TEARS OF THE FOOT GUARDS
RONDO - STAVE LXI
S T A V E
Where is he, Clinton wondered of Cornwallis. Somewhere in the interior chasing about, cut from his supply line. He doesn’t stay in one place long enough for provisions to reach him, but he starves if he waits in any one spot. He must Chase or they’ll turn and Chase him. How can the Loyalist rally when he’s constantly on the move? He defeats the entire purpose . . . And losing the South – the South I’d won . . . He’s worse than Billy ever was. I would never, never detach a portion of my army out of range of support. Never! Not once, not once did I let his column become isolated at Charleston. He thinks by having these little posts spread far and wide his backside’s protected while he’s off to God-knows-where. The Rebels could not have a better strategy. They can defeat him in detail . . . I think he’s planned it just to spite me.
14th March – Bell’s Mill, North Carolina
Geordie awoke to the creak of a waterwheel. Not that he’d slept hard, he lay on the cold ground with his squad in the same head-to-foot manner as in a tent. Such the Order – they were the King’s Army, and above that, the Guards, and not to drop in a field like cattle.
He shivered. Little good his blanket, with his head on his pack and his neck stiff. He chanced to roll and his bladder awaken. Nothing so exacting than a Cold Morning Piss. Up he shot and hurried between the rows of sleeping grenadiers to the headrace as a waterwheel groaned upstream. Latrines had been dug, but who cared, never enough vittles for a proper Evacuation; he hadn’t shite for a week. Pissing’s all they do – musty, strong and yellow . . . Careful – don’t piss on the Coat, now two sizes big from the weight loss. What a fright, with their three-day beards and uniforms in patches. Crazy-Quilt Soldiers. Though Geordie luckier than some – he still had his shoes; Tim bound his feet with rags.
Two months and a thousand miles, chasing Nathaniel Greene and his Southern Army. Marching and counter-marching. Almost had him three weeks ago, but he slipped across the Dan. In Virginia, he picked up reinforcements, resupplied and came back to be chased again – his army three times the size of Cornwallis’. Lord Charles now hoped they’d come to grips.
“Beat up the American post at Reedy Fork,” Cornwallis had ordered Lt. Col. Webster. Webster engaged with the Guards Light Company leading the attack. Greene ordered his detachment to protect his Continental troops at all cost until his forces could consolidate on ground of his choosing. Thirty or so Rebel dead. The British stole their shoes.
On the bank, shaking off, the outline of the mill and the forest hardly visible, Geordie felt a raindrop. Fuck. Another. Cock. Shite. Fuck – all it ever does down here. Snow ain’t so bad, he now thought – Connecticut Farms up to the knees weren’t so taxing. At least he could retire to a log hut with a smoky fire. So tired now of being wet – a different kind of cold that snakes into your bones and sucks the heat out of you ‘til you want to scream. Up north they could be in barns, but barns here were reserved for the likes of Cornwallis. Not that the Earl didn’t drive himself hard. They all drove hard, these officers, always smiling for the men as if not the least bit troubled. Geordie watched them – O’Hara, Norton, Stewart, Pennington, Capts. Christie and Dunglass . . . Howard, the Gentleman Volunteer – hard campaigners. The Elements didn’t touch them, not ‘round the men. Good to be in their company, as much as private men could be. Howard would nod to Geordie in a clandestine manner whenever in contact with the grenadiers. And at the heart of the nod, Obedience.
Where are you, he called to her. In your room, warm? I’m here pissing in a stream.
He looked back at the rows of sleeping soldiers, and there Bess curled up in the arms of Jack Waddley – their first night together since the camp at Hillsborough. And not just her. How the women had grown, local girls coming on in increasing numbers. Nothing the officers could do. In every little town and hamlet, Love is Instant. In fact, better more women than men deserting. Bess was lucky, having become Col. Pennington’s servant. Had Obedience come, she’d be employed by O’Hara or Howard. Thank God she’s not here. Seems every man has a wench, even Elliot with a big-boned Scots-Irish girl, Jenny Weir, tall as a grenadier with big flat feet use to the clay earth, and a heart-shaped face full of freckles, pretty in her horsey way . . . What she see in him? Big skinning knife in her belt. She brings him things, she and the squad Negro, Maxwell. They sneak out and come back with a hat full of eggs, a sack of meal, a yard of gingham. And Elliot, with a nod, shares it with his squad. She and Elliot fuck beyond the Bounds against a tree with her petticoats up . . .
So good Obedience is not here.
What time is it? Four of the Clock? Cornwallis letting them sleep in. In the distance, the pickets changed out. The sky lightened behind the camp, an overcast morning. He faced where New York might be.
That night in her room, the sex short, a pump and a burst, hardly in her. A perfunctory kiss upon release and she got up to use the chamber pot. He sat on the floor next to her, his cheek against her thigh, and her hand on his shoulder to stroke the scars.
“Would we ever be friends if we weren’t lovers?”
“We’re friends now. Even more – husband and wife.”
“But if we could be nothing more?”
