Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
It was five hours past dawn when Stafford came out onto the rutted path that ran for most of the 1301miles between the Dan River and Charlotte Town. The despair and madness that had been in him as he had ridden from Stafford Hall was changed now to a bitter, furious anger. His memories of Laura Lee were ashes in his mouth. More than once he had winced, deep inside him, when some unbidden recollection of her sensual frenzies had come welling up from forgetfulness to taunt him. Now it was Colonel Emerson who new that sweet wantonness, those frenzied cajolings of which she was capable.
His hand had tightened again and again on the curving cherry-wood stock of the long horse pistol at his pommel, the temptation strong within him to go back and put a ball between the Colonel’s eyes, no matter what his soldiers would do to him.
“There’s little profit for a man in madness, though,” he told the wind in his teeth, and let the pistol go.
Mile after mile, the pounding hoofs of the gelding forged the bitterness in him to a hard, desperate savagery. In that mood he rode through the dawn, not seeing the woods awake to life about him. He galloped furiously, enjoying the hate and the need for vengeance that battened on the injured pride of him.
Ten miles deep into the pine forest, he came upon the British soldiers. There were three of them, foot soldiers from the Thirty-seventh Regiment, to judge from the numerals worked into the tall peaks of their black-leather caps.
They did not hear him until he was almost on top of them, the loosely packed dirt muffling the thud of his horse’s hoofs. The pistol came leaping up into his hand and his toes went digging into the gelding’s ribs.
Exultation rode with Stafford as he rose in the stirrups. These were British soldiers, lobster-backs One of their own kind, who wore the same red across his shoulders, had bedded his wife this past night. Of a sudden, the war took on a more personal meaning to Billy Joe Stafford. He hurtled into the soldiers, not as a colonel of that company of gentleman sharpshooters, Morgan’s Rifles, but as an aggrieved husband.
The pistol belched and an infantryman crumpled side-wise into a cranberry thicket bordering the road. Then the gelding was on the remaining men, hitting them into each other with his glossy shoulder, driven by powerfully thrusting legs. The pistol barrel flashed in the morning sunlight as it came whipping down across a man’s temple.
He fought with a wild insanity, his pistol flailing and his eyes rolling. His pale-yellow hair, worn long, as was the custom, came free from the rawhide tie that held it in a bun at his neck. His torn shirt, ripped by thorns and brambles in his wild night riding, flapped from his ribs and arms. He saw these British regulars, not as enemy soldiers, but as kin to the man who had betrayed his home.
He overrode them with his fury, and as the third man crumpled across the road he reined in, sorry that the moment was over.
It was then that half a dozen heads came poking up from the bushes bordering the road, white faces peering at him from under the tall black caps with their chains and GR worked into the peaks. Terror showed in their white eyes. They were certain that he had an army at his back, as they wheeled and fled.
Stafford came down out of the saddle, running to the man sprawled in the roadway, lifting his powder-horn and shaking a charge of the glossy powder into his pistol barrel. With a grim smile on his lips, he guessed at something of the successes of the man they named the “swamp fox,” Francis Marion. The British swore a thousand men trailed him on his night rides. Stafford knew that he rarely had more than twenty at his back.
He moved from the fallen soldier to the gelding. As he was settling a toe in the iron stirrup, he heard a subdued groan. Turning aside, he parted the branches of a wild ginger thicket and stared.
A blonde girl lay at the base of a big oak tree, her wrists lashed tight behind her back. Her feet were bare, and her face was even more dirty than it had been at the Black Thistle ordinary when he had fought for her. Stafford chuckled and moved forward.
“So it’s a prize I’ve won myself,” he said to the girl, aware that her gown was torn in such a fashion that all of one white shoulder lay exposed to his gaze. “It’s twice I’ve saved you, so to speak.”
Kneeling to free her wrists, he remembered Laura Lee, and suddenly hated all women with a dark, wild hatred. His hand tangled itself in her thick yellow hair and he jerked her head back so that he could stare down into her wide blue eyes. “What’s to keep me from taking you as a real prize, this time? You’d be a cuddly armful in an ordinary bed. Pretty, too, with that filth washed off your face.”
