I know it's been quite some time since I've published anything on here. Tough times and a busy schedule sapped a lot of my creative energy. This story (or parts of it) have been in the works on my computer in some way, shape, or form, for almost two years now. I've decided it's mostly finished now and high time I share the thing. Nothing like putting something you've worked hard on out into the world. Enjoy.
In the early evening twilight, cicadas sang with the nightingale, the horses stomped impatiently for their evening feed and the wind sighed through the field of head high corn, rattling the stalks and making them dance in swirling patterns. Margaret emerged from tree line slowly; swinging a basket filled with mushrooms, roots and herbs she'd spent most of the day collecting. Her hair hung in a loose braid down her back, the evening sun picking up the red and copper highlights in her wild strawberry blonde hair. She held her other hand out, brushing the thick stalks of corn and counting the ears on each one before eventually losing count. The sky was turning a dusty purple and pale green as she eased into the mud room and placed her basket on the table. She was just tucking her hair up into her mob cap when her stepfather stepped into the doorway leading to the rest of the house.
"Where have you been?"
"In the woods." She answered quietly. Her stepfather had taken her in after her husband had died. There had been no money left to her. What had been arranged as a good marriage had turned out to be empty. She'd grown accustomed to her husband's lack of diligence and the freedom that his lax manner had given her; the emptiness of her married life in all things. Now, under her stepfather's roof, she was monitored at all times.
"All day?" He stepped into the room and looked at the mix of things she'd collected. "What about your chores? The childrens' lessons?"
"Done…all of them. The children are far ahead in their lessons….I gave them the day to finish their own chores."
John Miller grunted as he swiped at dirt clinging to a wild onion root. "Time off. You're worse than your mother when it comes to coddling those children."
A horse shrieked outside and John sighed. "Seems Edward forgot to see them properly settled. I'll go see to it myself." He slowly trudged out the mud room door and left Margaret to enter the house and see that the children were fed their dinners before he got back. Mariah, John's house slave, was bustling around the noisy table, ladling out stew and helping the younger children break their bread.
"Thank Goodness you're home Missus. Mister Miller was right angry, you being still gone and supper hitting the table."
"I'm sorry Mariah." Margaret said as she tied her apron around her waist, "I got caught up along the creek bed. I went farther than I intended to." Mariah shook her head as she leaned over one of the children to help cut a potato down to size. Margaret sat beside the toddler, Elizabeth, and spooned the gravy from the stew up into her little mouth.
"Did you find what you was looking for?" Mariah asked as she rescued Henry's spoon from the floor.
"I did." Margaret said, making faces at Elizabeth to get her to open her mouth. "It took forever to find that spotted jewelweed. Plenty of the pale type here abouts, but the touch-me-not is better for what we want."
Mariah's head snapped up and her eyes shone brightly. "You found some then?"
"I did." Margaret smiled and swiped at Elizabeth's messy face with a rag. "It should be damp enough outside tonight to save what I brought back and we can make up some soap tomorrow for you to bring home to your George."
"Thank the good Lord, Missus. He's been itchin' a storm. Out there all day in those woods clearing that new field. Lord knows what sort of poison he gets all over hisself."
The two women chatted quietly, answering questions from the children and listening as Edward told of his adventures of the day.
"Yes, and what with all that adventuring in the woods, you forgot to put the horses up, didn't you?" Edward looked to Henry, confused. "Don't blame Henry, he's too young to be helping you. You know full well I needed to go up the creek today to look for plants and things and the deal we made for you having the day off and not getting dragged along with me was that you finish all your chores." Margaret stared at the eldest boy her mother had birthed, twelve or thirteen years her junior. "When will you learn that you must do your chores properly?"
"But I did…." Edward was cut off as the back door of the house slammed violently open. Margaret turned quickly to see what the commotion was about. She had grown accustomed to slamming doors in her mother's house; injured people too frantic to care about propriety. She'd also grown accustomed to them in her husband's home when he came home drunk and lost his grasp on the handles, or fell through them. She thought she was prepared for whatever might come crashing through a door.
John Miller falling to the floor in the mud room, blood streaming from a gash in his forehead was not what she was expecting in the least.
The horses must have gotten spooked...
In her head she started cataloging what she would need to treat the injury even as she rose to her feet to go to the man her mother had married. Margaret ignored the terrified screams of her half siblings, focusing on John as he tried to pull himself to his feet. Terror could be dealt with later...all that blood had to be dealt with now.
