The Hinge That Turned

Stephen sat on the back of his horse, and tried to make out the figures moving silently around him in the early morning. When it came to preparing for action, Capt. Dunstan’s forces were obviously well-disciplined, although from the stories told last night, they did not appear to be too scrupulous when it came to some of the commandments.


Several horses had been found for the two sailors, and the carriage was hitched up and drawn along behind them. They had decided that they would just bring the carriage along, and tie the horses off just before they made their final approach. They could just come back for the carriage after the battle. Stephen laughed at the sailors next to him. “You look just like two sacks of meal stealing the miller’s horses.” One just sat sullenly, still half asleep, while the other snorted. “Give me a rolling deck and I’ll show you what a sack of meal can do.”


After about fifteen minutes, Stephen heard an order given in the distance, and a column began to form on the road. When they set off briskly, Stephen heard a soldier up ahead say, “We should be there by sunrise.” They were about halfway back in the column, but as the light grew, they could start to make out what was happening at the head whenever the road curved. And just before sunrise, Stephen saw two scouts galloping frantically back toward the head of the column. Capt. Dunstan held up his hand, signaling a stop, and even though no one could possibly hear, everyone in the column was absolutely quiet, acting as though they could hear. Capt. Dunstan leaned forward on his horse, and the two scouts were both gesturing and talking at the same time. Capt. Dunstan suddenly sat straight up again, and turned to signal his troops again. The troop had been two abreast, but now the columns just ahead of Stephen veered to the right and left, and smoothly advanced alongside the front of the column, so that they were four abreast—and Stephen was right near the head of the force on the right side. He looked over and saw Lt. Morris, looking extremely grim, on the left. Capt. Dunstan sat motionless, and when he was satisfied that everyone was in place, he turned again, and set his horse at a canter.


They went this way for about half a mile, and then when they came to the final bend in the road they broke into a gallop. The Tory militia had camped on this side of Carston, and had been lazy about setting out enough pickets. There were only two on the road, and there was nothing for them to do but bolt into the thicket on the side of the road. The rebels galloped past them, and Stephen could see the encampment up ahead, smoke from the campfires curling up into the morning air. There was no sound but the pounding of the hooves on the dirt road, and then suddenly, there was a brief abortive blast from a panicked bugler in the camp. The surprise was almost total. Men were tumbling out of their tents, looking around frantically for their weapons, and there were not enough men ready to form any line of resistance. When the column of horses hit the encampment, the rout was complete, and Tories were scattering everywhere. On the far side of the camp, the rebel horses wheeled, and individual horsemen began pursuing almost at whim. There was very little fighting. Heels and elbows! Stephen thought.


Within a few moments, Stephen had teamed up with Lt. Morris and the sailors again. “I’m glad we got an early start,” Stephen grinned. Lt. Morris nodded curtly, and Stephen wondered if he was upset because there had not been more action. After about a half an hour of hunting down scattered Tories, along with some false alarms, Stephen thought they were done. “I’ll go back and get the carriage,” he volunteered. Lt. Morris arranged to go slowly and they would wait for him just up the road on the far side of Carstan.


Stephen spurred his horse, and trotted happily back to where the carriage was. When he got there, he discovered that the horses had not been tied securely and had wandered off. He was half an hour looking for them, and when he was back on the road he was a little flustered and blown. And leading the carriage without a driver proved to be a little more awkward than he thought it would be. And what with one thing and another, Stephen was about a hour later than he thought he should have been when he came out the other side of the town.


There was a river about a mile past Carston, and the river was at the bottom of a deep ravine—and the road was a torturous set of switchbacks down to the ford, where they were supposed to meet up. When Stephen came to the crest of the ravine, he could look down and see little bits of the road here and there, all the way down to the bottom. And as he started down, he saw his companions waiting for him there, but then took a sudden, second glance. Three figures were advancing out of the woods, hands held high. Oh, no, Stephen thought. Prisoners will sure slow us down. And he spurred his horse down to the right.


With the carriage tangling him up at every turn, it took him about fifteen minutes to get to the bottom. And when he came around the last bend before the ford, he was turned around in the saddle, trying to keep the carriage straight. And when he turned back around to the front, his face went white and he could not speak for a moment.


“What are you doing?” he finally cried.


