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Liberty
Feb. 26, 1938, pp 32-38

The Girl and the General

by Howard Fast

 

I CAME to tell my brother Will what I had seen; but Will had stockings on his mind. You do, if not on your feet. He sat with his bare feet stretched out to the fire, and he was rubbing his head with one hand and rubbing a leg with the other.

"It's all just about over," I told Will.

He held up a pair of Hessian boots that were not too old and not too new either. Whenever we had anything new, it was usually Hessian, because they kept wandering through the country in little parties, and sometimes, if you were lucky, you could knock one over. John Seely had shot a Hessian about two weeks before this — gloves, boots, and a warm uniform. He had a finger shot off, but he said he didn't mind that so much because of the gloves. They were beautiful warm mittens.

I warmed my hands over the fire and then sat down next to Will. It was a cold day, and the fire felt good. On the other side of the fire Mark Shoer was toasting a piece of stale bread on the end of a bayonet. Captain Carte came over and said:

"You fool — you're taking the temper out."

"I am?" Shoer didn't even look up. I thought for a moment that Carter would strike him, but he didn't; lately the officers had been afraid to even talk back to the men, because they could see as well as any one else how the army was breaking up. I guess they were all afraid of mutiny.

Carter walked away. Will took his shawl and ripped it into two pieces. "You got to have stockings," he said

"I saw the old man today," I told Will. "You want to go home?"

"What good are boots without stockings?" Will asked me, wrapping the pieces of his shawl about his feet. "Now I got stockings but no shawl. You always want something, but don't seem to have two things you want at the same time." He pulled on his boots. "Who's going home?"

"I saw the old man," I said. "I looked through the window, and there he was, sitting with his head on his desk and crying. That's no way for a general — crying. Hamilton stands behind him but doesn't say anything. The old man says, 'I'm through. It's all over, and I'm through.'"

"You saw that?"

"I wasn't ten feet away," I told him.

"You going home?" Will wanted to know.

"Maybe," I said. "No sense hanging round this valley — no army — nothing. They say a cold winter for '78. It's two years since we left the farm. I'm sick of being hungry."

"Maybe," Will nodded. He stood up and stamped around. "The Hessians wear good boots, but the shawl feels funny. I'm getting knit socks."

"Where?"

Will winked and walked away. I sat by the fire, warming myself and thinking how it would be to go home. A bugle call sounded, but nobody stirred. Two young officers ran by, yelling for order, but most of us just laughed. Nobody minded the officers any now. Shoer had been listening to what I told Will, and now he said:

"The old man's through, all right. Me too. I'm sick of this valley." He munched the bread and thrust his rusty bayonet into the ground.

A tall thin man sitting near Shoer muttered: "Year of our Lord 1778. Long live the Republic! Republic be hanged! The old man sits inside his house like a fat hog. Me — I'm hungry."

"He ain't fat," I said. "He's skin and bones, and he's got a cough. He's lost his grip. That's why this army's going to pieces."

"Why'd he ever sit us in this valley? There's no food in Valley Forge. Didn't he know that?"

"Maybe," I said. "But I'm going to find me a chicken. I heard a rooster crow this morning."

"I'll go," Shoer grinned. "You won't find chicken — but you're not so empty if you keep moving."

We took our guns and started off along the creek. I guess we were no better than thieves. Maybe we had been soldiers once, but you can't go on being that when there's no war and no food either. The army had been holed up for months now, with more men deserting each day. It's a wonder that any part of the army held together. I guess it was mostly the old man. The old man would come out and talk to us—

"Never did know what I was fighting for," Shoer said "What'd the British ever do to me? "

"I'd eat horse," I murmured.

"I had a good farm. The old lady says, 'It's your country, ain't it?' I said, 'What'd the British ever do to me? I don't pay none of their taxes. It's a city war.'"

"You going home?" I asked.

"Maybe. I got back pay coming. Maybe I'll go anyway."

"We won't get the back pay. Congress gets fat and we don't eat. What I say—"

Then I saw the kid. He wasn't much of a kid, twelve or thirteen maybe, and thin. He came out of the woods and waved to us. " Hullo — soldiers! " he called.