“I think not.”
“Do you say it to be cruel? Am I not worthy to be your friend?”
“Most worthy. But you’re dangerous to me.”
She tapped his neck. “Why is that?”
She tapped him again.
“Did you not?” he asked.
She considered. “I did.”
“You wish to take it back?”
“It’s not something one takes back, but something one can decline to continue.”
“Is it? Like a spigot to close? Have we not love?”
“We have love,” she said.
“It is in Flesh . . . A way of speaking.”
She got up and they stood naked.
“You have to go.”
“It is not a spigot.”
“As you say.”
She grabbed her chemise. “Deorsa, let it be. As you said, we’ve spoken through flesh. Don’t ask the reason. The reason today will not be the reason tomorrow. Everything – its life and time. You must go.”
“I’ll come back. And you’ll see things different.”
She brushed his hair the way she had Billy Gill when he was dying. “Come on, my knight, I must prepare you for battle.” And dressed him as done on the Royal George, touching with care. “There’s a proper grenadier,” she said.
“Cock-O-the-Walk,” he said.
Her eyes flashed. “‘To your leg.’”
“‘To your leg’ . . . You remember.”
“It was my day too.” She clipped the hat carrier under his queue. “There you are. You’ll be in the south and every woman who sees you will swoon and I’ll be murderously jealous.”
“You’ll come to see us off?”
“I will come back,” he said.
Thee – he now whispered. Thee – hating himself for it. Weak man. Foolish man. The Coat . . . All the same. Drink’s a better mistress. Women – stupid, fickle – chasing what they want and panicking when they get it. And idiot men ready to crash down the world. What put her in my way? Providence? Bloody Providence? If it be Providence, then Providence is a pig in Hell – Satan’s fat prick up its arse laughing as it squeals . . .
And how was I to choose? Geordie looked to Heaven. No choice and You knew . . . We’re all buggered in this play. Me, Obedience, Elliot. The bloody Whigs. The bloody Tories. The Congress. The King. Bloody Melodrama and it’s a Fool who thinks different.
I hate ye, ye cunting bitch . . .
The Watch roused, the Music Beating the Bounds. The ground wriggled. Stirred. A cough, then another and another – ten – twenty – hundreds. The field Resounds! And true to form, they headed for the bank. The sergeants did not stop them. A gift for the Locals. That’ll win them over.
Tim scratched his whiskers. “They’re going to rest us. The Rebels are near. I can feel them.”
Geordie nodded. “I feel it too – ” And he saw Elliot rise. “ – the danger.”
“The danger’s in starving. Bring on the fight. Finish it. I’m tired of chasing.”
Bess Waddley, up from Jack, headed back to Col. Pennington.
“Mrs. Waddley,” Tim called, “anything extra for your friends? Some scrap that might not be missed?”
“I shall see,” she said. “He’s been sick and I should think he might go back with the wagons. Though his breakfast is the same as yours. I’ll see what he has. I’m certain he’s bought something from the Whig bitch that owns this mill.”
The fifers sounded Assembly and the grenadiers and their women paraded for morning roll. Women were required to lay out all possessions to be inspected. God help the woman who stole.
Jenny Weir towered above the women with her big bones and big hands, her bundle laid out in front of her. Willcock, again corporal, took the roll – the first of four whenever in camp; O’Hara’s order as Guards court-martials were increasing. Three musicians stood ready, one with his drum and two with their ‘cats’. With them, two grenadiers. No time to be wasted court-martialling women. All contraband was to be placed before the company and summarily burned.
Willcock came to Jenny Weir, their eyes on the same level. Out the fold of her blanket just beneath the edge, a sliver of material. “Let’s see it,” Willcock said. Five yards of calico, which he would’ve passed if Captain Christie not there. “Miss Weir, step forward.”
“Miss Weir,” Captain Christie said. “You were absent from roll last night.”
“I was at the latrine, sir, and could not answer the call.”
“You were seen coming in last night after the taptoo.”
“I was in camp, sir. Private Elliot can vouch for me.”
“Private Elliot,” Willcock said, “step forward.”
“Private Elliot, do you vouch for this woman?” Christie asked.
Elliot stared at the calico and then at Jenny. Her eyes began to brim.
“Tell him, Tommy,” she entreated.
“Sir,” he said to Captain Christie, “Miss Weir was not with me till after taptoo.”
She smiled at first, thinking he defended her, till Christie ordered, “Corporal Willcock, Drum this woman out of camp.”
“No,” she cried. “I was with him! Tell them, Tommy!”
The grenadiers grabbed her. She tossed one off. They tussled till a drummer punched her in the gut. They stripped her top and there her little bubbies, odd for a woman so large, one with a purple bruise.
“I got it for you. I got it for you, but didn’t tell you!” she screamed at Elliot.
They cinched her wrists with a leather thong and another gut punch to take away her spunk. A march to the head of the camp, a pole run under her arms. A placard ‘round her neck – THIEF. They drummed and walked, whipping her as they went. And she screeched with each stripe – “Tommy!”