Regina Silsby’s Phantom Militia
An April Morn
Rachel Winslow bolted upright. Was that a musket shot?
She scanned the dark bedchamber. Embers warmed the hearth on the far wall, and aromas of cedar scented the room. Frost etched the window beside the bed. A shaft of moonlight cast luminous squares across her quilt, and rhythmic buzzing sounded from the mound at her side. Cousin Sarah was fast asleep.
“What’s the hour?” she wondered. Grandfather kept a timepiece in his waistcoat pocket. Should she cross the chilly floorboards to the corner, where he lay snoring in his bedroll? She shivered and reached for the mug of sassafras tea on the nightstand. Long ago the drink had gone cold, but still she drained it to the dregs.
Another shot shattered the stillness. Across the street a church bell clanged.
“Sarah, wake up,” she said, prodding her cousin. “I heard gunshots, and now the belfry is tolling.”
“‘Tis the dead of night,” Sarah said.
Grandfather tugged on his boots.
“You two stay a’bed ,” he said. “We’re strangers in this town, and I’ll not have you roaming about.”
“Perhaps there is a fire,” Rachel said. Drums beat a call to arms.
“I think not, lass.”
After throwing on his cloak he slipped through the door and latched it shut. Rachel sprang from the bed. She lit a candle and laced on her petticoats.
“Did you not hear?” Sarah said. “We’re to stay put.”
“I wish to learn what’s the fuss.”
“And you’ll be wanting company, I suppose.”
“Are you not curious?”
Sarah cast off the quilt and swung her feet to the floor. Blonde hair fell in tangles about her cheeks. She yawned, stretched, and pulled her green paisley gown over her camisole and bloomers.
“You’ll want to wear your flannels,” Rachel said while gathering her dark tresses into a bun.
“We shan’t be more than a minute.”
Into the corridor they wandered and down the stairs to the front hall.
“Mind your step, lasses,” said the innkeeper. He stood at the rear entry holding aloft a candelabrum. Servants and stable hands trundled casks through the open doorway.
“Everything into the barn,” he said. “Rum, hard cider, everything. And touch not a drop, or I’ll have your hides off of you. Mrs. Wright, hurry on.”
The fat woman emerged from the larder tugging sacks stuffed to bursting. Her face was flushed and sweaty.
“Lasses,” she said, “take these to the hay loft, quick now.”
“What’s happened?” Rachel said.
“Don’t waste time chattering, dear. Off with you.”
Across the stable yard the girls dragged the duffels.
“How are we going to lift these to the loft?” Sarah said. “They’re so heavy.”
“You, boy,” Rachel said to a stable hand, “could you lend a hand, please? The missus wants these in the loft.”
“Right away, Miss.”
He hauled away the sacks, and the girls pushed through a picket gate to the road. Torches brightened a tumult of townsmen, wagons and horses. Through the din of shouted orders and bellowing animals clattered the church bell, and from the village green came a steady thump of drums. Horses crowded the tavern’s hitching rails, their booted riders adjusting saddle straps. Cellar doors flung open. On every step appeared rifles and cartridge pouches. Citizens scooped them up as quickly as they were laid out.
At the meeting house a line of farmers and journeymen lugged kegs to a hay wagon.
“Careful with those,” said the wagon master. “You’ll blow us all to bits.”
“That’s the last of it,” said a tailored gentleman in a white wig. “You know where to take them?”
“Aye, into the forests beyond the north bridge. Ho, lads, spread that hay over them well.”
Women shoveled their gardens and pitched canvas satchels into the holes. A lady clad in a linen night shirt, her gray hair billowing down her back and her bare feet caked with mud, dumped a silver tea service into a soap barrel.
“Good sir,” Rachel said to a passing horseman, “what’s the news?”
“The regulars are out,” he said, “a thousand strong. They’re coming by way of the Boston road.”
“For what purpose?”
“To arrest Hancock and Adams at Lexington, I’m told, and to take the munitions and stores here at Concord. Fret not, lass, they shall miss their aim. But if you’ve anything of value, you must hide it straightaway.”
“How thrilling,” Sarah said. “The Boston redcoats come this way, Rachel. Is it not grand?”
“Are you mad? Why should that please you?”
