythias? You're made of better stuff than me." He paused, searching for the right words to describe how utterly stupid his old friend suddenly sounded. "When God made you," he started, "He put in more than a pinch of compassion – something I may not envy, but I certainly admire."
Nathan said nothing for a moment and simply sat there on the grassy mound, looking out over the camp. Finally, in a voice so small Tallmadge had to strain to hear it, he asked, "But am I brave, Ben?"
Tallmadge stared up at the night sky and put his arm around his countryman and former classmate. "I guess you'll find out," he said.
"Yes," said Nathan. "But therein lies the problem, doesn't it?"
Tallmadge chuckled slightly. "Problem, Pythias? What are you talking about?"
Nathan looked at Tallmadge, and for the first time since they had made the hilltop Benjamin truly saw his friend. Instead of the good-hearted teacher, Tallmadge saw a man who looked for all the world as though every good and decent belief had been ripped from him, rearranged, and then shoved back inside with no thought given to their previous arrangement. It was almost enough to make Tallmadge fall back and clutch his heart, and indeed, were it not for the fact that he was talking to a man clearly in need of help, he would have done. The joke he had been about to make about there being no problems in war died on his lips and was instead replaced with a meek, "Pythias….Nathan….what's happened?"
Nathan struggled with something deep inside, uncertain how much his friend already knew about whatever was bothering him. Finally he asked, "Why are you here, Damon? Tell the truth."
As if there was a choice with this one, thought Tallmadge. Aloud, he said, "What do you know of the action in New York?"
"Pretend I know nothing."
Disturbed by his friend's response but choosing to ignore it for the moment, Tallmadge said, "General Washington is worried that the British will be readying to invade New York and possibly set it up as a new base of operations. He's sent me down here to recuit and brief whatever poor soul will be forced into the lion's mouth."
Nathan searched Tallmadge's face as though he knew more was forthcoming. "And?" he said.
Tallmadge simply shrugged and said. "That's all."
Tallmadge dropped his mouth in mock offense and stood up, adopting the pose of a man deeply wounded. "Why sir, I'll have you know that I've beaten men to death with a feather for less of an insult, and were we in proper outfits I might consider challenging you to a duel for such a remark!"
Despite himself, Nathan smiled. "Yes, I'm sure you would."
Also smiling, Tallmadge resumed his seat. "Besides, I don't lie. That truly is all I can say….to someone who doesn't need to know the exact details of the mission in question."
"And if that someone were present…" Nathan began.
Something in Nathan's voice caused Tallmadge to look again at his friend. What he saw pleased him even less than his earlier examination. "Say it's not true."
Now it was Nathan's turn to be evasive. "Say what isn't true, good sir?"
Abandoining all pretense, Tallmadge found himself right in Nathan's face. "Nathan, all this talk of courage and what you're made of….please, tell me I'm wrong. Tell me that you couldn't be so stupid as to…" Tallmadge trailed off, then shook his head. "What am I saying? Of course you could."
Nathan stared at Tallmadge briefly and reached for his shoulder. "Damon…"
"NO!" shouted Tallmadge suddenly, reacting so quickly that it was all Nathan could do to keep from falling backward down the hill. For his part, Tallmadge leaned against a nearby tree trying to neither faint nor be reunited with what little he'd had for supper. When he'd recovered enough, he looked again at Nathan and could say only, "Why? God, Nathan….you're a good man, a teacher. You don't need to go searching for fame or glory or anything like that. No one actually expects you to do great things, unlike Knowlton or that blowhard Captain Hamilton. Even that apple farmer Warren was willing to abandon his commision and just settle for having his girl back, from what you've told me, and he's a farmer! Nice work, of course, but again, no expectations. So please, in the name of God, tell me what could have posessed you to make this decision?"
Nathan stared at his friend as if he'd never seen him before. "You know," he said slowly, "in all the years I've known you I don't think I ever once heard you speak so passionately."
"Well in all the years you've known me I never had something so close to my heart be threatened so greatly," retorted Tallmadge.
Nathan acknowledged this with a shy nod of his head. "Damon…" he started again. When it became clear that he would be allowed to continue, he went on. "You're right, of course. No one here is asking me to do anything. There's dozens, if not hundreds, of good men here who will no doubt fight and survive and then go back to work the land and be forgotten in the mists of time and memory, whatever they might do on the battlefield tomorrow, or the next day, or next week, or next year, even. Their families might talk of their exploits in ways that will make them legends among kin, but as for the rest of the country?" Nathan shook his head, and then continued speaking. "I need more than that, though. Not to prove myself – pride is a sin, after all – but to know that I mattered to someone or something in this conflict, if only for a few moments."
"You do matter, though, Nathan," said Tallmadge. "To me, to your family…why can't that be enough?"
Nathan stared at the night sky for a time, composing his thoughts in that careful way of his. "A few weeks ago, Major Warren rescued his Miss Whalley from General Howe's ship. She was disoriented and didn't remember much, and what she did remember…" He waved off the thought, not wanting to get into the details of Miss Whalley's belief that everything that was happening was some sort of dream. "In any event, I found myself saddled with the unenviable duty of escorting her back to her parents home in Boston…a task that she managed to make incredibly complicated."
Despite the seriousness of their talk, Tallmadge grinned. "You don't say…"
Nathan rolled his eyes and then continued as if Tallmadge hadn't spoken. "At the time, I was angry as a hornet, for several reasons – the most prominent being that I had finally enlisted after your rather inspirational letter and had now found myself acting as a glorified escort service. Now that the opportunity to do something of value – true value – finally presents itself…." Nathan looked deep into Tallmadge's eyes, and in addition to the fear and resentment, Tallmadge saw that they were not just the eyes of a good man anymore – they were the eyes of a good soldier.
Neither man spoke for what felt like an hour. At last, Tallmadge said, "You're certain I can't change your mind?"
"Yes," said Nathan.
"And if I were to threaten to resign if you carry on with this absurdity…"
"I would take that feather and beat you with it before telling the general myself."
Tallmadge smiled. "Well, you've still got spirits, if not intelligence. You'll likely need those." The two men rose and began the long walk back to camp. "Come on," he said. "I'll brief you on the way, and once the General is done meeting with Knowlton and the other senior officers, we'll report to him."
Nathan nodded and followed along behind Tallmadge. "I understand," he said solemnly, his thoughts split between what he had agreed to do and an old cabin deep in Coventry, Connecticut. As they walked, Tallmadge spoke up beside him, "You know, if you change your mind in the next five minutes, I could volunteer Primus to go in your place."
"Damon…" said Nathan warily.
"I know, I know…."
Author's Note – The letter Nathan refers to was a note he got from Tallmadge in July of 1775 that many historians feel inspired him to sign up. The most telling line from the letter is widely felt to have been, "Was I in your condition..I think the more extensive Service would be my choice. Our holy Religion, the honour of our God, a glorious country, & a happy constitution is what we have to defend." It was only several days later that our boy accepted a commision as first lieutenant in the 7th Connecticut Regime under Colonel Charles Webb of Stamford, Connecticut.