Spring Fever


Sybil heaved a sigh of relief as she tucked her youngest brother between the clean homespun sheets and kissed him good night. As the oldest of eight children, she worked hard helping her mother care for the little ones. Usually she enjoyed getting them ready for bed, but tonight Sybil was bored. She paced back and forth before the open door of their home in Fredericksburg, New York.

“What’s the matter, Sybil?” her father asked, looking up from his work at his cluttered desk. “You seem restless.”

“I don’t know, Father,” she answered truthfully, “I just have a feeling … I want to do something—something important for a change.”

Her father smiled. “Spring fever,” he consoled her. “You’re a young girl, and you’re impatient. That’s understandable. And as for doing something important, why don’t you go help your mother with the mending?”

“I don’t want to do mending. I’m always doing mending. And besides, Father, I’m not a young girl. Mother was already married to you at fifteen, and I’m sixteen!”

Colonel Ludington smiled again sympathetically and turned back to his work. When Sybil was in one of her headstrong moods, it was hard for her to patiently do ordinary, but needed, tasks.

Suddenly they were both startled by the sound of pounding hooves in the cool spring night. Seconds later an exhausted messenger burst through the door, dripping with perspiration and barely able to stand. Sybil could see his lathered horse tethered outside.

“The British!” the man gasped. “They’re raiding Danbury! They’re burning the town and sacking our supply center. The Continentals can’t hold out. You’ve got to muster your militia, Colonel, and drive the British back!”

Colonel Ludington leaped to his feet. Rural New York was sparsely settled in 1777, and his volunteer militiamen were scattered in farms and villages over a wide area. Someone would have to rouse the men and tell them to meet at the Ludington home prepared to defend their young country against the British. But who could go? This messenger and his horse were too tired to go any farther, Colonel Ludington knew, and he himself had to remain to organize the men as they gathered there.

“Father, I’m going to go,” Sybil spoke up determinedly.

The messenger looked at her in surprise as her father sputtered, “Y-You? I won’t allow it! It’s late, and the roads are narrow and dangerous.”

Sybil’s eyes flashed as she grabbed her coat and declared, “I can do it, Father. Star is a good horse, and I know the way. My country needs me.”

There was little time for argument. Colonel Ludington looked hard at his oldest child and said softly, “All right, Sybil”—she was halfway to the barn to saddle Star before he could finish the sentence—“but be careful!”

Grabbing a stick to pound on the doors of the sleeping soldiers, she was off. The night was dark, and a chilly breeze whipped through her hair as she and Star sped on their desperate mission. As the girl passed each militiaman’s house, she pounded on the door with her stick and shouted, “Wake up! The British are burning Danbury! Go to the colonel’s prepared to fight!”

Sybil stayed only long enough at each house to insure that the militiaman was awake. Then she was gone.

She rode to Carmel, past Mahopac Falls, over the treacherous rocky path to Kent Cliffs. At times the moon’s faint light was obscured by drifting clouds, and the path was plunged into eerie darkness. Once Star tripped on an outcropping of rock and fell to his knees, but Sybil clung to the saddle and urged him up and onward through the night. Finally a very weary Sybil reached the last tiny settlement, Stormville, and rapped with her stick on the doors there.

Her job was finished.

Star was limping as they returned to the brightly lit Ludington home, and Sybil was slumped in the saddle with fatigue. The courageous ride had taken hours. The first gauzy rays of the sun were just visible over the horizon as she groomed the exhausted horse and brought it fresh water and feed.

“You did a fine job, Star,” she praised him before she went into the house.

Most of the volunteer militiamen were already there, and the small parlor was strewn with muskets and horns and flasks of gunpowder. Sybil caught her father’s eye, and the room became silent.

“This young woman,” Colonel Ludington said, his eyes shining with pride, “has proven herself a patriot!”

The soldiers stood in a silent tribute to the courage and gallantry Sybil had shown by calling them out in the dead of the night.

Colonel Ludington’s forces were able to join General Wooster at Ridgefield, a town near Danbury, in time to drive the British back to their ships in Long Island Sound. Sybil’s “spring fever” had brought success to the Continental Army. A statue of her astride Star stands by Gleneida Lake in Carmel, New York, not far from the very path she rode on that desperate night over two hundred years ago.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Phyllis Luch