Under his arm was a good-sized bundle wrapped in a piece of cloth. Shoer whispered to me, pointing at it.

"Everything is food to you," I said. "The kid looks half-starved."

"Sonny!" Shoer called.

But the boy was walking toward us already, with a kind of eager smile on his face. There was something about his smile that you had to like — eager but just a little afraid. And he had called us soldiers, not the way most people spoke of the Continentals, as a lot of beggars and tramps, but with real admiration in his voice.

Shoer had his eye on the bundle. Now, for that I don't blame him, because when a man has not eaten a full meal in a week, food will be the uppermost thought in his mind. He will get to thinking that everything that might be food is food; you can see how that is.

Sitting down on a log, Shoer took out his clasp knife and began to whittle. The boy came over.

"Where you bound for, sonny?" I asked him.

"The army."

Shoer just went on whittling.

"Any special reason?" I asked the boy.

"Yup." He placed his bundle carefully on the ground and took a seat on the log.

"How's that?"

"Joinin' up," he said.

I smiled. "Seems you're a trifle young."

"Thirteen," he said calmly.

"Ain't so young," Shoer said, going on with his whittling but eyeing the bundle every now and then.

"I ain't young," the boy nodded. "Maybe just a leetle small, but I kin use a gun."

"Live around here? "

"Other side the crick. I heard the general needed men, so I come. You don't think the general's gonna let me down 'cause I'm leetle?"

"I might have a word with the general," I said. The boy grinned at that. He held out his hand to me and we shook hands. Then Shoer pointed with his knife to the bundle.

"What's in there, son — clothes? "

"Ham," the boy said.

MAYBE you know how one word will set you off, bring up pictures and have your mouth wet. I could see now that it was in the shape of a ham. Shoer was almost quivering.

"You know how it is in the army," Shoer said— "share an' share alike."

The boy looked dubious. "You hungry?"

"We don't eat often," I told him.

"All right." He unwrapped the ham, and Shoer wiped the knife on his breeches. He cut three slices. The boy was hungry too, I could see that by the way he went at his slice. Then Shoer cut three more slices. I guess I've eaten better ham than that, but right then I was hungry. We finished more than half the ham.

There was a piece left, and the boy folded that up in the cloth. When your belly is full, the world is better all around. I thought of the men at camp.

"Let's get back," Shoer suggested, rubbing his stomach.

We started back to camp, the boy trailing along. Then, a little shyly, he came up to me.

"I'll make you a major for that," I told him.

"Yeah? Kin I come to the camp?"

"What's your name? "

"Carton Rose."

"Major Rose," I said. He was a good kid.

We came into camp.

Maybe the boy was disappointed at the way the men all huddled up to the fires, without a sign of order or neatness or drill anywhere. It wasn't much like an army camp, the way people usually think of an army camp, and there was hardly a man there who wore a full uniform. Mostly old clothes and lots of rags. The boy saw a pair of feet bandaged up in dirty cloth, and bleeding too.

"All right, kid. That's the way war is," I said.

We took him to our fire, and now he was ready to give his ham to any one who would take it. Oh, he was a good kid, all right. The ham went, just like that, but he didn't blink an eyelash. I wondered where he had taken the ham from, because in that valley food was as precious as gold.

"Major Rose," I said.

One of the men gave him a twisted bayonet, and then we stood him up in front of the fire. The men were grinning, but the kid hardly seemed to know what it was about. I guess the ham made us all feel so good.

YOUR command," Bob Meyer explained. I don't think we wanted to have our fun at the kid's expense. But he was a good boy. We could all see right away that he was a good boy, and we liked him. We didn't laugh at too many things in those days, but here was something to laugh at — gently. A thin shadow of a boy with a bent bayonet commanding tattered shadows of men.

"Up with them, lad," Shoer said, standing next to him.

The boy stared at us; his mouth was open. Then we heard some one cry: "There he is! "

I turned around, and I saw Will. A girl was with him, a slip of a girl who ran toward the boy now. I wondered what Will was doing with a girl and where he had picked her up. And then I remembered him making a remark about some one knitting socks for him. I guess that when the boy saw her, he knew that it was all up, because right then he looked as if he was going to cry. The girl threw an arm around his shoulders and faced us, her eyes blazing. The men backed away from that. Only Shoer and I were left next to her, and Will behind her. The boy edged over to me.

