Matthew Crow was adrift, his mind wayfaring. Yet his thoughts circled back, time and again, to his hunger, his exhaustion, his duty and its weight. His thoughts would circle back and dwell uneasy for a time, like a traveler taking shelter in the shell of a house once grand, now dark and empty and strange.
So he hoped he did not show his startledness when the German boy rode up and addressed him. He hoped he kept his frame erect and his expression calm when the boy spoke, and when the boy spoke of Captain Fiddler.
“Marauders,” the boy said, “raiders, villains, a horde, a gang.” He used every word in English he knew, in hopes that one would be just the one. “Deacon Shaffner goes, he goes after them, with two others, he goes, but I he sent to find the Captain John Fiddler, called the Rider of the Cross, for to seek out his help.”
The boy was urgent and distracted, the way that boys can be, the way that now struck Matthew as fabulous luxury. He considered the boy and his request. This Shaffner needed Captain Fiddler. Well and good, but the nation needed Captain Fiddler. The light corps, the Army in the South, the Catawba Rangers and their captain needed Captain Fiddler, the captain without command, the scout extraordinary.
Matthew gave the boy his answer. He watched the boy’s expression collapse, and almost lost his resolve. He did not turn to look when the boy reined up his fine horse to let the Catawba Rangers pass, but he could not help himself picturing the boy, muddy and dejected, by the side of the road. He reproached himself. He knew what lay at the base of his motives.
“Captain,” Quick said, and Matthew feared that Quick would reproach him, too. “Reckon I’ll hunt us up something,” was all he said, though, and Matthew nodded as Quick drew his mare Sadie into the woods.
Steady and hard the Catawba Rangers rode, as they had the day before, and the day before that. If they should fail in this, the duty for which their captain had volunteered them, the feint of the light corps would lay exposed and likely fail. If the feint should fail, if Cornwallis should come to know he chased a light corps only, like as not he’d catch General Greene and his Continentals before they could cross the Dan River to safety and re—supply. If he caught them he’d crush them, weakened as they were, and then, for the third time in less than a year, the Continental Army would lose its Southern Department. If the Continentals lost their third army in the South in less than a year, they would lose as well what support, what patriotism, remained. Georgia and the Carolinas would revert to colonies, their Whig leaders hanged. Diehards like Matthew would turn outlaw, flee west into the wilderness, where the Cherokees and Creeks would chop them to pieces and burn what was left on their council fires. The continent would lay open to British advance, for Cornwallis to drive north a river and state at a time — the Dan, James, Rappahannock: Virginia; the Potomac, Patuxent: Maryland; the Susquehanna, the Delaware: Pennsylvania; the Hudson: New York. Clinton from the north, Cornwallis from the south, would corner and crush General Washington, the Continental Army entire, the rebellion, the republic.
Such would be the issue of the Catawba Rangers’ failure, should they flag in their patrolling, and so their captain would not let them flag or falter. Matthew Crow would not let his hot words or all his warring come to nothing but disgrace. At their head he rode, erect and soldierly, leading them on this feint, this trick, this retreat, and he watched them and did not know how much more they could take.
He did not know how much more he could take, and he was a tried veteran, and he exulted in strain. He had not slept in two days. He had eaten little, and nothing warm, in three. Twice they’d paused to rest and kindle fires, and twice an alarm or report had called him, as captain, away from breakfast to duty. Often he could look behind him and see the British vanguard giving chase: just the other side of the last meadow or pasture or corn field, the green—jacketed riders of Tarleton’s British Legion, coming for them. The sight meant the general’s plan was working, and they were not to engage. They were to keep running, leading Cornwallis toward Dix’s Ferry on the upper Dan, while the bulk of the army in the South ran toward Boyd’s and Irwin’s ferries on the lower Dan.
Matthew Crow, late of the Continentals, knew they had to keep running, and did not want to keep running. He knew they could not stand and fight, but he wanted to stand and fight, as they had at the Cowpens.
He wanted to stand and fight, though he understood the general’s design, its brilliance and necessity. This army, depleted as they were, could not face the British without destruction. Yet if they accomplished General Greene’s design, they would be like gods of war, for such an accomplishment would be a miracle. They would have performed, Matthew well knew, a deed as heroic and useful as any in this war, and their names would not be sung for it, not once.
They still retreated. No one sang for retreats.
He heard hooves clatter behind him, and wished he hadn’t spun so fast to look, and hoped that only a few of his Catawba Rangers had seen. Quick rode up to his side, held aloft a gray squirrel by its tail.