His hand moved to her torn dress and lost itself inside the homespun, caressing her until her face went scarlet. “A nice, exciting shape to your body, as well. Ah, yes. We can get along, you and I.”
Stafford spoke in anger, but emotion had dined well within him this last night and had left him weak. Too weak to resist the surge that swept across him, born of the softness and the prettiness of this lone blonde girl. His arms lifted her and brought her against him, and he kissed her hard and savagely.
She fought a little, but her mouth was moist fire and it held Stafford by its very softness. He kept her submissive to his caress for minutes, running his mouth from her lips to her ear and then down to her soft throat. He whispered hotly, “It’s a colonel I am, with Morgan, and with a colonel’s privileges. You’ll be no camp doxy, but mine to care for and mine to protect from the camp filth that will seek your cot of nights. Aye! I’ll guard you better than I guarded Laura Lee. I’ll pay you, too. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Good pay?”
She tried to struggle, straining back, held helpless both by his strong arms and by the ropes still knotted about her wrists, but when she realized that her convulsive writhings served only to press her more tightly against him, she went limp and unresisting.
When he let her go, her eyes were very steady. “Untie my wrists,” she whispered, her cheeks a flaming red.
His face hard, he did as she asked him. When the rope came free in his fingers, he put a hand to her wrist and brought her to her bare feet. Bending to brush at the twigs and fallen leaves that clung to her Lindsey-Wolsey dress, she ignored the fact that her bodice was gaping wide, and that his eyes were intent on the breasts that swung gently to her movements.
His hand still held her by a slender wrist. Gently she tugged her arm from his grasp and set her dress to rights. As she worked, she asked, “Who is Laura Lee?”
“A woman who calls herself my wife, who beds with any British officer who can bring her gold to put away against the gowns and carriages she wants to buy.” He sneered. “You women! Grasping, greedy, all of you. You’ve only one thing to sell, but you drive hard bargains for it!” Lazily she reached up and went to work on her yellow hair, attempting to free it of the tangles and the burrs worked into it. She said curiously, “Then she’s no better than I am, is she?”
“Her price is higher,” he told her bluntly.
She shrugged and smiled a little. It was a curious smile, and Stafford wondered for the moment what inspired it. When her hair was coiled so that it was free of her face, she said, “I’ve never been a private doxy before. It might be enjoyable, belonging to a man. To one man, that is. And I won’t cost you so much. Certainly not as much as this Laura Lee!”
Mischief lay in her eyes. Suddenly her strong young arms were flung about his neck and she was pressing tight against him, her lips soft and open on his own. He drew back instinctively, and when he felt her shaking, he knew that she was laughing at him.
“You don’t like to be overpowered, either, do you, Colonel? How do you think I felt, tied up and kissed like—like a—“
She moved away, extending her arms and twirling lightly around on her small bare feet. “Twice you’ve saved me. That should give you some claim to my—my services. Very well. I’ll be your trull. It’s a prospect I find not too displeasing, considering what a gentleman you are. Do you like what you’re buying?”
Stafford found himself ill at ease. The anger and the savagery that had made him crush her in his arms had been a rebellion against the forces seething in him this past night. Now his wildness was gone, and shame lay in him. Stiffly he tried to apologize.
“La, there’s no need for that,” she told him. “I’m your woman now. You won me twice. Once from that hairy beast, again from the British soldiers.” With her skirt in her fingers, she danced toward him. “It’s a bargain you’ll have no cause to regret. I can be silent when you want silence, a very goose when you want chatter, and warm and ardent when you need comforting.”
She came close, and it was Stafford that backed away. Then she giggled, and he laughed a little in response. “I’m Debby. Deborah Treat.”
“Colonel Stafford, ma’am. Colonel Billy Joe Stafford.” He bowed gravely as she curtsied. There was a grace to her body and an elegance to the tilt of her blonde head that made him frown a little. She looked like no doxy that he had ever seen before. Most of them were blowzy, over-fleshed women with dank hair and perpetual whines, always in dirty clothes and with dirt seemingly ingrained in their skin. This one had only surface dirt on her face and feet and arms, and her Lindsey-Wolsey was worn and thin, but neat and only a little dusty.