"What men you are!" she said, almost in a whisper. Then she noticed the bone of the ham and the cloth the ham had been wrapped in.

"Easy — ma'am," I said. She was small, but she was older than she had appeared at first, maybe nineteen or twenty, and she was very thin.

"I joined up," the boy said hesitatingly.

She snatched the bayonet from him and threw it into the fire. Will put au arm around her shoulders, but that didn't quiet her down. I could see that she was trembling.

"It's all right, Bess," Will said.

"No — it's not all right. I don't care about the ham. Oh, don't think I care about that, even if it was the last piece of food in the house. I don't care, I tell you. But look what they're doing to him. They call themselves soldiers!"

"Bess," Will pleaded.

I could see Will cared for her; he had it in his eyes, in his face. If she lived just across the creek, how many times had he gone to her house? A man who was in the army had no business with love; the two don't go together.

"Soldiers," she whispered. "An army. You call yourselves an army. You're fighting for liberty and justice and equality. Your liberty means liberty to steal every bit of food we have. First my father went, and he's dead now. Now you take my brother — and the last food we have. Continentals! You're nothing but a rabble of beggars and thieves. Teaching him to fight, to kill, and to steal. I could tell you what Continentals are—"

The men were melting away. Shoer and I stood there; it seemed that we could not move. Shoer's eyes went behind me.

"The old man," he said.

I turned around, and the general was standing there. I suppose he'd heard most of what she said, maybe all of it; but if he had heard it, it didn't show in his face. He just stood there. Back of his eyes there might have been some kind of pain, but it didn't show in his face. His face was full of the same familiar lines and creases, unmoving.

WE faced him, all of us, and for a moment there was a dead silence. A circle of men had formed at a little distance. They didn't come any closer, and I guess they didn't want to go away.

"Go on," he said to the girl very gently.

But she was frightened now, and she just clung to Will.

"I'm sorry—" she began.

"No—" The old man was looking at the boy. "What's your name, son?" he asked him.

"Carton Rose."

For almost a minute the old man stood in silence; then he said, half to the boy, half to himself: "We're not a very proud collection for you to come to, are we?"

"I ain't no Tory," the boy said.

Some one laughed; the girl had tears in her eyes. "Come with me," the old man said, "all of you." He walked away and we followed him, Shoer and myself and the girl and Will and the boy. Together we made a small pitiful procession. He led us to the little house he called headquarters. In front there was a puddle of water from the recent thaw, but he didn't appear to notice it — walked straight through the mud. He went inside and sat down at his desk. An aide was there, but the general dismissed him with a nod of his head.

We stood around awkwardly. The boy held tight to my arm, and the girl clung to Will. Her face was full of fear, as if she had all kinds of thoughts about what the general would do to her for what she had said.

But the old man just sat at his desk and fingered some papers, as if he had forgotten us. That kind of thing had started the rumors about him being all broken up and no good for command any longer. At last he turned around.

"Won't you let us go, sir?" the girl asked. "I'm sorry for what I said. I didn't know what I was saying; I was worried so about Carton. We're a good, loyal family, My father died in your command."

"You can go whenever you want to go, lass," the old man said quietly. "I am not keeping you here. Only I thought you would like to tell me. My men don't steal — or do they? I know they're hungry. They're very often hungry. I've been hungry myself. But I didn't think they'd steal."

The girl shook her head. The old man was not the sort of person you could be at ease with, in spite of whatever he said. But Shoer said:

"We took the boy's ham, sir."

"I gave 'em it," Carton said.

The old man just looked at us; his face didn't move, but then I hardly ever remember seeing shades of expression pass his face. He had one of those hard lean faces that always appear to be the same. He took up a paper that was on his desk and began to speak, with his eyes on the paper.

"You want to be a soldier, son? With us. Why? It's only a fool that goes to the defeated, and you seem to be a clever boy. We're not much of an army any more — just a rabble. Beggars and thieves, I guess."

The boy was sobbing; he tried to hold himself erect.