“Little meat for the morning, Captain.”
The squirrel was meager, almost an insult to Quick’s hunting and the time he’d been gone. Still, Matthew’s stomach lurched at his glance. He hoped no one but Quick had heard it roar, had seen him flinch.
“Should we get to pause long enough to dress it and cook it,” he said, “put it in a broth to feed the men.”
Matthew frowned as his stomach skipped and gurgled. “And no more hunting. No more riding off from the column.”
“I ain’t gone long,” Quick said.
“Not long may be too long, now,” Matthew said. He hated to deny Quick his hunting, as faithful as he’d been. When Paw Tom sent Matthew from the Charlottetown academy (to which he’d sent none of his own sons) to the New Jersey college (where he’d sent none of his own sons), he’d sent his nephew furnished as a gentleman, and with Quick as his groom. Quick had tended the horses and the hound while he—no, not ‘while,’ Matthew said to himself once, only once: not ‘while,’ but ‘so that’ —so that Matthew could read his Locke and Montesquieu, his Cicero and Hume, and join with the other boys who enflamed themselves with high talk, hot declamations about tyranny and rights of men. They sat in their chambers or in taverns, a coterie of Southern sons bearing the New Jersey winters with cards and brandy, and engaged in the opposite of debate: instead of dialectic’s sharpening, they piled on, all in agreement, and sought to outreach each other’s rhetoric. In the warmer months, they raced their horses.
He’d sent Quick home to Hotspur in the spring of ’75, hiring him out to a teamster heading down the Wagon Road. He’d sent him home after Lexington and Concord, and the second Congress, and after the men of Mecklenburg—Paw Tom proud among them—declared themselves free and self—governing. Matthew said, hotly, that the time for hot talk—or, for hot talk only—was past. His coterie formed themselves into a company, and voted Will Davie their captain; a rankled Crow, lieutenant. They’d ridden, blood high, from Princeton to Massachusetts, just missing Bunker Hill, and presented themselves to General Washington. They’d sat for months in the camp at Cambridge, and a few of them had not fallen ill.
Matthew had left the war that fall, but not for long. He and Davie were reading law under Spruce McKay in Salisbury when the new, free State of North Carolina called for a corps of light horse to offer the Continentals. From Hotspur’s stables Paw Tom had given him a horse to ride, and Quick to ride at his side. Quick had not left his side since.
Matthew had gone to war with a plumed helm on his head, a saber won racing horses in his hand. He’d been there at (for that was how the veterans like to say it, ‘I was there at’ whichever battles they talked of, a formulation that allowed both pride and modesty at once, for it encompassed and implied ‘I was there, and somehow managed to survive the pestilence of camp life, and the cannonade that shattered men, and the musket fire that tore them, and the steel that ripped them, and the trampling, and the horror, and the bloodbath, at . . .’) Brandywine, a lieutenant of the North Carolina Light Horse that lacked horses, and fought the battle on foot. He was there at Germantown where they lost the field and left the seat of the Republic open to the British, and were supposed to feel pride in how well they retreated. He was there at Monmouth where the rear guard of a retreating army almost routed them, until General Washington himself rode into the fray and rallied the men and counter—attacked, so that the Continentals could hold the ground, and the British could continue their march as they had before; and this was supposed to be the war for which he’d volunteered, in which he’d dreamed of winning honor if not glory.
Through all that warring Matthew Crow had taken no leave, and had suffered only light wounds that could heal while campaigning. In Morristown that winter, though, he took a cough and then a fever and then he almost died. Matthew Crow survived, but it left him sapped of all vigor and for weeks he could not leave his bunk. Quick stayed at his side throughout, but somehow got word back to Hotspur. Matthew Crow, his sight still blurred by exhaustion, thought sure he was seeing visions when he woke to his cousin Gabriel standing above him. Gabriel was a cockfighter, quick to duel, who’d settle for a brawl if no duel could be provoked, and he’d never liked Matthew much, that Matthew could recall. Gabriel was a dozen or so years older, and so Matthew had never known him but as a grown man.
“Paw says to fetch you home,” Gabriel said, and in the stupor of his illness Matthew feared the long travel, weakened and alone with Gabriel, more than he feared the winter and the sickbed. Then he remembered that Paw Tom had sent for him, and he remembered Tryon’s muster, and he nodded to Gabriel, and tried to sit up.