He said, “The English may be back. It’s best we take thought on our situation. I’ve some recollection of the fact that you’re going to Charlotte Town.”
Debby nodded pertly. “Where General Morgan is gathering what Gates left of his army at Camden. General Washington has named Nathaniel Greene to take over Gates’s command.”
The theater of war was swinging southward in this autumn of 1780. Unable to bring their campaigns to a successful conclusion, the English turned their eyes to the Southern colonies. General William Howe, too, concerned with his Mrs. Loring to be concerned with General George Washington, had allowed the Americans to winter out ’77 at Valley Forge. His successor in command, Sir Henry Clinton, was eager but cautious.
Sporadic thrusts by the rebels at Canada in ’75, the Cherry Valley fights with the Iroquois and Butler’s Rangers against General Nicholas Herkimer, had taught the British respect for the ragged fanatics who never knew when they were beaten. Though they had won tactical victories at Brandywine and Germantown, Washington had come close to cutting the British army in two and capturing one half of it at, Monmouth, in June of 1778. Now the French were allying themselves with the colonists, and Sir Henry Clinton, who had almost lost his chestnuts at Monmouth against Washington, pulled back into New York. There was a good chance to snatch victory from the inconclusiveness of Monmouth by sundering Virginia and the Carolinas and Georgia from their Northern neighbors.
In accordance with this plan, Sir Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis came down on Charleston in the spring of 1780. When General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered to them, they spread out into the Carolinas.
Sir Henry Clinton turned the command in the South over to Cornwallis and went back to York. With Sir Banastre Tarleton and his light cavalry in their green coats ravaging at will and earning themselves the hate of all Southerners by reason of their mercilessness, Cornwallis was free to move his forces where he willed.
To stop Cornwallis, Washington chose General Nathaniel Greene. Unfortunately, the Continental Congress refused to ratify this choice and sent Horatio Gates instead. Cornwallis caught Gates at Camden and whipped him thoroughly.
Now there was no American army in the South at all, except for a few mountaineers with long Deckard rifles, backed by a small detail of Morgan’s Rifles under Colonel Stafford. With McDowell and Shelby and the backwoodsmen from the Carolinas, these sharpshooters caught Major Patrick Ferguson, who formed Cornwallis’ left wing with his Rifle Corps, and shot his men to ribbons at King’s Mountain.
A panicky Continental Congress deferred to General George Washington, and selected Nathaniel Greene as commander of the dispersed Southern army. They made Dan Morgan a brigadier general and sent him down to whip together the remnants of the Gates had lost.
Billy Joe Stafford was riding now rejoin Morgan, having already sent his detail of rifles on to Charlotte Town, his recent leave a bitter taste in his mouth. Reflecting on this, he turned from the girl and brought the gelding to her.
He mounted and swung her up behind him and they rode as they had ridden yesterday, with her arms about him and her softness pressed to his back. There was close to a hundred miles of swamp and canebrake country to be traveled before they sighted Sugar Creek and the gold mines sprawled eastward of Charlotte. Most of the journey was through red-clay country below the Yadkin River. For a while they followed the Great Trading Path, which ran across the trading ford of the Yadkin and moved through Salisbury southwestward, becoming the old Warrior’s Path running down to Charlotte.
Stafford skirted the main road on the chance that some of Tarleton’s men were out burning houses and barns and shooting rebels where they found them. He kept to the ridge roads, twisting through a country of deep ravines and sandy hillocks. The black was carrying double, and he had no urge to press him, and so they went lazily, with the days warm and the nights brisk with November cold.
They came into Charlotte not far from the red-brick meetinghouse, seeing the tents of the army that Dan Morgan was gathering from the mountains and the swamp-lands for Nathaniel Greene. Stafford swung the gelding for the pole from which flew the flag of the Eleventh Virginia Rifle Corps, with the numerals 1776 wreathed above its lettering. They paced between veterans of Quebec and Saratoga, men who lifted bronzed faces with grins of recognition for Stafford and low whistles of admiration for the girl. They paused in the mending of shot cartouches and powder-horn thongs to stare and comment.
