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- Who Spoke Next - 2/7 -
William and I, on that never-to-be-forgotten day; but, in the midst of the battle, a shot wounded William's right arm, and he let me fall.
His uncle led him off the field and sent him home to his mother. A countryman, who had nothing but an oak stick to fight with, seized me as I lay on the ground, and here I met with the first mortification of my life--he actually used me to dig with. This was a contemptible feeling in me, and I have since learned to be ashamed of it, and to know that all labor is equally honorable, if it is for a good end. They had not tools enough for making entrenchments, and they actually used the bayonet, of which I had been proud, for this purpose. In the confusion after the battle, I was forgotten. I was left at the bottom of the works in the mud.
It was a hard thing for me to be parted from William, and to feel that I should never be restored to my corner in his mother's room behind the old clock; but I had a conviction that I had taken part in a great work, and I enjoyed our triumphs greatly.
This, you will think, no doubt, was glory enough for one musket; but a greater still was in reserve for me. It is with muskets as with men, one opportunity improved opens the way for another, and every chance missed is a loss past calculation; for every gain that might have grown out of that chance is lost too.
Every one should remember that, as he fights his way through the battle of life; and, when tempted to slacken his fire, think of what the old revolutionary spirit, speaking through my muzzle, taught on that day,--'hold on, and hold fast, and hold out. Never stop, stay, or delay, but make ready!--present!-- fire!--and, again and again, make ready!--present!--fire!--till every round of ammunition is gone.'"
Here the dry, rusty, unmodulated tone, in which the old king's arm had, up to this time, spoken, suddenly changed; and it seemed as if a succession of shots had been let off. Then, bringing himself down to the floor with a DUNT off of the little tea chest full of old shoes, on which he had stood leaning against the brick chimney, exactly as he used to do grounding arms seventy years ago, he quietly dropped back into the drowsy tone of narrative, and proceeded:--
"Yes--never flag nor hang back. The greater the danger, the more do you press up to the mark. So we did at Trenton in the Jerseys, on that most glorious day of my life of which I am now about to tell you.
I must tell you that I had the honor of fighting under General Washington; for I had been marched down to Trenton with a stout- hearted teamster, named Judah Loring, from Braintree, Massachusetts, who, after our battle at Bunker Hill, in that State, picked me up from the bottom of the works, where, for want of pickaxes, I had been, as I told you, serving as a trenching, tool, and made himself my better-half and commander-in-chief. Excuse a stately phrase; but, after the battle of Bunker Hill, I never could screw up my muzzle to call any man master or owner again.
We found only a few thousand men and muskets there, principally from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Jerseys, with a few companies of New Englanders; and a steadier, sturdier set of men than these last never breathed. They had enlisted for six months only, and their time was out; but they never spoke of quitting the field.
It was now December, in the midst of snow and ice; and not a foot among them that did not come bleeding to the frozen path it trod. But, night after night, the men relieved each other to mount guard, though the provision chest was well nigh empty; and, day after day, they scoured the country for the chance of supplies, appearing to the enemy on half a dozen points in the course of the day; making him think the provincials, as we were scornfully called, ten times as numerous as we really were. But alas, I am old, I find, and lose the thread of my story. It was of Washington I meant to speak.
Nobody could know General Washington that had not seen him as we did, at that dark hour of the struggle. It seemed as if that man never slept. All day he was planning, directing, contriving; and all night long he would write--write--write; letters to Congress, begging them to give him full powers, and all would go well, for he did not want power for himself, but only power to serve them; letters to the generals in the north, warning, comforting, and advising them; letters to his family and friends, bidding them look at him and do as he did; letters to influential men every where, entreating them to enlist men and money for the holy cause.
He never rested; and, with the cold gray dawning, would order out his horse and ride through and around the miserable tents, and where we often slept under the bare heavens, and every heart was of bolder and better cheer as he passed.
His look never changed. It was just the same steady face, whatever went on before it; whether he saw us provincials beaten back, or watched a thousand British regulars pile their arms after the victory at Trenton.