The Hotspur he came home to was not the home he’d missed and recalled in the long, cold nights, but he came to admit it was the home in which he’d grown to manhood, perhaps even more so now than when he was growing. Paw Tom had dug a ditch, and had heaped the dirt from it into an earthwork. Into the ditch he and Ben Tucker and Pompey had lain gnarled, forking boughs of hickory and chestnut, and tangles of brier and thorn. The house, the yard, the kitchen, the kitchen garden, all were inside this dry moat. Pompey had dug a well and laid rails for a horse pen, both within the defense. Paw Tom and Pompey were at work in the moat’s one break, where the drive came in from the road. They were setting massive posts on either side of the drive, so that someday they could build a gate to swing shut on iron hinges.
“Goddammit, Paw, let Pompey do all that work,” Gabriel had muttered at the sight. “It’s like he don’t care that the neighbors could see him. It’s like he don’t know he got station now.”
They sought to make Hotspur a fortress, impregnable to all but a force larger than any sane commander would send against it. Matthew had realized he was surprised only that Paw Tom had not done so before.
In Hotspur he’d rested, and by March felt fully restored. By April they heard that Charleston lay under siege, and Matthew rode out against the Tories with Gabriel and the Paw Creek Boys. By May Matthew knew he could ride with them no more, and was grateful when Will Davie, colonel now, asked him to raise a company of his own.
The rain began to fall in the night, an hour or two after they’d tied their horses and fallen onto the blankets they’d spread. They would not bother with fires until they stopped at daybreak for breakfast. Now they needed only sleep.
Matthew Crow would not sleep. He was captain. His back against an ash he sat in the utter dark, and thought. Soon he wandered from the narrow track of planning he’d set himself, and then he might have dozed.
If he did, he woke to chuckles. Two of the men (Davey Smith and Billy Tennant, he thought) found funny some whisper they’d passed between them.
“If you need to laugh,” Lieutenant Dale said, “more’n you need sleep, that don’t mean the rest of us do.”
“No, sir,” one (it was Billy Tennant) said. “Davey here just needs to take a piss, and wanted ol’ Quick there to open his eyes and smile so’s he’d have some light to see by.”
More laughter, half—spat, came from a half—dozen directions out of the dark.
“What you say, Quick?” Tennant said to more but lesser laughter, less the guffaws of weary men than the giggles of overtired boys. “What you say to that, huh?”
Quick held still, as if asleep, as if they and their words were no concern of his.
“You ain’t got nothing to say? How ’bout that, Quick got nothing to say.”
Tennant’s fatigue was bettering him. Had Matthew just arrived at this camp he’d have thought him drunk.
“Quick don’t never got nothing to say to such as us.” Tennant’s voice curdled as he spoke. “Every coon I ever saw plum overfull with laughter and song, and this’un can’t even give us a smile. Give us a smile, there, Quick. Smile for us, you black . . .”
“Sure I can,” Quick at Matthew’s side said. “But a shark ain’t got teeth enough, nor a owl got eyes enough, light up a way for the likes of you.”
No one laughed. But for the pitter of steady rain the wintry night was still.
“What’s that you said, boy?” Billy Tennant said. Through the rain Matthew could hear the sound of his rising: the whish of the wet blanket thrown off and his body turning, the rustle of setting his feet and standing. “I sware . . .”
“Tennant,” Dale snapped, just as Matthew barked.
“Private Tennant,” Matthew said, and when he spoke he tried, he knew, without meaning to, to sound like Paw Tom. “Will you master yourself, or must I?”
He knew they would grumble—Billy Tennant, Davey Smith, Ezekiel Branch, maybe more, maybe Dale—in the night, and in the morning, and in the days to come. He knew they had grumbled for days, weeks before, since they’d left the camp at Providence, maybe longer. They’d grumbled at the horse Quick rode, the clothes he wore, the gun he hunted with, the blanket he slept in, the choice words he spoke with. They grumbled at their quality.
He could hear Quick at his right hand breathing, and by the rhythm of that breath knew him to be awake.
“You may sleep now, Quick,” he whispered. “I will not.”
“I’ll stay up long as you will,” Quick whispered in return. “Ain’t you they want to beat.” Matthew would not have thought to watch his mouth and eyes, even if he could have seen them, and so he was touched yet again by Quick’s faithfulness.
Well before dawn Crow roused Lieutenant Dale to rouse the men, the few Catawba Rangers left of the company. Dale went among them, kicking and gruff, still more sergeant than officer. He was lieutenant only since the Cowpens, and no gentleman. He was lieutenant only because Ben Tucker died. Matthew had watched, helpless, the blow that killed his cousin, his foster brother, his fellow orphan taken in by Paw Tom, and had held him as he died. Ben Tucker had died just as the battle had been won, and the loss still sat indigestible in Matthew’s gut, its bitterness still in his throat.