“They envy me,” Stafford said wryly. Debby arched closer to him so that she could whisper in his ear. “They have no cause for envy. I can tell the world you behaved like the gentleman you are.”
He flushed, and at his flush she laughed softly. “Would you have had me otherwise?” he growled. She made no reply, but put her blonde head on his shoulder and rode, drowsily like that through the encampment, letting the men suspect what they would, aware that Stafford was rigid with embarrassment.
When he swung her to the ground before the large tent where General Morgan kept his headquarters, his eyes were bright. “When I’ve finished my business with Dan, I’ll find us a room in the town. There we can, make good the affectionate promise you showed my men.”
She laughed and turned on a heel, making for the open tent flaps. He followed her bare heels into the tent.
Dan Morgan was deep in parchment maps and sheaves of papers at the crude planking that served him as a desk. When his eyes made out Stafford in his frilled lawn shirt and velvet breeches, he grinned and leaned back in the splat-backed chair his men had requisitioned from a town house.
“Billy Joe! I heard you and Shelby and McDowell gave Ferguson his comeuppance at King’s Mountain.”
“The boys were shooting well, Dan. That checked shirt the Scotchman wore made a fine target for our shot.”
Morgan looked at Deborah Treat, and amusement lay deep in his gaze. He was a big man powerful and fleshy. He had fought with Braddock when the French had smashed him at Fort Duquesne, and had volunteered his services and those of his rifles to Washington at Cambridge at the outbreak of the Revolution. He had lost none of his energy, despite his capture at Quebec and subsequent service at Saratoga and in Washington’s campaigns, following his return to duty after a prisoner exchange. It was his custom to recruit men with his fists, but the Bible that lay amid the papers on the desk planking showed him also to be a man of deep religious vein.
He said gruffly, “I see you’ve brought along a recruit for the corps. Can she shoot?”
Debby smiled and put a hand to her neck, bringing out a small golden chain that held a locket whose face was fitted with an onyx glory hand. Lifting it off her neck, she held it out to Morgan.
The sight of that glory hand brought Morgan to his feet. His fingers shook as he extended them for the trinket.
“The glory hand that Washington promised.” His hard eyes lifted to the girl. “You’ll be no common camp girl. You must be—“
Deborah glanced mischievously at a staring Stafford lips curving into a gentle smile. “Mistress Deborah Treat, General. Of the Roanoke Valley Treats.”
Stafford started. He had known the Treats in those forgotten years before the war. Alexander Treat had been a hothead, as he remembered him. Complaining bitterly of the Stamp Act of ’65 and of the Townshend Acts of ’67, he remained completely unappeased when they were repealed. Savage at the treatment of colonial planters by London merchants and their agents, the old man had advised rebellion even before Sam Adams painted his cheeks red for his Boston tea party. He had not known that the old fire-eater boasted such a daughter,
The remembrance that he had considered her a doxy gnawed in him. Her family was as long in Virginia as his own. The mansion Alexander Treat had built was a heap of burned cinders now and his possessions were scattered to the winds, but his blood still ran hot-in the shapely limbs of this girl.
“My apologies,” he muttered stiffly. “La, Colonel Stafford,” she replied merrily, “your conduct was a compliment to my disguise!”
She went on to tell Morgan that General Washington had advised secret travel, rather than in a carriage by the post roads from Philadelphia to Fredericksburg and south to Hillsboro. Dan Morgan grinned hugely as she related how Stafford had put blue bruises on Ezra Whipple’s cheeks, and how his single pistol had overcome the British regulars who had captured her five miles beyond the Dan.
“A good man with his fists and a gun, Billy Joe,” admitted Morgan, “but something remiss when he has aught to do with women, They terrify him.”
“I had not noticed,” she answered innocently, then flushed red when Morgan whooped his laughter.
As he wiped his eyes, Dan Morgan looked from his colonel to the blushing girl. “Forgive my levity. God knows we rebels get few enough chances for laughter these black days. It’s welcome you are, Mistress Treat. I’ll make some arrangement with Mrs. Pickens in town for your boarding.”