"I wrote to Congress," the old man went on. " I write often, It's like praying to God — only less useful. You pray for faith, but money is needed for food. Go home now, girl, and take your brother with you."

THEY went out, but we three remained, standing there at attention, waiting to be dismissed. There was a flicker of what is a soldier left in us, and with the old man you forgot that you were starving and freezing.

He had turned back to his desk, reading, dabbing at the paper with a quill. To me, it seemed that we stood there for hours. Beyond the old man's head, through the open window, I watched the sentry pacing back and forth. It was cold, but he didn't appear to notice the draft from the window; he sat writing, with the paper blowing in his fingers. The sentry moved mechanically, a tattered cloak rippling from his shoulders.

"What now?" Will whispered.

I looked at him, and I saw it in his face; but with the war, what was the use? The girl's father was dead, their small homestead ruined by an army of occupation. And Will was at war. The war would go on.

The old man looked up — turned to us. An aide came in and stood by the door, but the old man didn't pay any attention to him, only looked at us.

"It's cold in here," he said. Then he rose and closed the window. He was very old now, as he sat down; hardly a general; just an old man.

"My army—," he said slowly, "has not deserted. Ten thousand men — perhaps a rabble of beggars, but still my army."

He seemed to be asking a question.

"Yes, sir," Shoer answered,

"Hard for both of us," he nodded.

Then, for a moment, we forgot that he was the general.

"You may go," he said.

We went outside. Shoer said: "I'll stick—"

"They say he does an act," I reflected. " They say he does the same thing to his officers — to keep them with him. He's a clever old man, all right."

"I'll stay — for a while anyway," Shoer nodded. "Maybe our pay'll come."

"If the army moves," Will murmured. "She says she loves me. So what if the army moves? Can I leave her to starve?"

"I don't think of the old lady any more now," Shoer said. "Suppose she's starving. It don't do me no good to think of her."

A bugle sounded. Then a scattered volley of shots from beyond the creek. The sentry pounded around the house.

"What was that?" he wanted to know.

"Shooting — you lunkhead."

"Attack?"

We didn't know. The British were fools not to attack before this; but suppose Howe had finally roused himself out of Philadelphia? There was no one to resist him — just a crowd of starving men crouched around fires.

Will shrugged his shoulders and looked at me. But maybe the flicker that was left in us made us run to where our guns were stacked. The whole camp was moving itself, rising from the fires and slopping through the cold mud. It was like a scene from hell, the half-clad gaunt men moving stubbornly toward their rifles. From beyond the creek more shots sounded.

Shoer pointed to the hillside beyond the creek. A dragoon sat on his horse, the red of his coat gleaming.

I saw an officer gallop up to headquarters, leading the general's white horse. He climbed on to it, weariness in every movement. Then we had our muskets. Every one was asking every one else what it meant, and nobody knew. The officers raged among us, cursing and swearing and trying to get the men into a semblance of order. Will and I followed the general, and most of our company came pounding behind us. I remember the way most of the men puffed as they ran. They were tired, not with action but with inaction and starvation.

But we shouted. Better anyway than sitting around a fire and waiting for the next snow. A ragged chorus of Yankee Doodle flickered up and died again; some one was laughing while he ran. The general reined up his horse to wait for his aides, and in another moment we were pressing close to him. He shouted for us to deploy, and an uneven thin skirmishing line formed itself. Flankers ran along the creek.

It might have looked like a senseless mob. It did. There was no order, no form; but whatever else most of us were, we were old fighting men. We deployed across the creek at the double, sloshing waist-deep through the icy-cold muddy water, holding our muskets and powder high. And on the other side, in the woods, we came on the dragoons.

They were already in retreat. Here and there a Continental outpost lay. There must have been at least five hundred in the British raiding party, and now they were having difficulty pulling their horses out of the woods.

Shouting an order, the old man led our company on an angle toward the road. We were all on foot, and it was a good half-mile run, but it was a clever piece. If we were mounted, we would have cut them off, and as it was we ran full tilt into the tail end of them as they retreated along the road.