For all his gruffness, the Rangers liked Dale, even respected him, and he had performed well as sergeant. Matthew had promoted him as they had fled from the Cowpens to the Catawba. The Rangers had given him three cheers, hats in the air, and then had whistled and hooted and jeered, smiling and laughing, at the new lieutenant, a rougher and more heartfelt praise, of the sort they would never feel free to give Matthew.
The Catawba Rangers rose and rode for Dix’s Ferry, a baker’s dozen: Smith, Tennant, Ezekiel Branch who now was sergeant, Hugh Morrison, Robert Martin, Martin Wilburn, Jamey Cartwright, Philip Kennedy, Freddy Isenhower, Billy Armstrong, Andy McAfee, Lieutenant Dale, and Matthew himself, along with Quick by his side. These were all who remained. When Matthew, last spring, had sent out the call to form a new company, a hundred answered. No, more: he did not take all. One father and son rode into the Hope Well churchyard where Matthew held his muster, and they wore nought but breechclouts about their waists and thighs, and carried nought but cudgels barely shaped from hickory boughs. The mules they rode were spavined and malnourished, tuckered by the short trot to the mustering ground. Yet the pair took most grievous offense when Matthew sent them away. They brandished their hickory cudgels, and threatened those who laughed, and liked to have threatened Matthew, too, until he rose from his stool and drew his saber won racing horses. He came around the pine table and advanced on the half—naked pair. The father turned before the son, and they kicked their poor mules back down the way they’d come, shouting curses over their shoulders, and all there remembered that Matthew was a Crow, even if not a son of Paw Tom’s, even if the son of the Crow who’d let himself get killed.
He’d ridden away from the churchyard at the head of a hundred. That was in May, nine months before: an apt and bitter measure for such a diminishment. At the head of a hundred, Matthew had tried to mark each name and face. They were, after all, not just his militiamen but his neighbors, fellow settlers in the Catawba valley south of its southward bend, though he had not lived among them, but for a few and scattered days, since his youth. After almost a year of thirty—, sixty—, and ninety—day enlistments and reenlistments; after a summer of fights with Tories, made bold by Charleston’s fall; and after the August ignominy of Camden, when Gates blundered them into Cornwallis at dawn and every militia ran, sweeping a suicidally outraged Matthew with them; and after Cornwallis took Charlottetown in September, driving them and the rest of Davie’s corps back along Trade Street, and out of the courthouse square; and after an autumn of raids, and ambuscades, and laying siege to houses turned to forts, he could look at his Catawba Rangers and know each one of them there. After Cowpens, and the flight back to and across the Catawba, and the sharp, short fight at Cowan’s Ford, and now this race to the Dan, he could look at his Catawba Rangers, and know each one of them not there.
Most not there had not fallen before the enemy. They’d fallen ill or fallen from their horses. They’d fled. They’d gone home the minute their enlistments were up. They’d ridden away from the march or patrol under cover of darkness or confusion, ridden away and gone home, where no one would brand them cowards. Matthew, if dispassionate, knew that they were not cowards, only farmers and tradesmen, husbands and sons, sick of fighting and of the muck and drear of campaign. If dispassionate, he could allow that that may not be a vice.
If passionate, though, he did not know if he could contain his burning outrage, even if he sometimes knew that his outrage had nothing to do with them, with any virtue or character or reputation of theirs’.
By dawn the rain reduced to something less than a drizzle, more than a mist, a middling condition neither water nor air. They rode hard up the road to Dix’s Ferry, their object to put enough miles between them and their pursuers so they could kindle fires and cook a breakfast. Colonel Williams, miles ahead leading the light corps whose rear the Rangers patrolled, had ordered that his men would eat a breakfast every day, a lone meal to fuel their flight. Only Matthew’s own demands on himself would not let him eat.
They rode through a forest of leafless trees, elms and oaks and poplars bare and dormant, the forest clear of underbrush, not long since burned. The world was gray, Matthew’s blue Continental jacket the brightest sight around. When the gray of the sky had turned from charcoal to ash, he led his twelve Catawba Rangers and Quick off the road, and ordered the halt.
They heard the lookout’s shout as the cook fires caught and flared, and spun, weapons drawn, before they processed his words.
“One rider,” McAfee called from his post by the road, “on a mule. Don’t see no arms.”
