Title: Barefoot Christmas
Rating: K (Suitable for all ages)
Original pen-date: 10 November 2008
Summary: A Massachusetts soldier waits to cross the Delaware River.
Author's Note: There are probably some historical goofs in here, but I don't have the relevant books here with me. Any discrepancies or inaccuracies are due to my relying almost exclusively on Internet sources.
This is also my first attempt at writing anything that involves the Continental Army.
The clouds had been slowly, steadily, forming for most of the afternoon. A strong, gusting wind had blown all day. Men had been arriving from all over since early morning, grumbling and shivering constantly. A greater collection of men in such spirit had not been seen in some time, or at least that was Benjamin Strout's estimation. There was little hope that this ludicrous plot would succeed and few men were bothered to express anything but doubt about. More interest was placed in the expiration of enlistments occurring at the end of the month, as hundreds of men were looking forward to returning to their homes and families. Strout himself was eager to go back to Boston and his interrupted apprenticeship, resolved as he was to never again complain about the constant heat of Mister Hogarth's smithy. Being hungry, cold, and dispirited made the higher temperature of the smithy very appealing. Even if it was mostly only a fond memory.
Strout stamped his rag-wrapped feet and cursed softly. He had only one thin linen shirt, a pair of overalls that were too small for him, and the ragged blue coat he'd taken from old Dan Cross's body after Dan had been killed at Long Island. The rags around his feet had once been a shirt themselves, until Strout had torn it up to use as makeshift shoes. Here, in the snow, the worn-out linen was no protection from cold and damp. He was sure his feet were frostbitten but to have gone to see the company's surgeon about them would be inviting disaster. Ezra Marsh had gotten frostbit and lost his left foot when he went to the surgeon about it. Other men said that was the typical cure to frostbite and Strout was determined not to end up like Ezra.
There was a stir in the milling crowd around him. A hoarse voice was calling for officers from each regiment to repair at once on the sutler's wagon. Strout grimaced. No doubt the regimental officers were drawing wonderfully thick greatcoats, if they didn't already have them. Lucky bastards. Beside him, Jack Leech shivered and fumbled for a moment to wrap his tattered blanket around his broad shoulders and still keep a grip on his musket. Despite his own discomfort, Strout found himself grinning. Poor Jack was even younger than Strout, aging just barely sixteen years, where Strout was nearly nineteen. They'd both come from Boston however, and that was how they knew each other. Jack, at least, had enjoyed employment on the ropewalks before he'd run away to join Colonel Thomas' regiment. Strout had been apprenticed to a farrier and had required his master's permission to enlist. Both were now awaiting the end of their enlistments with the keenness rivalling that of road-weary travellers on the verge of making it home again.
"Twenty-Third! To me, Twenty-Third!"
Strout, Jack Leech, and the others around them, turned sluggishly upon hearing the first call. Captain Hill was the one summoning them and his voice carried with it a note of urgency, which helped stir his men into motion. Other officers were calling for their own regiments and Strout wondered if they were going to begin loading into the boats soon. Everyone knew of General Washington's plan to attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton and everyone expected it to be a complete failure. Strout didn't think there could be a worse way to waste days than this, and today was Christmas, no less.
"One haversack and one cartridge box per man, make a line there, ain't you Massachusetts soldiers?" Captain Hill seemed to have lost whatever sense of urgency he'd felt a moment ago. Several older men smirked at each other, seeming to know better than Strout about the captain's meaning. Sure he was a Massachusetts soldier, what did that have to do with anything? The young Bostonian accepted his haversack and cartridge box, one apiece in keeping with Captain Hill's orders, and he limped away back toward the meagre fire that somebody had managed finally to light. Closer inspection of the cartridge box showed that it held sixty rounds, plenty enough to fight a skirmishing action. Strout had to cup his hands and blow warm breath into his palms before he was able to unfasten the buttons of the haversack, but he nearly cheered when he discovered three days' rations inside it.
That revelation, of course, again brought on the thought of home. His family was probably sitting down to a fine roast turkey and would have gone to Christmas service earlier in the day. After dinner, he knew, they would go visiting and maybe make a stop at the family plot to lay some holly on Grand-mama's headstone. Strout regarded the rations in his haversack sadly and managed after an effort to rebutton the flap. He was hungry, his last meal having been two days past, and thinking about a hot Christmas dinner was only making his stomach rumble loudly. Nearby, Jack Leech was already tucking into part of his rations. Strout did his best to ignore him and held his hands out toward the pitiful fire. It wasn't much in the way of warmth, but better than nothing.
Jack Leech groaned as he plopped down into the packed snow and stared despairingly at his feet. Unlike Strout, Jack had nothing to protect his feet. His toes were beginning to turn a distressing shade of blue and Strout remembered how Ezra Marsh's foot had looked before the surgeon had cut it off. Without speaking, he sat down too and carefully unwrapped the linen rags from around his own feet. Poor Jack. He stared at Strout for a moment as Strout wrapped the linen around his feet and tied the ends up into clumsy knots. Strout managed a companionable smile as he lurched back upright, barely noticing the stabs of cold in his now-unprotected feet.
"What'll your mam say, if you was to lose your toes?"
Jack's response was a tearful, faltering grin. Strout turned away. The poor boy. Captain Hill's voice was echoing almost too loudly in the cold stillness. He was calling the regiment together again. Cursing, the men who'd crowded around the tiny fire kicked snow over the feeble flame and trudged through the snow toward Hill. Strout shivered as he felt fat, icy drops of rain splatter against his hat and face. It was bad enough just being cold and windy, without rain to add to the misery. This was a hell of a way to spend Christmas.
"Load the boats!"
Finally. Strout was glad to be doing something, even if it was sure to end in death for everyone. The Delaware was not a river to trifle with in winter, choked as it was by ice and swift-flowing besides. Obediently, grumbling to themselves all the while, the Twenty-Third piled into the Durham boats lined up on the river banks. Other Continental regiments were packing into their own boats all along the bank, urged on by their officers. Strout stumbled just before tumbling into his boat and succeeded in splashing his bare feet into the freezing river before somebody heaved him into the boat. Shivering in earnest now, Strout tucked himself up into as much of a ball as he could. Good or ill, the army was on its way.