Sunday, 8 January 2012
Harold Titus: 'Crossing the River'
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Working assiduously during the early morning hours and frenetically the final half hour, Colonel Barrett, his wife, his children, and his laborers had finished hiding about the farm the military stores that Barrett had stockpiled the past six months. Having left his property for the second time, a detachment of regulars a quarter mile away, taking the Barrett Mill road back to Punkatasset Hill, Colonel Barrett had surmised that the searchers, exercising diligence, would uncover a portion of what he and his family had concealed. Supposing that discovery, he expected reprisal.
Yet he had insisted that his wife and children remain at the farm. Their profession of innocence was a necessary part of the obfuscation. Abandonment acknowledged guilt. It countenanced defeat. It invited looting.
A satisfactory outcome would depend on the inefficiency of those soldiers ordered to search or the benign character of the commanding officer should a portion of the contraband be discovered, implausible outcomes, which with the regulars in his town and militiamen eager to fight he had no time to contemplate.
Early that morning her husband had supervised the burial of cannon wheels underneath a bed of sage. In the garret she and her children had placed feathers in open barrels containing balls, flints, and cartridges. With the redcoat soldiers almost within sight, a furrow had been plowed, cannon barrels and muskets placed in the furrow, and a second furrow plowed to cover them. When the soldiers entered the farm yard, Meliscent Barrett was sufficiently composed to watch them search. Seated in her grandmother’s wooden rocker, placed in the sparse shade of a red maple, she scowled at the soldiers’ use of her well.
“D’y’ave spirits, ma’am?” a ruddy-faced sergeant asked, having separated himself from scores of regulars crowding about the well bucket and windlass.
“I do. It is kept for the pleasure of the gentlemen. It is not kept for the likes of you.”
From her servants, children, and most all people of common birth Meliscent Barrett, the Colonel’s second wife, demanded absolute obedience.
The sergeant’s cheeks reddened. “’Ere now. Y’ don’t belong t’be talkin’ t’me like that! I be takin’ it whether or no I be ‘avin’ yer say so!”
“My husband’s liquor is privileged property. I will speak plainly so that you may understand. Not one poxy-faced, dirt-groveling, biscuit weevil knave of the King’s hounds shall taste it!”
“God rot yer eyes, y’ bloody old whore!” Poised to strike her, pulling his hand back, he shouted a one-word expletive. Two seconds later he was striding toward her back door.
“Mrs. Barrett, I believe?” a stocky, square-headed officer asked, having halted the sergeant with a proceed-if-you-dare scowl.
“I am Captain Lawrence Parsons, commanding officer of this detachment.” He gestured broadly. “Be advised that our purpose here is not to plunder. This soldier’s behavior notwithstanding, be certain that your private property is entirely safe.”
“How then, Captain, do you characterize that?!” She jabbed her right forefinger at the soldiers entering and exiting her barn.
“Munitions stored in defiance of the Crown, madam, are treasonous contraband, quite the exception. As for what has just transpired, as for that, you, sergeant,” -- He pointed his riding crop at the stiff-backed soldier -- “neither you nor any man under my direction shall avail himself of spirits!”
“No sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Be mindful, sergeant, of your duty, which you abrogated at Lexington.”
“Your men must obey orders, sergeant. Orders you must obey absolutely! Is that not so?!”
“Aye, sir. I d’catch yer meanin’.”
“Very well. Process beforehand what you are about to say. Process similarly your employment. I shall be keeping my eye on you. Carry on!”
A half minute passed. Hearing the sound of Parsons’ riding crop flicked against his right calf, Meliscent watched what she could of the activity inside her barn. A thin, dark haired young officer, his eyes taking note of her for the briefest of moments, approached. Authoritatively, Parsons departed. Meeting a short distance away, they conversed.
The Captain nodded once, glanced at her, averted his face. She heard him say, “Have them make a pile. Upon my command, burn it.”
They had found the gun carriages, which her laborers had hastily buried under the hay.
Captain Parsons returned. Hands clasped behind his back, he gazed at her. “My soldiers are hungry,” he said, blandly. “They will pay, with coin, what you will provide. They will be kept here in the yard, well regulated. The provisions will be conveyed to them by your servants.”
Meliscent snorted. Parsons’ eyebrows arched.
Jabbing her elbows against the backrest of her rocker, she scowled. “We are commanded to feed our enemies.” Her hands worked combatively. “You cannot buy good will. I will not accept your coin!”
Parsons stiffened. Anger colored his face. “A curious decision,” he responded. “Imprudent. Obstinacy thrown in the face of courtesy. Madam, you invite resentment!”