He looked as he does in the great picture in Faneuil Hall, on the right, as you stand before the rostrum. He stands there, by his horse, just as I saw him before the passage of the Delaware, with the steady, serious, immovable look that puts difficulties out of countenance. It is the look of a man of sense and judgment, who has come to the determination to save the country, and means to transact that piece of business without fail.
I never saw that quiet, iron look change but once. I will tell you about it. It was one of those days after the battle of Trenton, when he tried to concentrate the troops that he had scattered over the country, to bring them to bear upon the British. His object was to show the enemy that they could not keep their foothold.
Between Trenton and Princeton he ordered the assault. The Virginians were broken at the enemy's first charge, and could not be rallied a second time against the British bayonets. General Washington commanded and threatened and entreated in vain.
We of New England saw the crisis, marched rapidly up, and poured in our fire at the exact moment, Judah Loring and I in the very front.
The British could not stand the fire. We gave it to them plenty, I tell you. Judah Loring loaded, and I fired over and over and over again, till it seemed as if he and I were one creature.
A musket, I should explain to you, feels nothing of itself, but only receives a double share of the nature of the man who carries it.
I felt ALIVE that day. Judah was hot, but I was hotter; and, before the cartridge box was empty, he pulled down his homespun blue and white frock sleeve over his wrist, and rested me upon it when he took aim. He was a gentle-hearted fellow, though as brave as his musket.
"She's so hot," says he, doubling his sleeve into his palm, "that I can't hold her; but I can't stop firing NOW!"
I met his wishes exactly, I knew by that word; for he always called every thing he liked, SHE. The sun was SHE; so was his father's old London-made watch; so was the Continental Congress.
General Washington saw the whole;--the enemy, driven back before our fire, could never be brought to look us in the face again. We held the ground;--the Virginia troops rallied; --General Washington took off his cocked hat, and lifted it high, like a finished gentleman, as he was. "Hurrah!" he shouted, "God bless the New England troops! God bless the Massachusetts line!" [Footnote: This was all fact, related by one who was present.] And his steady face flamed and gave way like melting metal.
Ah, what a set of men were those! I felt the firm trip-hammer of all their pulses beat through the whole fight, for we stood in platoon, shoulder to shoulder. I felt my kindred with every one of them. They had more steel in their nerves and more iron in their blood than other men. Not a man cared a straw for his life, so he saved from wrong and bondage the lives of them that should come after him.
That day's work raised hope in every man's heart through the land. Said I not well that it was the most glorious of my life?
I have but little more to say. I have said more than I meant to, more perhaps than was wise to say of my own glory. But the thought of those brave days of old makes one too talkative.
I must tell you, however, how I at last came here. Judah Loring brought me home safe; he was a very honest fellow, and seeing the initials scratched on my butt-end, and 'Lexington' underneath, he went there on purpose to find to whom I belonged.
My friend William claimed me, and I was again placed behind the old clock in the little parlor. His mother looked very calm, and almost happy, but not as she once did; she sighed heavily when William brought me home. William's wound in his arm healed after a while, but his arm was disabled. By great self-denial and exertion, his mother had got him into college, and he was to be a schoolmaster.
The sight of me was painful to this good woman, and she gave me to uncle John who kept me safely and, on the whole, honorably till his son placed me here.
There is one disgrace I have met with which, in good faith, however unwillingly, I ought to mention. Uncle John used me to kill skunks occasionally. This there was no great harm in doing, only he should not have talked about it. I disliked, it, however, exceedingly.
Once, I am told, when he was in the South, some southern gentleman, for some trifling offense, challenged him.
Uncle John was told that he, as the party challenged, might choose his weapons.
"Well," he said to his enemy, "if you will wait till I can send for my skunk gun, I am ready for you."
I have since, I do hate to say it, been called the skunk gun repeatedly. To be sure, no one that has any reverence in his nature speaks of me in this way. Uncle John had not much, but his son, the father of that little girl, treats me with due respect, and forbids them to call me the skunk gun.
I was once the defender of liberty, and am ready to be so again. I was not made to kill skunks, those disgusting little animals. I hate to think of them.
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