Margaret's attention was briefly pulled from the bleeding man in the mud room to the front door as it was violently kicked open. She paused, long enough to look at the man stepping into the house. He was very much alive, bathed in shifting firelight from what she assumed were torches outside. He did not appear to be injured and so her decision was made before she could think about it. She made to move towards John, to help him, when the man at the front door lowered his horse pistol in her direction and drew the hammer back.
"Leave him." Margaret stepped back and raised her hands to the sides, gazing long and hard at the man in the front entryway.
A British Dragoon.
She'd know those uniforms anywhere. She'd seen them in Charlestown whilst she'd lived there, and she'd read about them in the rebel rags that occasionally came through with travelers. To see one molded to the solid frame of a man made her blood run cold. Everyone knew the dragoons were killers. Heartless men who cut down those surrendering and killed enemy wounded.
"All of the inhabitants are asked to gather at the front of the house." The man directed Margaret towards the open door with the muzzle of the pistol.
"Come children. Do as the man says." She said calmly. The children scooted their chairs from the table and stood, their eyes big as the saucers that stayed in the hutch in the corner of the room. The eldest of her half siblings, Mary, grabbed Elizabeth and carried her towards the front of the house. At nine, Mary was slight for her age, Elizabeth at 3 sucked her thumb and stared at the dancing shadows on the wall, thankfully too young to fully understand the danger of the situation. Edward and Henry followed, taking in the uniformed man: his gun, the bear pelt helmet, the saber at his hip, the shine on his fine Hessian boots. John pushed himself to an upright position against the wall, his hands shook as he tried to staunch the blood that slithered down his face. Margaret paused in the doorway, torn between staying close to her brothers and sisters and helping John.
"Go ahead, Margaret. I'll be right with you." Margaret watched as her stepfather used the wall to steady himself and then make his way towards the front door way. She made her way out the door and down the stairs into the evening light.
Men on horses bearing torches surrounded the house. She heard John's heavy tread and then a whispered word as Mariah made it to his side to assist him down the stairs. Margaret went to where the children gathered in the cool of the night, staring at the men before them.
"What is the meaning of this?" Margaret asked, trying to make out the faces behind the blazing torches. "Why are you here, pulling children from their suppers?"
"I'll be asking the questions here." A man with eyes the color of winter ice said as he rode into the circle. "Do you know who we are?"
Margaret glared at the man, his perfect uniform, his bearing. She heard the clipped tones and slight drawl of England in his voice and knew full well who he was.
"You're Royal Dragoons." Edward blurted, a sense of wonder in his voice.
"Very good boy. We have information that you aided the rebels."
"We help everyone who stops on this road." John said, glaring at the man on horseback. "We ask not their creed, or religion or beliefs. Ours teach benevolence and kindness."
"Then you do not deny aiding the rebels?"
"I merely say it is possible we may have helped a rebel though I wouldn't know since I don't question those asking for help." John snapped, his anger rising.
"And yet you questioned us!" The man spat, equally as angry.
"You barged into my home! Disrupted my family!" Elizabeth began to cry loudly, fearing the raised voices, Mary's grip slipping as she struggled to hold the wriggling, upset toddler. Margaret moved forward and took the wailing child up into her arms, bouncing her…trying to coddle her. John modified his tone. "Had you come to our door, I would not have questioned—" The man on horseback leveled his pistol, silencing John with the click of the hammer.
"Sir, do not make me do something I would regret. Your lies are very irritating." John stood to his full five feet and eleven inches of height and raised his chin. "Now, have you horses?"
"Yes." John answered.
"How many?" The tone of the man's voice sent chills racing down Margaret's spine.
"Four sir." John sighed wearily. "They are not war horses though—merely two carriage horses, a plow horse and my wife's hunter." He glanced at Margaret a moment as he said the last.
"No..." Margaret glared at John. The hunter had been her mother's horse.
"The hunter would be the only one of use to you."
"I'll decide what is and is not of use to me." The man snapped. "What of weapons in the house? Powder? What do you know of rebel troop movements, anyone supplying them?" The man's questions came so fast that John could not answer them as they were asked.
"There is of course my hunting rifle, but that is all. I have a very little bit of powder left for it." The man on horseback nodded to one of the men standing on the porch. Margaret heard crashing inside as the man went looking for the rifle and powder.