Her eyes castigated him. From his coat pocket Parsons withdrew a shilling. Scowling, he tossed it onto the lap of her frock. A second officer, freckle-faced, exhibiting a swagger, added his own. Two nearby soldiers, observers, now approached. Parsons’ angry eyes taunted her.
“This,” she exclaimed, “is the price of blood!”
Pivoting, Captain Parsons strode toward the three carriages now parked outside the barn. “Burn them!” he shouted. “Burn the whole bloody batch!”
“No!” She rose. “God be my witness, no!”
Refusing to turn about, he said, “I shall no longer accommodate you!”
“Burn the carriages if you must.” Raising the hemline of her dress, she hurried to him. “Do not burn the barn!”
Advancing his chin, Parsons said, “The flames won’t ignite your barn.”
“If you’re mistaken?!”
“I’m not mistaken!”
“Realize, if my barn burns, you’re not destroying contraband! You are destroying what you declared to me you would protect! Move the carriages farther away, Captain Parsons! Use a scintilla of common sense!”
Mounds of hay were being heaped underneath the carriages. Parsons signaled the sergeant in charge to strike a spark.
The soldiers in the yard had watched the confrontation. At least half of them witnessed the pell-mell dash of a farm laborer through the barn’s opened doorway. Hurling his upper body against the ribs of the sergeant, the laborer sent the man sprawling. The laborer bounded to his feet. Four soldiers immediately wrestled him down. The ruddy-faced sergeant who had demanded spirits, suddenly amongst them, raised his musket stock.
“Bring him to me!” Parsons shouted.
Grunting, cursing, the soldiers yanked the laborer, a husky lad, across the yard.
Having closed half the separating distance, Parsons pressed the end of his crop against the boy’s chest. “You, pile of midden! You have assaulted a soldier of the King!”
“T’hell with that.”
Parsons rose upon the balls of his feet. “You! Scab! You shall not say that! I wilI have you transported to London in chains! Your name!”
His arms pinned by two burly soldiers, the boy spat at Parsons’ boots.
Face raging, Parsons whipped his right calf. “You! Whore son! Bleeding sodomite! You will pay for your insolence! Your name!”
Meliscent thrusted her body between them. Her left shoulder struck Parsons’ chest. Flailing her arms, she widened the narrow space. “Enough!” she demanded.
“No, Madam!” he stammered. “It is, … not enough!” His suffused face contorted. “Step aside! This man has committed treason!”
“He is not a man!” she answered. “Look, for God’s sake! Look! He is a boy!” She inhaled deeply. Tightening herself, she exclaimed, “He is my boy! My son! What would you expect?!”
Gray particles obstructed her vision. Her shoulders quivered. Lord, strengthen me! she mouthed. She met Parsons’ fierce scowl.
“Whether he is your son or not,” Parsons said, enunciating each word, “he has attacked soldiers of the Crown, in the performance of their duty. He shall be punished!”
“For defending his parents’ barn, Captain Parsons! Private property!”
“A matter of contention, Mrs. Barrett. A mother’s desperate defense!”
His entire being threatened her.
She saw what her intransigence had wrought.
“For everybody’s sake, Captain,” she said, exhibiting sudden dignity, “you should remove the carriages to a safer place, then ignite them. We will not resist you.”
Prepared to speak, he blinked. “Be assured of that!”
She persisted. “Had your soldiers already done so, this would not have happened. Nor would my son have acted as such had my words to you been dispassionate.”
Parsons’ mouth closed. Eyes cloaked, he lowered his left hand. The tip of his riding crop touched his right boot. Sensing that her refined, gentler voice had tempered him, she looked at her hands. Her anger had incited his wrath more, she judged, than had her son’s foolish battery.
“We disagree about my son’s intention,” she said, risking what she had gained to attain all. “We will not argue about that. But, Captain Parsons, he is but a lad, thirteen. Alas, influenced by his mother’s rash temper. He is not the master of the house. Please do not punish him as if he were. I ask you to be amenable, sir, charitable.”
Her son, James Jr., wisely submissive, stared at his shoes.
About the Author:
Born in New York, I moved with my family to Pasadena, California, from Donelson, Tennessee, at the age of seven and lived there until I was drafted into the army in 1958, having graduated from UCLA with a bachelor's degree in history and a year later having obtained a general secondary teaching credential. I taught English and American history to eighth grade students in Orinda, California, and coached many of the school's sports teams until I retired in 1991. "Crossing the River" is the culmination of 17 years of parttime research, writing, and editing, family responsibilities and other activities permitting. I value introspective, empathetic characters who are unwilling to accept exploitation and injustice.