We ran along meadows and brushwoods, soaked, panting out our hearts, but following as close as we could the old man's horse. We saw him dip down into a ravine, and then we were after him and climbing a steep hillside. On top was a house, and beyond that the road ran. We came in with the dragoons there, and gave them our load just as we topped the hill. Most of them were down the road already, but a few on the end fell.

Will was ahead of me, near the house. I saw him fire; and then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Shoer stumble. I pulled the trigger, and then I turned to Shoer. He lay on his back, and I remember thinking all in an instant, What of his old lady? What of her? Sick with effort. I leaned on my musket. Poor Shoer, I thought. I wanted to go to him — but I was tired.

Then I noticed the dragoon, and I ran toward Will, yelling. Will saw him too, and he clubbed his rifle. They were a dozen yards apart and it was no good. The dragoon had a horse pistol; he had reined in his horse, and he was taking his own time about it; no one was near enough to bother him.

I think Will waited; he stood that way for a moment, like some one who has waited a long time. Then I noticed the kid. He was on the veranda with a musket that was a lot too big for him. Without thinking, I turned around, as if Shoer were still at my side.

"There he is," I muttered.

He fired the musket, but he couldn't have hit anything. You see, the musket was a lot too big for him. I don't know whether the dragoon even knew it was a kid. The dragoon shot him; then he galloped down the road.

When I reached the house, Will was carrying the boy inside. I saw the girl just inside the door, but I tried not to see what the girl's face was like. There was a couch inside, and Will laid the boy down there. The girl didn't cry; she didn't even say anything; she just stood there with all that on her face.

I went over to the boy and knelt down next to him. There wasn't any use trying to help his wound, because he was just about finished. He looked at me.

"All right," I whispered.

"I guess I ain't no shucks," he said.

The girl came over. "Don't go, Carton," she begged him. I remember how curious her words seemed.

"That ham," I remember saying. "I'm glad you gave that ham to the other fellow. He was a good friend of mine." I didn't speak to him as if he were a boy but as if he were a man. I remember that I had to speak to him as if he were a man.

The girl was crying. Will drew her away. " Bess — he did it for me," Will pleaded.

"Sure," the boy said. I think he understood. I didn't try to tell him, because I thought he understood.

"Company," I said. "He'll know you. You're a good Continental."

The girl was crying now, easily, gently — in Will's arms. I straightened out the boy's hands by his side, and then I went over to a chair and sat down. I tried to think, but it wasn't any use. I kept looking at the boy.

Maybe Shoer didn't know what he was fighting for. It didn't matter about him now. Did I know what I was fighting for?

Then the door opened. The old man came in. Something made me rise. But I didn't salute him.

He looked at the boy. His face didn't change; if there was anything, it was in the old man's eyes.

An aide followed behind him. "General Washington," he pleaded, "there may be an attack. You have to return to the valley."

The old man waved him away. "Time," he whispered.

The girl noticed him then. Before that, I don't think she saw anything. Then she burst out: "You have him too! What else do you want from us?"

Will cried: "Blast this war! I'm sick of killing! I'm through, I tell you! Have me shot, if you want to."

The old man nodded. "Stay here if you wish," he said softly. He took my musket from the floor and he leaned it against the boy's couch. Then I saw something in his eyes. Maybe it was a promise of something far ahead of us. Maybe I still didn't know what I was fighting for.

He went out.

"Where are you going?" Will asked me.

I took my musket, but I tore the Continental stripe from my shoulder and put it on the boy's breast.

Then I went outside and I waited for Will. I knew Will would come. I don't know how I knew that, but I knew. The sun was setting. Dark dots, the Continentals stumbled down the hillside back to the camp.

"I'll be back," Will said to the girl. "Bess, believe me!" They were on the veranda, and she was not crying.

I took a step toward them. "Carton's not alone," I told her. I couldn't tell her any more than that. But I felt very close to both of them.

"I'll be back," Will said again.

"You won't — you're going into hell."

Will stared at her pleadingly.

She was more than a girl then; if a woman is more than a girl, then she was a woman — splendidly. "I know why," she said. "I know, Will."

Halfway down the hill we turned around. She was still standing there, lit by the last rays of the sun. Then we went on.

"Maybe our pay'll come tomorrow," I said.

"Maybe," Will nodded.

And we walked on back to camp.

THE END


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