The Tale of the Ribbons

Two months later, in mid-January, Capt. Monroe called Stephen to his quarters. They were in port again, having been out to sea only once for a short jaunt, but to no avail. No prizes, no action, and they then had to return for supplies and water. The same day they tied up, a gentleman from town brought them a letter from General Greene in South Carolina, which had been brought to him by a messenger with a lathered horse. General Greene had just replaced Gen. Gates, after the latter’s disastrous encounter with Cornwallis at Camden. The messenger from Green could not wait, but had urged that the letter be delivered to Capt. Monroe as soon as he arrived in port. And this, two days later, was exactly what had happened. Capt. Monroe had a day to think about, and when he summoned his brother to him, Stephen thought his brother even more serious than usual, and he was usually a serious man.


“Stephen, I am going to ask you to deliver these to Gen. Greene’s army,” Capt. Monroe said, handing two sealed parchments over to him. “The first is for the general. The second is for your brother.”


“”Robert?”


Capt. Monroe smiled. “We don’t have any others. Robert is still with the Maryland Line under Gen. Morgan, and they have come south for this campaign. And the campaign here in Caroline is turning out to be far more important than anyone thought it would be—even Gen. Washington.”


“What do you mean?”


“The war is not going well up north. Clinton holds New York, and General Washington doesn’t have the forces to take it, and there is nothing else he can do. So he is frustrated, and Gen. Clinton thinks he has found the key to the war. Hold the ports, and launch devastating raids from there. Now that Lord Cornwallis has Savannah and Charleston, he was supposed to just sit there. Clinton wanted a war of attrition—where we cannot get at their forces, and they refuse to meet us in main battle. Cornwallis has done some of what he was told. He has turned loose some of their fiercest fighters. Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton and Major Pembroke-Smythe are both of them—when they are on their raids—damnation in riding boots. The war here in the south has been a very dirty war, in both directions.” Capt. Monroe didn’t say anything, but they both knew that Lt. Morris’ attempts to hang the Tories was a good example of that.


Stephen nodded, although he didn’t need to. And his brother added, “If you are going to become your enemies in the way you fight them, then why not just go over to them at once? Sir, it would save a lot of people a lot of trouble that way.”


“You said that Cornwallis did some of what Gen. Clinton told him.”


“Yes, and it is the first good news I have heard in many months. Our Lord Cornwallis is not following his orders. Cornwallis doesn’t want to hole Virginia up, and starve us patriots out, but rather wants to take it by main force. So his army is on the move north. Gen. Greene wants me to sail north and get word to Gen. Washington, and have him come south to Virginia. And if we can, to get word to the French fleet about Cornwallis’ direction.”


“What do you want me to do?”


“I want you to deliver this to Gen. Greene, telling him that I have the message, and that he may consider it done. And while you are there, please greet your brother for the two of us. He is a lieutenant now, I believe, and letters from father tell me that he is one of Gen. Morgan’s most trusted aides. When your mission is done, you may return here and wait for us.”


The next morning the Susquehanna set sail, and Stephen sat on his horse on the ridge above the harbor, rejoicing and bittersweet unhappy, as he watched her go. He was going to see Robert, and yet his ship was sailing without him. But rather than moping about it, he pulled hard on the reins, spurred the horse, and was off down the road. His pouch was filled—with ash cake, apple leather, and hard biscuits—and he had a brace of pistols in his belt. Over his shoulder was a baldric for his sword, and he had the two letters in a secret compartment in the bottom of his pouch. If he encountered the redcoats and they found the messages, he might swing for it, and so he resolved to fight in such a way that he would not find out if he would swing for it. It was a bright January morning, biting, but not miserable cold. He thought that as the day advanced, he would warm up considerably. He had a week of riding before him, if the riding went well, and so he set himself to it.


Three days later, he got information on where Greene’s army was from a farmwife of decided patriot views. Her brother and husband were both with Greene, and godspeed, she said. Two days after that, he was surprised by an advance rider for Morgan, looking for the Broad River. “It is about five miles back,” Stephen said. “I just crossed it.” The rider swore under his breath, and wheeled to head back. “May I ride with you,” Stephen quickly asked. “I have a message for one of Morgan’s lieutenants.”


