Yankee Doodle Stockings

By Jana Steed

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    Betsy Ward slid the pan of biscuits into the black castiron oven. She huddled for a moment in front of the warm fire. Then turning, she arranged the pewter mugs and plates on the massive oak table. It seemed strange to be setting two places instead of six. First they had stopped setting places for Pa and Dan. Lt. Ward had had to go with his men, but Dan was only sixteen and had done some fancy talking to convince Ma that he should go fight Redcoats too. Betsy sighed. Fighting Redcoats would be so exciting.

    Then Grandma Clay began to ail. She became so sick that Ma left last week to go care for her. Ma said that Grandpa didn’t even know how to boil water! Even little Hannah, who went with Ma, knew how to boil water. Now just ten-year-old Betsy and twelve-year-old Nate were left on the farm.

    Betsy heard Nate whistling “Yankee Doodle” as he slowly wandered back from the barn. Nate, Betsy thought, has no gumption at all. He doesn’t even want to fight Redcoats; he’s happy with his cows.

    “Hey, Bet, someone’s coming.” Nate had stopped whistling and was standing in the middle of the yard.

    Betsy pulled her cloak off the peg by the rocking chair and hurried out onto the worn stone steps of the farmhouse. Nate was looking down the snowy, winding road at a skinny, ragged boy trudging toward them. He was no older than Nate, but much thinner. Slung over his shoulder was a battered drum and an empty knapsack.

    “This the Ward place?” he asked.

    “Yep,” Nate replied.

    The boy fumbled inside his torn jacket and pulled out a folded brown paper. “Lt. Ward sent this.”

    Betsy snatched the letter out of the drummer boy’s fingers. Christmas wasn’t as exciting as one of Pa’s letters! Then she handed it to Nate. She hadn’t learned to read cursive before the schoolmaster joined the army. Nate didn’t open the letter. Instead, he invited the drummer boy in to eat, and it wasn’t until the dishes were cleared from the table that he carefully unfolded the paper.

    “‘Dear Rhoda,’” Nate read aloud. Rhoda was Ma. “‘I pray that all is well and happy for you. How do the children fare, and how …’” It seemed to Betsy that Nate never would get to the interesting part.

    “‘We are here in Morristown now. Food, especially meat, is scarce, and my men are in rags. As we marched into camp, our path could be traced by our bloody footprints in the snow! There is hardly a decent boot in camp and not one stocking in my whole company. Please send us stockings quickly, for we march again on Monday night.’”

    The drummer boy coughed and said he’d best be moving along. After he’d gone, Nate looked at Betsy and shook his head. “Too bad Ma isn’t here. We can’t do much without her.”

    Betsy stared at Nate. “Of course we can!” she exclaimed. “You go hitch the oxen to the wagon. I’ll be out in a moment.”

    As Nate reluctantly ambled out, Betsy ran to the chest of drawers where Ma kept the knitting needles and neatly rolled balls of yarn. There were eight large balls, all previously destined for sweaters, scarves, or mittens. Betsy scooped them up along with a pair of needles. Then she slipped into her cloak and ran outside to prod Nate along. “Where is your red coat?” Betsy asked. “You move so slowly, I’d swear you were on their side and don’t want Pa’s men to get stockings.”

    “It isn’t going to do any good,” Nate grumbled. “You can’t knit enough stockings with that little bit of yarn anyway, even if we do get to Morristown. Monday is just the day after tomorrow.”

    “Who says I’m going to knit them all myself?” Betsy countered. “And we aren’t going to Morristown—not yet anyway. First, drive me to the Lawrences’. There are four girls there who’ll knit too.”

    By the time Nate was ready to go, Betsy was seated comfortably among the brown, blue, and white balls of yarn, and her needles were clicking away steadily. Nate guided the oxen out of the yard and down the long road toward the home of their neighbors.

    By the time they reached the Lawrence place, Betsy had her first stocking half finished. Mrs. Lawrence ran out to meet them as they pulled into the farmyard.

    “Goodness, Betsy child,” exclaimed Mrs. Lawrence, “you’re as blue as a berry! You, too, Nate. Come inside this minute.”

    “No, thank you, ma’am. We can’t,” said Betsy, glaring at Nate who had started to climb down from the wagon. “Read her Pa’s letter, Nate.”

    Nate settled back onto the wagon seat and read the wrinkled brown paper. He skipped the beginning and just read about the condition of Lt. Ward’s company and the request for stockings.

    Mrs. Lawrence’s face paled—her two sons were there too. “They shall have all the stockings we can knit,” she promised.