“Am I to remain here long, sir? I’d thought there was some haste to my mission.”
“And so there is. But we’ve certain steps to take before that mission can do us any good. I’ve been in postal touch with General Greene, and have shared his confidences to some extent. He arrives at Charlotte within a week or two, after meeting Gates at Hillsboro.”
Morgan paused and puckered his lips, frowning thoughtfully. “We don’t have much of an army to oppose Cornwallis. We smashed his left wing under Ferguson at King’s Mountain, but he still has close to fourteen thousand men under his command. We have less than three thousand. And still, Nat has some wild notion of splitting our small forces in half.” He paused and stared at the hard-packed dirt floor of his tent. “It’s suicide. Either suicide or military genius.”
Morgan grinned infectiously. “Nat and I like to think it’s genius. We can’t beat Charley Cornwallis in a mixed battle, but we might take a poke at him if we can get him to split up his own command. Before we can do that, we have to know what his plans of attack are, and what hell he’s likely to give us if we divide our forces.”
Idly, Morgan put out a hand and ran his fingertips along the cracked binding of his Bible. “I’ve nobody I can fully trust, Billy Joe, except my own men. I’d like to send someone into Winnsboro, where Lord Charley makes his headquarters, to discover that intelligence for me.”
Stafford grimaced. “I’ve little stomach for spying.”
Morgan nodded sourly. “I remember what we did to Andre, and what the lobster-backs did to Nathan Hale. I’d never ask a man to do a job I dislike myself, but necessity forces it on me. We might have a chance, if we can get Cornwallis to send that hellbound Tarleton after one part of our army. Otherwise—“
The General shrugged and went around the end of his plank desk to sit down. His hands came together, his fingers locking. When Deborah Treat spoke sharply, he glanced curiously at her thoughtful face.
“I have business in Winnsboro myself, General Morgan. It may be that Colonel Stafford and I may go together.”
“As brother and sister,” said Morgan with a smile, “or even as husband and wife.”
Debby laughed, and then sobered. “General Washing: ton intimated that I was to have at free hand in my mission. If Colonel Stafford will aid me in my quest, I’ll be only too happy to become another Peggy Shippen.”
“We’ll be obvious as cats in a cracker barrel, Stafford growled. “We’ll need clothes and a carriage, if we’re to pose as Tories enriched by their friendship with the British. Rich clothes. Elegant gowns. Sleek horses. If we were closer to the Dan, I’d get all that by robbing my own plantation. But down here—“
Morgan chuckled. “That’s why I picked you for the job, Billy Joe. You’re the only man in my command with the social background to move in plantation society as an equal. You know what you’ll need and how to act.” He turned to Debby and bowed slightly. “You, too, Mistress Treat are at ease in such company. It’s the will of the Lord you came at a time like this, when our need is so great.”
Stafford said, “What about the clothes? The horses and carriage?”
“All taken care of Marion’s been out with his men, looking for what I need. So has Sumter. We’ve a dozen chests filled to their hasps with gowns and furbelows, fans and shawls and petticoats for Mistress Treat and fashionable garments for yourself. Quality clothes. I can’t wear ’em myself, but I know ’em when I see ’em!”
“When do you want us to ride?”
“At once. I can’t wait until Nat gets here. I know his mind, and he knows mine. We’ve worked together, under Washington, before this. Get that information for me and I’ll see that Nat knows about it. Rest today. Leave tomorrow morning at sunup.”
Mistress Treat curtsied. “Until then, General, I’ll appreciate your offer of a town house and bed. I haven’t slept properly in over a fortnight.”
General Morgan pursed his lips and glanced at Stafford. Mistress Treat caught the glance and smiled sweetly. “Colonel Stafford has been like a brother to me, General. I consider it a good omen for our coming jaunt.”
With her fingertips on Stafford’s arm, she let him escort her from the tent.
Colonel Edmund Emerson flicked an imaginary mote of dust from the blue velvet cuff of his scarlet and gold uniform jacket. The bruises Billy Joe Stafford had put on his throat a week before were still in evidence, and a spate of fury shook him when he remembered the ignoble position he had played, flat on his back, clobbered by fists and choked by hands in front of Laura Lee Stafford and his own men.