"If you but ask, we can retrieve the rifle for you." Margaret said coldly, watching the man on horseback. Her low voice barely carried in the humid night air and the man ignored her. She looked at Elizabeth who whined pitiably. Her evening routine had been disrupted, it was long past time for the toddler to have been put to bed. "Probably crashing through like a bull in there." She blew air across the little girl's cheek, trying to get her to smile, to get the child to ignore the loud noises coming from inside the house.
"And the rest?" The man asked as something inside shattered.
"I don't know anything of the rebels. As I told you, I don't ask questions of those at my door."
"How convenient for you." The dragoon sneered. The man's eyes seemed to glow in the torchlight, his teeth bared in frustration. John did not flinch. The man who had gone inside for the rifle came out with the weapon in hand, as well as the horn of powder that had been hanging next to it on the hook in the mud room.
"Could you perhaps act as a scout for us?" Another of the men asked from the ring of horses beyond the blue eyed man. His voice was calmer than any other she'd heard so far, almost weary sounding.
"I know only what I need to for my farm and for trading." John answered. The man with the pistol looked over to where Margaret stood behind the children. She stood her ground even as her siblings stepped back around her, Henry grasped her skirts and Mary looked down quickly. Only Edward and Margaret maintained their watch on the dragoon with the pistol.
"You! Boy!" Edward snapped to attention, his eyes wide with fear as the man edged his horse closer to where they stood. The big hooves clomped down in the dust of the yard, sounding for all the world like a slow heart beat. "What do you know of the land? A boy like you must have an adventuresome spirit."
"I…I….I…." Edward stammered. "I…"
"I'm not permitted to wander!" Edward finally blurted before he turned and skirted his siblings to stand behind Margaret, hiding his face in her skirt. Low laughter sounded from different places in the fiery circle surrounding them. Blue eyes narrowed dangerously again, but Margaret's patience had snapped.
"Enough!" She said, setting Elizabeth down beside Mary and stepping out in front of the children. "He's a boy—barely eight years old. What right have you to pull him from table and scare him half to death?"
"Margaret…" John muttered behind her but he had ignored her, she felt turn about was fair play.
"We are citizen's of the King. We paid our taxes, we go to the church, we do our Christian duty…why are you here?" Margaret found herself dangerously close to the man on horseback, staring up into the icy blue eyes, oddly cold against the fiery red jacket.
"You should learn to hold your tongue." He said as he leaned low over his horses neck, the better to whisper to her. "I'm not completely beyond shooting a woman." The man turned his horse away from her and moved past her. Margaret was certain of it now…she'd just stared down William Tavington. Her ears rang and her vision blurred for a moment as her breath stilled, so great was her fear.
What had she been thinking? Going toe to toe with the man called The Butcher?
"Well sir, since you are of no use to me in the field, I feel I have no choice but to make an example of you." With the pistol pointed squarely at John Miller's chest, Tavington issued his sentence. "You aided rebels, a treasonous act and for that, you mus—"
"No!" Margaret turned and stepped forward again, slowly walking towards where Tavington pointed the gun at her stepfather.
"You should learn to control your wife, sir. She is most irritating."
"She's my step-daughter, not my wife." John glared at Margaret. "What are you doing? Get back to your brothers and sisters…" He waved her away but she continued forward until she stood at Tavington's stirrup.
"You say you want someone to be useful to you…someone who knows the land and the area?"
"And you're willing to give this person up?" Tavington took his eyes off John and glanced down at Margaret. She resisted the urge to shiver.
"Margaret, no!" Mariah stepped forward and grasped Margaret's hand.
"Take me." Margaret glared up into the icy eyes and shook Mariah's hand off. "I know the land all around for quite some distance. I know the swamps and the creeks and the farms. I can draw you maps of it…or I can cook or sew. I know the herbs and flowers…."
"Silence Margaret!" John snapped. The children pleaded with her not to talk anymore, adding their choruses of "No Margaret!" to the night noises of the Carolina farm.
"And I can make some repairs to some tack if need be!" Margaret continued, ignoring her stepfather's words, desperation urging her to speak louder and faster, the better to be heard over the others. Tavington looked her over but he said nothing. "Promise not to harm my step father, or his children. Leave this house and the fields alone and I will go with you. Then you'll have someone of use to you and you'll have no reason to make an example of this man or his family." Margaret straightened her shoulders and locked her eyes on Tavington's. "Promise me that and I will go with you."