“Suit yourself,” the man said, and they both set off at a canter. After a few miles, Stephen saw commotion up ahead, a large body of men on the move. He stayed right next to the rider, who took them both straight to Morgan, who was meeting with some of his aides as they rode up. The rider saluted, and said, “General, there is no way we can make it across the Broad before Tarleton catches up with us.”


Morgan muttered to himself, and then said aloud. “I don’t want us fighting with our backs to water we can’t ford.” Pondering for a moment, he then said, “Assemble at Cowpens. Get the word to everyone to meet at Cowpens.”


The aides all scattered, including the rider that had brought Stephen into the midst of the army, and Gen. Morgan just looked at him squinting. “And who might you be?” he said. “My name is Stephen Monroe, brother of Robert Monroe. I have a message for him.”


The general chuckled. “Any brother of Robert Monroe is a brother of mine. Can you shoot like he does?” Stephen laughed and shook his head. “More’s the pity.”


Gen. Morgan wheeled in his saddle, and pointed toward the rear of the column. “That’s where your Marylanders are. Deliver your message, and feel free to stay the night with us at Cowpens. We will need every man jack we can get. Even if you can’t shoot as well as your brother, can you shoot in the right direction?”


“Aye. I can do that.”


“Well, you arrived at just the right time for doing it, laddie.” With that, Gen. Morgan spurred his horse, and was off to the head of the column. The word that the decision had been made to defend themselves at Cowpens had gotten around, and the column was moving off to the left now. Stephen shook his head, amazed that he had just been speaking with the great Morgan, one of the heroes of Saratoga, and then began making his way back toward where his brother was. After just a few moments, he recognized him, still a way off, and touched the sides of his horse with his spurs, and they cantered up.


“Lt. Monroe, I believe?” he said.


His brother jumped in the saddle, and then roared, “Well, little Stephen! Well, Stephen’s not so little! Stephen!” They shook hands, and Stephen handed over the letter from William. Robert looked at it curiously, and then put it inside his great coat. “Don’t have time for it now,” he said. “We have to find our place at what the general calls Cowpens. Such an inspiring name. From there, we will move on to an even greater victory over the redcoats at Pig Hutch. Our names will go down in history.”


Stephen laughed, remembering suddenly all the jokes that Robert used to tell at the family dinner table. And then he remembered that while William never told jokes, he always laughed the loudest at them. “Come on,” Robert spoke again. “Destiny awaits.”


Within half an hour, the Maryland line was settled in the place where Morgan ordered them. A long slope fell away before them, and behind them it was not that far to the summit of the hill. To their right were units from Virginia and Georgia under Triplett and Taite, and down the slope before them was a long line of South Carolina militiamen under a man named Pickens. Twilight was approaching and Stephen could see Gen. Morgan riding back and forth giving instructions to the troops. Out in front of Pickens’ men, he had set a line of sharpshooters. The evening was cool and silent, and they could hear Gen. Morgan’s voice coming up the slope toward them. “Look at my back!” he roared. “That’s what the British did to me.” Stephen couldn’t see anything, so he looked at Robert questioningly. “Back in the French/Indian War, Morgan was flogged by the British. Some lieutenant became irritated with him, and struck him with the flat of his sword. Morgan knocked him plain out with a right to the jaw. But he was court-martialed for it, and given 499 lashes. Would have killed anybody else. And his back is a sight to behold. He has no love for the British.”


The general’s voice continued to waft up to them. “Now I want you to wait until Tarleton’s men are fifty paces away. And then I want you to let off two shots, and only two. You Caroline boys are allus bragging you can hit a bitty squirrel at fifty paces. Well, you could fit ten squirrels in Tarleton’s helmet. So, wait til they are fifty paces off, two shots, and then fall back. I don’t want your line to hold. Fall back, you got that?”