    “Thank you, Mrs. Lawrence. If the clear weather holds, the short road to Morristown will be open and we’ll go that way. Since we won’t come this way again, would you mind sending the stockings by on Sunday night? Thank you again.” Betsy nodded to Nate, and he clucked to the oxen. Soon they were on their way to the next farmhouse, the Pauls’.

    Young Mrs. Paul lived alone. Her husband was with the company. She promised to knit until doomsday if it would help. Then Nate and Betsy turned toward the Dixons’. By the time the oxen pulled out onto the road again, Betsy’s first stocking was finished. After stopping at the Moon farm and the Tucker place in the valley, Nate pulled the wagon into their cousins’ farm, the last one in the parish. The sun had been down for an hour, and the children were numb with cold and weariness. They didn’t mind a bit being bustled into the warm, friendly kitchen and being coaxed into staying the night with their cousins.

    The sun rose the next morning a little after Betsy had prodded Nate out of bed. It was a long, cold trip home, and the trip to Morristown the next day would be even longer and colder. But Betsy didn’t mind. By helping Pa, she was fighting Redcoats! As the wagon rolled toward the stoutly built farmhouse, she started humming “Yankee Doodle.” Before she had finished the first verse, Nate was humming too.

    As Nate drove the oxen into their farmyard, he asked, “Bet, how many pairs of stockings do you think we’ll get?”

    Betsy felt so good that she teased her brother. “I’ll not be surprised if we have enough for all of General Washington’s army and for a few of the British as well!”

    After starting the fire in the kitchen and fixing a little dinner, Betsy relaxed in the rocker to knit and wait for the stockings to come. She had almost finished two pairs when Nate came in from the barn and lit the lamp. “I expect we’ll have company any minute now,” he said. “Should be quite a flock of stockings here tonight. You’ve done a good job.”

    Betsy kept knitting and rocking, and Nate busied himself with his pocketknife and a chunk of pinewood. When he had whittled one piece into fine kindling, he went to the woodbox for another, then another. The only sounds were the scraping of his knife, the clicking of Betsy’s needles, and the howling of a fierce wind that had started up outside. No company came. When she finished her fourth stocking, Betsy’s knitting fell into her lap.

    Nate said softly, “Why don’t you go to bed? When the stockings come, I’ll wake you up.”

    Betsy nodded and trudged upstairs. When she awoke, it was day, but the sky was a blanket of gray. She pulled on her clothes and ran downstairs. Nate was sitting in the rocker, his head resting on his chest. “Nate.” Betsy shook his shoulder. “Where are all the stockings?”

    Nate awoke scowling. “You can see them yourself.” He swung his arm toward the table. “Your two pairs.”

    Betsy’s chin trembled, and her eyes started to burn. Blinking furiously to control her tears, she looked at the two lonely pairs of stockings. Her throat felt twisted and tight. “Well,” she finally managed to say, “get busy and hitch up the wagon. Pa and Dan will have stockings when they march tonight.”

    “Betsy, we’ve been beaten. Two pairs of stockings aren’t worth the trip—haven’t you seen the new snow? We’ll have to go the long way.”

    Nate’s voice was angry, but Betsy knew that he was just as disappointed as she was.

    “It’s all right if you don’t want to come,” Betsy said with a gulp. “I’ll go by myself.”

    Nate stamped out the door and hitched up the oxen. Then he called Betsy, and they rode down the bleak, snowy road. For miles the oxens’ muffled plodding and Betsy’s needles were the only sounds they heard.

    Suddenly a figure ran awkwardly toward them from the Lawrences’ narrow side road. Nate stopped the wagon and lifted Mrs. Lawrence’s bundle into the wagon.

    “We’ve been knitting all night,” Mrs. Lawrence told them. “We wanted to get the stockings to you, but the storm stopped us. We knew that it would force you to pass this way though. Anyway, here they are—twelve pairs!”

    Betsy and Nate both thanked her. Betsy was elated. Fourteen pairs were better than two! Nate slapped the reins, and they were off again.

    When they came to a fork in the road, there stood Mrs. Paul and one of the Dixon lads, laden with stockings. Farther down the road they met little Richie Moon with a basket of stockings almost bigger than he was. When they finally left the parish area, Nate pulled the wagon to the side of the road. They both scrambled into the wagon bed and started counting: 50 … 80 … 110 pairs of heavy woolen stockings! Enough for the whole company—and a few of the British too!

    Nate winked at Betsy and started humming “Yankee Doodle.” Before he had finished the first verse, both their voices were ringing across the frozen New Jersey countryside.

    Late that night, Lt. Ward’s company did march—with a warm stocking on every foot!

    Illustrated by Beth Maryon