Matthew kept his saber drawn. Through the trunks he watched a farmer come up bouncing, and told himself not to think it comical, and asked himself, ‘For do you not fight this war for such as him?’ but did not let himself answer.
“I need to see the General,” the countryman hollered. “I got to see the General.” He pulled up the mule and looked at Matthew, blue—jacketed and saber drawn. “You the General?”
“No, but I’m the closest you’ll find for many a mile.”
“I got to see the General. I got news for the General. And I got to see the Lieutenant, too. You the Lieutenant of the Catawba Rangers? You Dale?”
Matthew lost any amusement. “No.” He turned and looked at Lieutenant Dale, and jerked his head toward the countryman.
“It seems this fellow seeks to speak only to those above or below me,” Matthew said.
“You Dale?” the countryman said. “I got a letter for you.” From his breast, from beneath his soaked jacket and dampened shirt, he pulled a folded piece of paper, typeset on the outside. He slapped it into Dale’s palm, and breathed actual relief.
“There,” he said. “Now, where’s the General at?”
“What news do you have for the General?” Matthew asked.
“I got news of the Redcoats’ doings that the General needs to hear, and quick, so where the hell is he?”
“Give me your news, and I’ll relay it.”
The countryman looked at least unsure, and possibly angry. “I don’t know. This here’s pretty big news. What are you that I should . . .”
“I am Matthew Crow, captain of the Catawba Rangers, and if your news is as urgent as you say, you’re wasting time.”
Dale finished reading his letter, mouthing through each word. “Who gave you this?” he demanded of the countryman, brandishing the letter, and Matthew looked at it for the moment it hung before him. The sheet itself was the title page from a King James Bible; the reverse was filled with words scribbled in charcoal. He could not make out any one.
“I walked out last evening to collect more wood for my fire,” the countryman said, “and he comes upon me like a haint. I never saw him, never heard him till he speaks, him nor his horse, neither. A rider all by his lonesome, a hood pulled over his face. Assuming that he had a face.”
Matthew looked at Dale, shocked at this report of Captain Fiddler. Dale looked back at the note, and back at the men behind him, at the cook fires, at the fire by which Quick quartered his squirrel.
“So I tell him I’ll set out to find you before first light, and he just nods and is gone. So I do, I do like I promised, like I promised that dark rider, you best believe. But I ain’t done got to the ferry road before I hear a thundering, and turn this bitch off into a tangle to hide from whatever’s a—coming, and I see what’s got to be the whole Redcoat army come marching by, marching up the Dix’s byway. So I knew right then I had two messages to deliver, and now, by God, I have delivered them.”
He jerked his reins to turn his mule, but Matthew said, “Wait,” and snatched the reins from his hands. He looked about as if for clues or keys while he thought.
“Reckon we ought to take him to Colonel Lee,” Dale said, not asked.
Matthew reckoned, too, that he should, except that he knew he knew what to do. He knew he knew what Lee would, or should, order him to do.
“No,” he said. “We are ordered to patrol, so we will patrol. We will look for ourselves, then report to Colonel Lee.”
He turned to his Rangers. “Eat quick, lads. You heard the man. He says the Redcoats are nearer than we thought.”
“How’d they come upon this road,” Zeke Branch asked, “that’s supposed to be a byway?”
“That’s a good question, Branch, but now a pointless one,” Matthew said. He walked toward Quick and his squirrel, and so did not see Dale look again at the letter.
They wolfed their corn meal, more paste than grits, and sipped the broth heartened with Quick’s squirrel. They drank water from canteens. They offered to share with the countryman, but he said he’d not take food from hungry soldiers, seeing as how his wife would lay out far better fare for him when he got home. The Catawba Rangers finished their hurried breakfast and mounted up, and the countryman began to give directions.
“But you will come with us,” Matthew said.
“I?” He looked from Matthew to Dale and back. “But why should I do such a thing?”
“To show us the spot where you saw the British soldiers.”
“But I can tell you the spot. I was telling you the spot. I . . .”
“It would be a better service for you to show us,” Matthew said.
“But I . . .”
“I do not doubt you when you say they are upon this road. I do doubt that you are exact on the distance. I do not believe the British to be as close as you say, and I do not wish to overpass the spot you describe.”
His voice sounded patient and reasonable, giving the countryman less ground to object than if he’d been abrupt and imperious. He’d learned that much, at least, leading militia.
“I’ll go with you, then,” the countryman said at last, “but I ain’t a—going on this mule. We run into Redcoats, I got to be astride something with a tinker’s chance of getting away.”