“It’s not to be endured,” he told himself for the thousandth time, touching the bluish mark on his cheek with tender fingertips. “I’ll seek him out and pay him back in hot leads for the marks he’s left on me. Stab me Satan, but I will!”
The thought that a pistol ball in Stafford would make his wife a widow was comforting to the Colonel. It mollified the rage in him, until he could turn and preen himself before the upright Queen Anne mirror on the bedroom wall with something approaching his usual complacency.
He made a fine figure of a man, he admitted, eyeing his reflection. His red cloth coat had been made to order in London, its buff facings and gold lace on a dark-blue velvet background enhancing its elegance. His breeches of tight white drill showed off the muscular shape of his powerful legs, while the white stockings and shoes of black leather fitted with silver buckles added to the satisfaction with which he stared back at himself.
With a hand he slapped his belly. “No flab there! No wonder Laury’s so taken with me.” From a contemplation of his own figure, his eye turned inward to a mental contemplation of Laura Lee’s loveliness. No woman he had ever known, from the Vauxhall Gardens in London to the dancing assemblies he had attended in New York and in Charles Town, ever had acted as such a catalyst to his emotions.
In Mrs. Stafford he discovered a sensuality to out do his own desires. Her voluminous readings of Ovid and Boccaccio, her possession of such works as an unexpurgated edition of Lucian’s Golden Ass, with properly impudicitic illustrations, Pills to Purge Melancholy, and Matthew Prior’s poems made her section of the Stafford library a delight in which to browse.
The fact that Laura Lee, enjoyed a practical application of her literary tastes made him her slave. Never before jealous of a woman, he was discovering in himself a reluctance to share her fleshly wisdom even with her legal spouse.
And so his trigger finger itched in rhythm with his steps as he went to find Laura Lee and acquaint her with the news that he would accompany her to Winnsboro. He discovered her in the study behind the spiral stairs, at a mahogany writing desk.
“An officers’ ball, dearest Laury, to celebrate the whipping that Lord Cornwallis is preparing for Greene and Morgan,” he told her, bowing over her hand. “We can stay the week at the King’s Head ordinary.”
Her dark eyebrows raised. “That would be a proper scandal, indeed. Even if Billy Joe is a rebel colonel, he’s still my husband.”
“But not for long. Someday soon I’ll come on him and repay him for What he did to my face and throat.”
“Poor Billy,” she sighed. “He’s such an idealist. He conceives sacrifice to be self-rewarding. He’d have had me residing at the London Coffee House in Philadelphia for the past five years, if I had let him.”
“He’d have buried beauty and brains together, if he’d dose that.”
“Flatterer! Now leave me, Edmund, while I finish the accounts. We ship to Charles Town port this week end. I must have matters ready for Mr. Andrews, who handles my affairs there.”
“The officers’ ball, Laury? What of the ball?
She reflected, staring across the room at the candle box hanging on the pine-paneled wall beside the bookshelves. She studied the damask curtains and design of the thick Turkish rug that had been imported during Billy Joe’s youth. It came to Laura Lee that she was tired to death of this big house, and of the cares it brought daily to her little study desk.
In the oak chest in her bedroom she had new gowns from London stylists that she had never worn. They had come in exchange for the hogsheads of tobacco a Bristol packet had carried to her agent in London last spring. An urge to wear those gowns came over her, an urge that she welcomed with bright eyes as she reached out to catch and squeeze Emerson’s hand.
“It will be a vacation, Edmund. A fortnight away from accounts and bills of lading. I’ll go directly I’ve finished and begin my packing.”
“Winnsboro shall know of your coming, dearest one. I’ll send a rider at full gallop to hire a suite of rooms at the King’s Head. You’ll be a queen, and I your willing slave!” Laura Lee nibbled with dainty teeth at the quill pen she lifted. “Billy Joe should see me. Then he’d realize what a fool he was to give me up for a revolt that can’t help but fail!”
“He’ll not see you, Laury. He’s living in a tent somewhere north of the Catawba. What would he be doing in Winnsboro?”