Lt. Morris turned around calmly, as if he had been interrupted in the middle a quiet conversation. “Why, Stephen, we have been expecting you,” he said. “We are hanging us some Tories.”


There was a tall oak next to the stream with a branch extending back toward the road. Three ropes had been thrown over the branch, and three young men were standing on the ground under the branch with nooses around their necks, hands tied behind their backs. Their shirts were pulled over their heads, but Stephen could tell they were all young men. Two of them were apparently negro servants, and one of the servants was sobbing and muttering under his breath. The other two just stood quietly.


“I am glad you got here in time,” Lt. Morris said.


Stephen rode up to them slowly, while trying to think. “You can’t do this,” he finally said.


“Remember our conversation, Stephen,” Lt. Morris said. “These things are not topics for philosophers to discuss over a game of whist. They have immediate and pressing applications. And what this country needs is fewer Tories.”


“But they . . .” Stephen started, and then stopped. He had been going to say, “But they surrendered,” when he realized that this would reveal that he had seen them from the ridge. And he did not know what he was going to do yet. And saying that would make him decide.


“But what?” Lt. Morris asked.


“I don’t mind fighting redcoats. And I don’t mind killing Tories. I know we need to do that. But this seems like murder.”


“I know it seems that way—if you listen to your superstitions. You would happily have killed any of these bucks two hours ago, and not now? This is a new world being born, Stephen, and we must soon enough be going.”


Stephen knew now that if he mentioned that he had seen the prisoners asking for quarter it would make no difference. He felt as though he had been suddenly thrown off a cliff, and he was flailing around for something to catch on. He knew that he was going to have to choose between Lt. Morris’s revolution and his brother’s. And his father’s. He came to understand years later why he chose the way he did, but at the moment he did not know anything in the world.


He looked at the sailors, standing by the head of the horse that had the first rope tied to it. “Do you agree with the lieutenant?” he asked.


“What does it look like, laddie?”


Stephen was alongside them all now, and thought he was in a position to decide. And so he decided. He had two loaded pistols in this belt, ready for the fight at Carstan that had never happened, and a saber at his left side. With one motion he drew the saber with his right hand and pistol with his left. “Step away from the horses,” he said.


Instead of obeying, all three men lurched for their weapons, and Stephen calmly shot one of the sailors through the neck. He fell to the ground gasping, and within seconds was still. Stephen spurred his horse toward Lt. Morris who was at his saddle, trying to get his saber loose, and he slashed at him, striking him on the left shoulder. Lt. Morris fell, and then staggered to his feet. Stephen pulled his second pistol, turned quickly to see where the other sailor was, and shot him in the chest. Spinning around again, he saw that Lt. Morris had made it to the carriage, and was turning it around to flee up the hill. Torn for a moment between pursuit and untying the prisoners, Stephen decided to stay with the prisoners. He knew that he either had to kill Lt. Morris, or get back to the Susquehanna first. He was at the ford which meant that he should have no problem getting back to his brother with the story first.


He turned to the prisoners, who were standing motionless, afraid to move in any direction. He started with the closest one, the servant who had been sobbing, and taking his knife from his belt, he cut the noose away from his neck. He pulled the shirt down off his face, and was confronted with an odd mixture of waxing gratitude and waning terror. “Thank you,” he said. The second servant was much calmer, and just looked at him, and nodded gratefully.


When he performed the same service for the young white man, he cut the noose away, pulled the shirt down, and then stepped back in astonishment. “George!” he said. “Cousin!” The young man blinked in surprise, started to speak, and then said nothing.


Stephen had stepped back several paces. “Are you George Ingle?” he asked at last, his voice quavering.


“I am your cousin,” George replied haughtily. He had been badly frightened at the prospect of being hanged, and anger over Lt. Morris’ treatment of them was now flooding in to replace the departing fear.


Stephen stooped down, and sat on his heels, feeling sick to his stomach. He had just killed two men, and wounded a third, but the fact that he had almost acquiesced in the hanging of his cousin was what made him ill. After a moment, he got up and walked over to a near-by bush and was sick. When he had recovered himself, he walked back over to the three men who just stood, watching him.


“Will you sign a parole?” Stephen asked.


“Do you expect me to thank you for killing your murderous companions?”