“That’s a fair point,” Dale said.
“You have some spare mounts I’m not aware of?” Matthew said to him.
“Give him Quick’s,” Dale said. “Let the farmer swap mounts with Quick.”
Matthew looked at Dale a moment, a beat, a measure. He had heard a strange insistence, almost victorious, in Dale’s suggestion, in his manner of suggesting. He searched Dale for the something he could not see. He realized his men were watching him, waiting his response.
When he turned to Quick he saw that Quick watched him, too. “Captain,” Quick said, “can’t nobody make Sadie mind good, except for me. You know that.”
Matthew almost nodded, before remembering he knew no such thing. Sadie was ever a well—mannered mare.
“Oh, I’m a deft hand at any horse,” the countryman said. “I’d a fine pony that the Tories took two years ago, leaving me only with this here bitch.”
“Captain,” Quick said, not pleading but edging that way.
The Catawba Rangers still left still watched him, every one. Matthew felt their eyes upon him like a wire.
Never mind inheritance, of name and blood and wealth. He was, in truth, superior: smarter and more educated, braver, taller, stronger, fiercer, more tested, more country—loving, better. He would fight any one of them hand—to—hand, even Dale, and give himself odds better than even. For nine months now he had outridden them all, and with his little carbine was more accurate than most others with a rifle. He had not once failed them or faltered.
Why then would they not trust him? Why would they not let him simply lead, having voted him captain of the company he himself had raised? Should not this and all militias be miniatures of the very Republic for which they fought? Was this not why they fought — to clear the field so that men of ability and reason could rise to their natural height?
Matthew had gone to the college furnished like a gentleman, but there had found himself among actual gentlemen, sons of Chesapeake planters and eastern mercantiles. No matter how profitable this Hotspur may have been, they found Matthew rustic and hard, they whose parents had not died at the hands of the Cherokee. This shocked and amused him, having always found himself soft and coddled next to Gabriel or Ben, much less Paw Tom. He learned in a hurry, though, in less than his first week, to turn this to his advantage. He was bigger than most, more sure with a pistol, and could ride with any Virginian. He found that he could bristle and buck, in less than an instant, when any well—born son tried to maneuver him into a sort of lieutenancy, the brawn to this other’s brain, like a well—trained hound to sit at his master’s heels. Three tried that first semester. Their attempts did not end well for them.
Matthew had watched these gentle sons, even as he enjoyed their company, and would often want to say to them, Do you not see, do you truly not see? If our high talk of nature’s laws and natural rights ever becomes more than talk, ever becomes a principle of governance, then we will have blown away—later, or sooner—all notion of gentleness. What will it count for in such a land as this? If God gives kings no right to rule by birth alone, why would he give such rights to gentlemen? What did gentility mean, anyway, in a land where a man could leave indenture and come west with an ax and the clothes on his back, and with work and good fortune prosper, and prosper so well that his sons could learn to read, and then to read Greek and Latin, and never have to lift a finger but to draw checks and keep ledgers? Matthew knew such men and such sons back home, and that was in the iron clay of Carolina. What space, what chance, awaited in the vasty West across the mountains?
Were such sons then gentlemen? Was he, just because his uncle could send him to college, and send him furnished as one? Did he, did they, then inherit any right to lead, as they inherited land and slaves and horses? Their own high talk said that they did not: Did they then have to prove their right, by wiles or might or both, every moment, every day?
He could not help but think then of Tryon’s muster. He had seen then and there the inheritance he most desired of Paw Tom. He sometimes felt that the motive trail of his every thought and deed led back, sooner or later, to that muster, just before the Regulators broke into open war, when Governor Tryon called all the colonial militias from the Catawba and Yadkin valleys together, and bribed them into drunken fools. He was mere Matty Crow then, a boy at his first militia muster. He was an orphan but hardly minded. He’d been only a year old when Indians murdered his parents during the war with the French, so he had no memory of them or of their loss, and Tom and Mary treated him as well as any of their sons. Paw Tom had formed the Paw Creek Boys some years before, not long after he’d claimed and cleared the land between Paw Creek and the Catawba and named it Hotspur. He called them to range against the Cherokee raiders who’d thrown in with the French, and he led them well. By the time of Tryon’s muster the Paw Creek Boys were known to be a formidable force, and Paw Tom Crow to be a serious man, and a man who at the very least sympathized with Regulation.