"What do you know of this area?" Tavington sneered. "How would a woman know more about the land than her stepfather?" He obviously didn't believe their relationship.
"Her mother, my wife, was a mid-wife." John looked down to the dust at his feet. "She took the girl with her for years. Showed her where the game trails were and how to get to the settlers."
"And where is this paragon of femininity?" Tavington glanced at the house, as if he could see through the walls and discern whether or not someone else was inside.
"Buried in the ground beneath yonder great oak." Margaret answered with a toss of her head. Tavington brought his eyes back to her, gazing down at the plain spoken woman before him.
"And you'll give yourself as a scout to the Dragoons?"
"In return for your promise not to harm…"
"Yes, yes…." Tavington waved the pistol through the air as if brushing her comments away. "Very well." Tavington turned his horse and signaled to the man with the calm voice. "Wilkins, you'll take her up behind your mount. Borden, collect their horses for the dragoons." Tavington turned and glared at her. "Madam, I do hope you know what you've gotten yourself in to."
"Might I fetch up some things—before we leave?"
"You have one minute."
"That's hardly enough time. Ten minutes."
"This is not an auction. You will do as you are told in the time allotted to you." Margaret stood her ground a moment more, not taking her eyes from Tavington.
"Five minutes." Tavington blinked and then reached into his waistcoat to pull a watch from it.
"Your time is running out." Margaret nodded and turned to go inside. Her mind was spinning at an alarming rate.
What on Earth possessed me to argue with The Butcher?
Why did I volunteer to go with him?
What have I gotten myself in to?
What should I take with me?
She walked slowly back to the mudroom and took down some of the salves she'd set aside…things she wasn't sure she'd be able to make in a Dragoon camp on the move. She stuffed them into the medicine bag her mother had often carried, the soft leather smelling strongly of all the herbs it had ever held. She stared at the shelves blankly for a moment, the sound of horses outside finally reached her though.
Quickly! Clear your head. What would you take with you if you were summoned to deal with a birth? Thinking of this, Margaret was able to set aside her spinning thoughts and concentrate. She left all propriety behind, grasped her skirts in hand and raced up the stairs to the room John had set aside for her. She pulled her two clean shifts off their pegs, three extra sets of stockings and then looked down at what she was wearing. She'd put on a dark green petticoat and a light colored short gown over her stays.
"Your minute is almost up!" The shout came from outside. Margaret bit her lip and quickly folded the dark blue petticoat into the medicine bag as well as her extra jumps and a long gown that would go with either blue or green. She grabbed up her extra under petticoat and stepped into it, tying it off quickly and shimmying her skirts down around it. She raced back downstairs, stumbling over her twisted gown and grabbed her gray shawl from the peg beside the door. Hauling the medicine bag up over her shoulder she went to where John was standing with the children, clutching young Elizabeth to him. She pulled Mary and Edward in to a tight hug and brought their heads close to her own.
"If something bad should happen, you must take Henry and Elizabeth and run for the woods as fast as you can and hide. Get to the church as quick as you can and seek help from Reverend Beauchamp. Do you understand?" Margaret spoke in rapid whispered French, hoping against hope the children remembered their lessons.
"Oui." Both of the children whispered. Mary wiped a tear that streamed over her cheek. "Please don't go Margaret." She whispered back in French. "Please don't go..." Margaret kissed her cheek and held her half sister close.
"I have to...to keep you safe, I have to go." Margaret pulled Henry to her quickly kissing the top of his head. Then she turned to John. She rubbed her hand up and down Elizabeth's back trying to comfort her. He opened his other arm to her and quickly embraced her.
"I realize I might not have done you the best….but I've always considered you my own, you know that?"
"Yes I do. I know you did what you could." He set Elizabeth on the ground for a moment and removed his own coat before draping it across Margaret's shoulders. He embraced her again. Pulling her closer than he ever had he whispered in her ear.
"There is a knife in the pocket. Use it if you must—when you must. And Thank You, Margueritte. Thank You." Margaret nodded and stepped away from her family. Never had she heard John Miller utter her name using the French inflection. Since she'd stayed with his family, she'd always been sister Margaret. The gesture meant more to her than his passing over his coat. "Stay safe. Come back to us." John's voice broke as the man named Wilkins reached down and helped her up onto the horse behind him. The Butcher signaled to his men and while some stayed behind, watching the little family, the bulk of the group thundered away from the house, bearing Margaret with them.