Monday, January 24, 2011

Basic Human Goodness

Trenton, New Jersey
Christmas, 1776

Adam cursed and stirred the pot. "I can't believe we're out here freezing on Christmas," he said, for the thousandth time.

Arthur said nothing. The encampment of Washington's army was coated in fog, deadening the sounds of the breakfasting soldiers, so it seemed almost as though he and Adam were the only people in the world. Arthur could imagine few things worse than that. Adam was Arthur's cousin, and had joined the Continental Army for little more than food, warmth, and women. There hadn't been much of any of those this winter, and Adam complained about it constantly. It was enough to shake Arthur's faith in basic human goodness.

In fact, the entire last year had shaken Arthur's faith, in so many things. At first it was good: Washington successfully retook Boston after an extended siege, and then moved the army to New York, since that was certainly where the British would strike next. That's where Adam joined up and attached himself to Arthur, and it was fun to see the city with him, since he knew all the best bars and... other places, and had many friends. But then the British arrived, and Washington didn't have the strength to resist them; so they were forced to retreat again and again, to prevent being surrounded and captured. As the year wore on, they retreated all the way down the coast of New York and New Jersey, and Adam complained about every missed meal, every Tory home that refused them shelter (there were a lot of those), every man that deserted (there were a lot of those, too), every woman that spurned him, every stone he stepped on, and every drop of rain that fell on him.

Now they were camped among the frozen, foggy swamps by the Oregon River, trying to protect Philadelphia. On clear nights, they could see across the river to Trenton, where a detachment of Hessian mercenaries were keeping warm and well-fed.

Adam cursed. "This is Christmas morning," he said again. "And what do we have for breakfast? They said it was chicken broth, but it tastes like boiled water a chicken's pissed in. I tell you what, if there was anywhere better to go to, I'd be there."

Arthur almost never thought about desertion, because he couldn't bear to go back and face his Loyalist father and brother in Boston. He supposed he could always run away somewhere else: down south, or back north to New York, or even just a few miles upriver to Philadelphia...

But then what about everything he believed in?

"So what's keeping you here, Adam?" asked Arthur. "Lots of places are better than this one."

"Oh, you know," said Adam, sighing. "Democracy, rights of man, damn the redcoats, and all that."

"Really?" said Arthur.

"No, not really," said Adam, laughing. "Honestly, I don't care who rules the colonies. Anyway, even if we win, I bet old man Washington there will just be made king."

Arthur had to agree. Washington was a popular figure, even now when the war was going poorly. If he managed to pull out a victory, people would think he was a god. Arthur liked the man fine -- he often rode around to visit the troops, and was nice enough, considering he was a rich southern slaveowner -- but didn't think anyone should be king.

"Well, look," said Arthur slowly. "I agree with you, it's pretty awful out here. And we're not going to get a democracy, no matter who wins. But how can we get home? It might not be that hard to run away from the army in all this fog, but we're on the wrong side of the river; and we don't know this country at all..."

"Listen up!" came a voice from the fog. It was the colonel. "We're going on parade this evening, boys. Cook up three days of rations and pack it up, and be ready to go at sundown. We'll be around with fresh flint for your muskets."

"Fresh flint...?" muttered Adam. "Hey, colonel! Are we going to fight?"

No answer.

"We're going to fight," said Adam. "Ten to one we're going to attack Trenton. Tonight."

"But that's on the other side of the river," said Arthur.

"Right." He made ready to cook the extra rations. "We're crossing the river."

"What? In this fog?!" cried Arthur. "That's mad!"

"Maybe," said Adam. "Personally, I take it as a sign from Providence, cousin."

"A sign of what?"

"That it's time to desert," said Adam. "Let's see now -- he said to cook up three days of rations. I'm doing five, just in case. No telling where we'll be then."

"Just like that?" said Arthur. "Just like that, you've decided to desert?"

"What do you mean? I've been thinking about it for months," said Adam. "Besides, now's the time. In a few hours, we'll be on the other side of the river, on the march, at night, in a thick fog. Worst case they'll think we were lost in battle; best case the Continental Army will be beaten, and Washington will give up, and it won't matter anyway. Right?"

"Well, I -- "

"Think about it," said Adam. "You don't have to decide right now. I'll cook up some extra rations for you, in case you decide to be smart like me, but you can put off the decision until we're on the other side of the river."

So Arthur sat, and stared into the fog, weighing justice, past and future, oaths of loyalty and clarity of conscience, and the dangers of desertion and battle, while Adam cooked.

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