His Paw Creek Boys stood soldierlike nonetheless, as Governor Tryon spoke to them from horseback at that muster. He spoke of duty and the king’s affection, and he spoke well, and he’d brought proof of George’s regal love: a wagon, covered until his speech was done, loaded to the wales with brandy and rum. All those men mustered in the meadow, all those Carolina men, and all of them broke like children when they pulled the canvas back. They whooped and hollered and ran for the spirits like castaways, gone out of their minds with thirst.
No more than a boy, Matthew Crow still knew that not a one of those men wished their governor well; no one west of the Haw did. The governor did to them, rather than for, much less by. He thought them not citizens, but clients at best; at worst, no more than a palisade between the planters and merchants of the east and the tribes of the west. Just a boy, Matthew Crow still knew that this was and would be how the freedom of men is confined, stripped, and stolen: not at first with steel and lead, but with liquor, with luxury, with the promise of childish ease. No more than a boy, Matthew Crow knew all this as he sat minding Paw Tom’s wagon and mules, listening to Tryon assure “his” backcountry militiamen of friendship, his friendship, the King’s friendship, as well as their kindly regard. Having promised that he and their King wanted and knew what was best for them, he let them loose on the spirits. Then he would exact a promise from them, and on their honor they would have no truck with Regulation.
Hard men of the backwoods, pioneers of the west, men who perforce had seen much of death and the elements of raw life, bitter men who’d cursed the governor and threatened with grievous assault his lace—draped assemblymen and their crony sheriffs, whooped and howled and took his bribe. Militia companies from the valleys — from Mecklenburg, Rowan, Anson and Surry — broke rank and swarmed the governor’s wagons.
Save for two: one from somewhere in Rowan, and the Paw Creek Boys. Still and soldierly stood all the men under Paw Tom’s command, save one fellow who was new to the county and the country around Paw Creek. He took one step. He took that step forward, then noticed that no one else had moved to break ranks, and then the poor dumb pilgrim noticed that his solitary step had been enough to catch Paw Tom’s eye. Tom’s eyes were burning coals as he stared down the fool who’d broken his ranks. The fool looked like he’d have swallowed himself right there, if only he could. He looked like he might forswear hard drink until Judgment, rather than risk such a look from Tom Crow again. He looked like he’d put his hand into a fire, and not even ask for how long, if Paw Tom now so ordered.
That poor fool’s face was in the back of his mind every day of this war, and before. That face was in the back of his mind, like a shadow candle—cast on the cave wall, when he watched his Rangers waver and almost break at the Cowpens, before Ben Tucker died, before Captain Fiddler stood before them and held them fast by the sight of him alone. He did not know how Fiddler had done it, could do it, and since he did not know how, he wished Captain Fiddler were here with him to do it now. He wished Fiddler were here with them this day, this breaking and broken day, amid the bare and gray trees beside the road to Dix’s ferry. Perhaps if Captain Fiddler were here to look back at the faces who looked at him now, waiting for his response to Dale’s suggested swap, then he would see faces like that of the poor fool at Tryon’s muster. He searched his Rangers for a face like that, but found it not, though his eyes, he felt, were fiery, and his visage as fierce as he could manage.
He knew how he must respond. If he did not, their grumblings would turn to desertion if not mutiny. Though Quick was the best horseman among them— no, he thought, just the once and never again: not ‘though’ but ‘because’ —he must have Quick give up his horse for a mule. Though Quick he’d known the longest, and Quick alone he loved almost like a brother, he knew he must put Quick in the gravest danger.
He ordered Quick to make the trade.
He had been confident the countryman was wrong. He’d been confident the countryman had seen only a patrol or picket, not Cornwallis’s vanguard, or that the British were not camped nearly so far forward as the man had claimed.
Then they stumbled into the Redcoats much as Gates had done at Camden. They’d come around a dreary bend, where the road ran through a bottom choked with cane and vine, and seen the British column above and before them, astonished themselves. There’d been a pause, a moment of collection before time itself and the life of each man on that road turned and burst in a clatter of boots and hooves and firelocks. Matthew felt his mind had raced a thousand miles in a hundred directions. Then the countryman had screamed out his fright and fled, off like the shots about to come, plunging Sadie into the very woods, hugging her neck like a lover.
“Go!” Matthew shouted, not ‘Turn About’ or ‘Wheel’ or even ‘Retreat’ but just, “Go!” The column’s first line levelled their muskets; the second and third lines loaded theirs. Behind them, the green—jacketed Legion riders put their spurs to their horses and drew their sabers.