After another hour of listening to his orders, cajoling, and frontier boasting for the lines below them, Gen. Morgan finally came riding up their line. When he saw Lt. Monroe, he pulled up and said, “This is how we are going to take them. When our men below fall back, Tarleton is the kind of man who does not know how to retreat. And though he attacks all the time, he doesn’t know how to attack. He will come straight up the hill, and we will fold on him.” Morgan looked up and down the Maryland line. “I told those Caroline boys that you Tidewater men can shoot twice as good as they can. They allowed not, but I want you to aim for the epaulettes. Pick off the epaulettes!”


After speaking to all the men along that line, the general moved off to the Virginians. The night passed slowly. “I don’t think Tarleton will attack until dawn,” Robert said, “and we can sleep right here.”


Then after a moment, he said, “And how did it happen that mother let you take up arms? I thought the decision had been made to wait until your eighteenth year.”


“And so it was,” Stephen said. “I owe my good fortune to the tale of the ribbons.”


“Ribbons?” Robert said.


“Ribbons,” Stephen answered. “The redcoat colonel there in Annapolis is the most perfect coxcomb that ever walked the earth. He loves the parade grounds, and taking tea with the ladies, and walking in a stately manner around St. Anne’s. Even mother thinks him insufferable, and you know how kind mother is. There was a militia to the west that would fight him if he could be bothered, but he couldn’t be bothered, and I wasn’t allowed to go in the militia to go fight anybody else. So one day I was inspired to decorate the horses of his small party while they were having high tea with Lady Westmore.”


“A prank,” Robert said. “A worthy joke, but still a joke. How did that result in you going off to the navy?


“The colonel’s pride was offended, and he vowed that he would put me in stocks or worse.”


“How did he know it was you? Surely you were not fool enough to be seen?”


“Of course not,” Stephen said. “But at the sight of the pink ribbons, the colonel went raging up and down the street, and the shopkeeper where I bought the ribbons (it turns out) was a Tory. She told him that I was the one that bought the ribbons.”


“That was it?”


“Well, no. I had written a note to go with the ribbon on his horse. I didn’t sign it, but once identified as the buyer of the ribbon, my sentiments were assumed to be the same as those found in the note.”


“And those sentiments were . . .?”


“Mortally offensive. I had to hide for weeks until brother William came through and took me off to the navy.”


“What did you say in the note?”


“It was a little poem. I don’t think I should repeat it now. Mother was very embarrassed. Lady Westmore had been a friend of mother’s before the war, and before she married my Lord Pimples for his money and title. I didn’t know that. I said I was sorry, but that didn’t keep me from having to hide in the barn. Mother forgave me, but the colonel thought it was easier to roar about in search of me than to go fight a war.”


Robert bent his head over, until his chin was on his chest, and laughed quietly. As the two brothers talked, the story of what happened with their cousin George and the wounding of Lt. Morris, and the killing of the two sailors came up. Stephen poured out the whole story, grateful for someone else to tell. “And William says I did right. But I still go over it in my mind.”


“Well, I was never the reader that William was. But we see it the same way. And I always did like George. I wonder what made him not willing to thank you. But Aunt Abigail will certainly thank you, politics or no politics.”


“George was angry and frightened, and didn’t want to admit that he was frightened. I hope he thinks better of it.”


“But even though you did right, it is still a strange business and no mistake. In the morning, George himself might come running up this hill, and you and I, if we are minding our duty, will put a bullet into him. But if he asks for quarter, we are both bound to give it. It is like when we were children playing tag, with the same rules, only with musket balls instead of tagging. If anyone says time, we all have to stop. We can blow each other to bits, like good Christians, but we have to do it by the rules.”


“William says this is part of living in Christendom. Lt. Morris says that Christendom is dead.”


“Well,” Robert said, looking at his long gun. “Lt. Morris’s world seems a lot more logical to me. And a lot uglier. If I get in a fight in his world, there are no holds barred, and it might be a lot easier to win. But there is also nothing lovely or noble to fight for. So who cares if you win?” But then Robert looked sideways at Stephen. “But keep in mind that William will inherit all father’s books, and for good reason. He could probably give you some better reasons.”



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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