My heart was pounding something fierce. I lifted the latch and poked my head out into the freezing night to see what had bumped the cabin. A snowcovered boot jammed the door open before I could slam it shut, and a fearful holler rose in my throat as a man pushed into the firelit room. He wore a British uniform. He was a redcoat!
Only two things could bring a redcoat to these frontier woods in the dead of winter: Either he was scaring up food for the British army, or he was hunting the injured patriot who was hiding in the loft of our barn.
I thought of darting out and heading down the trail Ma had taken a while ago, but my legs wouldn’t move. “If—if you are hunting food,” I quavered, “we hardly have any for ourselves.”
The redcoat’s eyes darted about the room, and I knew he could smell the soup that was bubbling in a pot over the coals.
The redcoat lifted the cover of the soup pot and sniffed. “You alone?” he asked.
His voice surprised me some. It was almost whisper-soft. But sometimes a voice can fool a person. Any redcoat looking for a patriot wouldn’t be softhearted.
I had to wet my lips before I could answer. “Ma—my ma went to visit some neighbors.”
The whole truth was that Ma had gone to the neighbors, hoping to borrow some medicine for the patriot’s swollen feet. While she was gone, I was supposed to have taken the warming rock and the soup to him. But I hadn’t—because I was scared of the dark. Now I was in a fine predicament: A patriot was in the barn loft and a redcoat was in the cabin!
I didn’t want to give the redcoat any soup, but I was afraid not to. I got a wooden bowl from behind the shelf curtain and slid it across the table to him.
He took off his coat and hung it over Ma’s rocker, making himself at home. He dipped deep into the soup pot, then straddled a stool before he started eating the hot soup.
Only once did he look up. “You have a pa?”
I could only nod.
“Off fighting for freedom, no doubt,” he remarked.
The redcoat had it all figured out. There was no need to say anything different. I was sure glad Pa wasn’t here to get packed off to some British camp by this redcoat. My next thought made me gulp, though. Maybe redcoats pack off youngsters too!
“It’s a crusade for freedom they can’t possibly win,” the redcoat went on, just like everything was cut and dried.
I felt my cheeks getting hot. I didn’t like what he said, on account of Pa. I blurted out without thinking, “Pa says we have to win!”
Those hawklike eyes pierced right into mine. I expected him to whop me, and I stiffened for the blow, but he only sighed. “I, too, believe some of the laws forced upon the colonists to be unfair.”
My chin dropped, and I stared at him.
“But that kind of thinking could make me a traitor to the king, now, couldn’t it, lad?”
I’d been thinking the same thing. No loyal redcoat would dare speak such words. Still, he might be soft-talking me just to trick me into telling something I’d be sorry for—like where the patriot was hidden. I suddenly wished I was strong and brave and could somehow save the fellow in the barn loft. But even if I could warn him, he couldn’t go far with such bad feet. He should have a chance to try, though.
While I was puzzling over what to do, the redcoat laid his head down on the table. He sure didn’t seem in any hurry to find the injured patriot.
The fire was burning down, and at first I was afraid even to put another log on the coals. Then I thought, Maybe if I make it cozy enough in here, the redcoat will go to sleep. So I put on another log, and it sputtered and sparked, and finally flames leaped up into a room-warming blaze.
The redcoat was tired, all right. But he was mighty slow about going to sleep. My legs started aching something fierce from waiting so tensely for him to drop off. Finally he did, though, and I tiptoed to the door, holding my breath.
I never thought about putting on my coat, until a blast of cold air rushed past the door as I opened it. I looked to where the coat hung on a peg at the back of the cabin, but I didn’t dare try to get it. As it was, my heart almost stopped when the redcoat stirred. I quickly leaped through the doorway and closed the door behind me.
The cold was icy on my face. I blinked, trying to see the path to the barn and the trail Ma had taken. Oh, did I want to run down that trail and find a safe place to hide! And as I thought of the patriot and hesitated, shivering, I saw something shadowy weaving along the barn path toward me! I froze, not knowing what it was and being too scared to move. Then it sprawled in the snow right at my feet. It was the patriot soldier!
I dropped down in the path beside him and whispered hoarsely, “Get up, or the redcoat will pack us both off, for sure!”
I was frightened because he lay so still. I grabbed his arms and tugged with all my strength, but I couldn’t budge him. I let him sag back down into the snow, then tried to shake him. When he didn’t move, I slapped at his face. I couldn’t tell if his face felt icy or if my fingers were numb. Oh, how I wished Pa or Ma were here!
I closed my eyes. I needed the Lord’s help badly.
I don’t want to run off and leave him! I don’t want to be the one to let him freeze and die! I wasn’t praying out loud. But the thoughts were inside me, asking the Lord to help me in my desperate need.
It was the terrible worry inside me that made me turn toward the cabin and holler to the redcoat. Then I hoped he hadn’t heard me. But he had. He stood in the light from the doorway and stared at me.
“He’s hurt bad,” was all I could say. “Please don’t hurt him any more.”
The redcoat dragged the patriot inside, making a snow trail across the cabin floor. I pushed the door shut with my elbow, glad to be in the warmth of the house.
“He your pa?” the redcoat asked.
I shook my head, then dropped down near the fire and put my head in my arms. Why did I do such a foolish thing? Now both my life and the patriot’s were in danger.
I could hear the redcoat moving about the room. I heard the patriot groaning. I even heard the redcoat yank down the shelf curtains, and I figured he was making fresh foot-wrappings for the patriot. But I didn’t care about anything anymore. My disappointment in myself was more than I could stand. Neither Pa nor Ma will ever be proud of me again, I thought.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and the redcoat’s whisper-like voice in my ear. “I must go,” was all that he said.
I swallowed hard and looked up. He had on his red coat. He sure doesn’t have a heart, I decided. He’s going to take us right now, while it’s still cold and dark.
I struggled up. I wanted to tell him how mean I thought he was.
He started for the door. I looked at the patriot, who lay wrapped in Ma’s patchwork quilt.
“You’re not taking him?” I blurted out. “Or me?”
He shook his head, and his eyes didn’t look so much like a hawk’s eyes now.
I stood with my mouth open and my heart thumping. I heard him say, “I came only for food and warmth and rest.”
Before he lifted the latch, the redcoat whipped up a hand, said, “You’re a brave lad,” and gave me a salute. I don’t know exactly why I saluted back, but I did.