They ran, these last of the Catawba Rangers, back the way they’d come. They had a lead and, Matthew soon realized, better horses. Their horses were fresher, even, for despite the strain of the last few days, they had not had to travel as far as the British. The country to them was not treasonous waste, and they were used to travelling light and rough. The race became not much of one, and soon the Rangers had outpaced immediate danger.
Quick had not. He’d coaxed the countryman’s mule to full gallop, helped by the clamor and the panic in the air, but she still was just a mule and could not keep the lead. On a long straight stretch Matthew looked and saw the Legion riders about to overtake his Quick. He thought to wheel about and charge right then, but thought better. He called to Dale and to Branch and Martin as they entered a turn in the road. They stopped and he told them his plan. Zeke Branch rode ahead to share it with the rest of the Rangers, while Matthew and Dale and Bob Martin rode into the woods, into hiding. If Quick only could make it this far, they would ambush their pursuers and effect his rescue. The rest of the Rangers would turn about and join them, smash the Legion riders, take their horses, and run to Lee and Williams and the rest of the light corps. Quick only had to reach the bend. Matthew drew his saber won at races, watched and listened.
At first he thought Quick was calling to, for, him.
“I am with you!” Quick cried out. “Do not strike, for I am serving you!” Then, with the horsemen almost upon him, “God save the King! God save King George! Ask Captain Beauchamp! Where’s Captain Beauchamp?”
Reckless, pierced, Matthew urged Blueskin forward through the trees to their edge, saw and heard. A Legion rider struck Quick hard with the flat of his sword. He and another stopped, circled Quick on the countryman’s mule, while the rest charged on after the Rangers.
“Dead, you cur,” the Legion rider said. “Dead some miles behind us, with five other good men.” He struck Quick again.
“I’d told him how to find Captain Fiddler,” Quick said, “I helped him find the Rider of the Cross.”
“And find him they did. They fell into your trap.”
“No trap, no trap. I been serving Captain Beauchamp. I been spying for him, sending him intelligence. How come you come to find this byway, you reckon?”
Then the Legion met the Rangers, far ahead on the path, beyond Matthew, and they shuddered at the sound of the clash. When they shuddered Matthew put the spurs to Blueskin and charged them, enraged, put the two Legionnaires to the sword, welcomed the warmth and stain of their blood. Bloody and silent he stared at Quick.
Dale came to him then and said, “Not now, Captain, we must away,” and tied the mule’s leads around Quick’s wrists.
When they caught up to Colonel Lee and his light dragoons, when they at last could pause and rest, Dale showed Matthew the note he’d had from the countryman, the note scrawled across a page from a King James Bible.
“How in hell can I betray you, Matthew?” Quick said when Matthew questioned him. He’d not said his Christian name since they’d gone to war, that Matthew could recall. “I don’t owe you a damn thing. You owe me for a life in captivity.”
Ezekiel Branch struck Quick then and, unthinking, Matthew Crow knocked the white man back.
He reminded Quick he’d always treated him well—dressed him well, fed him well, mounted him on good horses.
“God damn your treat me well. I ain’t your pet to treat well. I’m a man if you are. Or are you just the Crow’s pet, then? He treat you awful well.”
Matthew felt the expectations then of those who’d caught and bound and brought Quick to him. They needed the Captain then to strike, if not to run him through.
In a soft voice he asked Quick why he hadn’t just run away.
“‘Cause I want you all to die! All y’all with all y’all’s talk about liberty and rights. God damn every last one of y’all. God damn and may His judgment come down.”
Lieutenant Dale had long since finished the noose. Unable to wait for the order, he drove his fist into Quick’s groin to double him over, so that Quick’s head would be lower than his own. He jerked the loop over the crown and onto Quick’s throat. He threw the rope over an ash bough and the other guards grabbed the loose end. They pulled until Quick stood erect and then they pulled until Quick stood swaybacked, twisting and leaning as if a reed in a current, only his toes still touching the ground.
“You were like a brother to me,” Matthew said.
Jubilant, hideous, murderous, Quick smiled.
“If I was your brother, you couldn’t buy nor sell me,” he said, gasping, glad to fight for the breath of each word. “You, at least, couldn’t.”
For a moment Matthew searched Quick’s eyes for answer, for clues to what he meant. For a moment Matthew wanted him to explain. Then the moment collapsed, gave way, and Matthew only hung his head, swallowed hard, and closed his eyes. He hoped his men could not see his legs quiver. He looked at Dale and said, “He’s yours,” as he turned away, and as he turned away, he heard the sound of Dale’s knife scraping out of its sheath.