Stephen shook his head. “You may do as you please in that regard.”


“I will sign a parole.”


With that, Stephen stepped around behind them, taking out his knife again. The ropes were tight, and Stephen had some difficulty getting through them without cutting their hands. And with his cousin, unhappily, he did cut him on the right hand. When Stephen was done, he got a piece of paper and a quill pen out of his pack, and brought it to George, who scribbled angrily for a moment and then handed it to him.


“You may feel I am lacking in courtesy for not thanking you. But I do not thank you. Your companions, with whom you were clearly in arms together, promised us quarter, and then undertook to commit foul and treacherous murder. You are not as advanced in their knavery, that is clear enough, but you are in the same wretched cause. If you were to come with us, I could bring myself to thank you.” His conscience was bothering him, his pride was injured, and he was still badly frightened. He was only about five years older than Stephen. The last time they had been together, about ten years earlier, they had spent a delightful afternoon playing in the tobacco fields together.


“I can’t take these horses with me. You may have them.” With that, Stephen turned and pulled the two dead sailors off the road, buried them in leaves, stood over them quietly for a moment, trying to remember the right words from the funeral prayers he had heard as a boy. The three freed men were getting their horses ready, and when Stephen came back and mounted, they were also ready to go. Stephen touched his hat, and his cousin just looked back at him stonily. The two servants behind George both mouthed thank you silently.


When Stephen was on the ridge on the far side of the river, he thought to look at the parole George had signed. Return to your sovereign allegiance, it read. Forsake the company of fools. Stephen tucked in back into his pocket, and laughed out loud. He thought he could make it back to his ship in about five days. And he needed that time to think about how he would tell his brother.


The five days did not really help. When he was finally back in Jamestown, Stephen found various things to do before he went back to the Susquehanna. He spoke with the owner of the now lost carriage, and returned his horse to another planter. He stopped at an inn on the way back to the ship and bought a bowl of stew, which he stirred slowly with his spoon. He had to frame the story in his mind now, and so after he had done so, he finally pushed back his bench and walked miserably toward the harbor.


His brother was in his cabin, working on some papers. Stephen walked up to the door, breathed in deeply several times, and rubbed his palms on his breeches. He had to tell his brother that he had killed two members of his crew, and had wounded his second in command, who was no doubt stirring up trouble somewhere.


When he was invited to enter, he did so, very nervously. Capt. Monroe brightened when he saw him, and rose to his feet. “Did Lady Huntington make it safely to her father?”


“She did,” Stephen answered glumly.


Capt. Monroe stopped, suddenly suspicious. “Why is Lt. Morris not here to report?”


At this, forgetting the naval protocols, Stephen sat down suddenly on a nearby chair, and the story just poured out of him. He was just talking to his brother—and, as he felt later, to his father. Capt. Monroe sat down carefully, and listened gravely.


“And that is what happened to all of us . . . all of it. I don’t know how to say this, but if you need to have me punished, I am ready. I killed two of your men, and I don’t know where Lt. Morris is.”


Stephen stopped, and held his breath. His brother had his fingers pushed together, and although he was serious, he seemed very relieved. “Stephen,” he finally said, “if you had done nothing in that circumstance, that would have called for punishment. I am very proud of you, and hope that any of my men would have done the same in such circumstances. But I don’t know that all of them would have. You are dismissed.”


For those who don’t know, I have written a couple of children’s stories for Veritas Press, Blackthorn Winter and Susan Creek respectively. It appears that it is time to write another one, which is entitled Two Williams, and which I have decided to serialize here. That is one of the reasons I had a continue reading feature added — so that the diversity cops who comb through my blog posts looking for yet one more example of my perfidy (a word that should be used more often) need not tie up their valuable time scrolling down through my fiction for kids, however edifying it might be to them. They are already sacrificing a lot of good day-time television to go through my stuff, and I don’t want to be rude or thoughtless.


Because this book (when complete) will be published by Veritas, I need to reserve the right to pull all the posts once it is in print, or not post the last chapter if it is a cliff-hanger. Anyhow, here it is, such as it is, and I hope your kids enjoy it. The intended audience is twelve-year-old boys, and the sisters who admire them, give or take twenty years. This little explanation will be tagged on to the end of each chapter as it is written and posted.

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