“Don’t you see? We expected to reach Boston on the morrow, and tonight it seems that Boston is coming to us. Do you suppose the ghost will follow after them?”
“Regina Silsby, of course.”
“Good heavens, Sarah. You mustn’t speak of her.”
“Why not? Every circuit rider out of New England talked endlessly about her. You heard their stories of Regina Silsby dashing all about, terrifying the king’s soldiers and running ships aground, then vanishing away before anyone could catch her. They said she haunts the King’s Chapel, where she’s buried. Oh, it makes me shudder. Are our Boston lodgings near her grave?”
“Do you hope to see her?”
“Perhaps we should make camp in the cemetery and watch for her there. Really, Sarah, you must stop this nonsense. Very few people saw her, and those who did wished they hadn’t.”
“‘Tisn’t fair, Rachel, you dwelling in Boston with Regina Silsby’s ghost, while I suffered an endless string of tutors in Philadelphia. There wasn’t a handsome one among them.”
“Boston was hardly exciting.”
“How can you say that, with the Massacre and the Tea Party and Regina Silsby haunting the streets? Why do you think I wished to journey along with you?”
“To help bring my brother out of Boston, or so I supposed.”
“And to see the ghost.”
“Sarah, you’re daft. Come along, we must hide our effects before the soldiers arrive.”
They darted through the tavern entry to the stair.
“I do hope they shall show us a good parade,” Sarah said.
“If you must wag your tongue, pray that nothing awful happens.”
Sarah halted, clamped shut her eyes and pressed her hands together.
“Gracious God,” she said, “in whose good mercies are our sustenance and our life, grant Thou that we may…”
“For goodness’ sake, Sarah, can you not walk and pray at the same time?”
“Rachel Winslow, you are positively irreverent.”
“Get up here at once. Put this in your pocket.”
She handed Sarah one of Grandfather’s pistols.
“Take the bullet molds,” she said, “and the powder horns. I’ll keep the other two, and the flints and musket balls. Here is Grandfather’s spyglass.”
Sarah peeled back her skirt and tied her pocket apron to her waist.
“A fine pistol, this,” she said, squinting along its barrel. “French, is it?”
“I’m not certain.”
“Le Guardienne,” she read from the firelock’s engraving. “Rifled, too. Very fine, indeed.”
She shoved the gun into a hip pouch, and draped the powder horns about her waist. Rachel laced on her riding boots. The door opened.
“We’ve a regiment of redcoats marching on Concord,” Grandfather said. “What are you two about?”
“Hiding what we can,” Rachel said. “They may search the house, but they shan’t search our persons.”
“Where are my pistols?”
“In our pockets. I have your spyglass as well.”
“Don’t stuff yourselves too much, or you’ll be fatter than the innkeeper’s wife. Come, let’s have your kits. I’ll take them to the attic with my saddlebag.”
They handed him their satchels. After he disappeared, Rachel pressed her nose to the window.
“I can’t see through this ice,” she said, and heaved open the sash. Dawn colored the eastern sky. Morning mist veiled hillocks of verdant green. Stone walls and budding trees separated fields wet with dew. Beyond the forests tumbled a river swollen by spring rains.
Fifes trilled through the rush of cascading water and clanging bells.
“They’re playing Yankee Doodle,” Sarah said. “Show of good faith, I’ll wager.”
“While coming to steal Concord’s stores? Perhaps they would pilfer the tune as well.”
“You’re such a doomsayer.”
“Have you already forgotten? Until last year I dwelt in Boston. I’ve had more than my fill of redcoats.”
“Rachel, don’t lean through the window like that. You’ll fall on your head.”
“Look, Sarah, yonder they come.”
Scarlet horsemen jostled over a rise, their tasseled shoulders glinting in the first rays of sunlight. Regimental flags flapped in their wake, and columns of crimson soldiers trudged after them. Every man’s breeches were black to the hip with mud.
“They look as though they marched through a swamp,” Sarah said. “How disappointing.”
At the head of the army plodded a fat colonel on a tired mount. Sullen inhabitants stared from windows and doorways as he halted the parade at the meetinghouse.
“Maj. Cauldon,” he said, “you will issue the orders, please.”
“Aye, sir,” said a mounted officer at his flank. “Grenadiers, disperse. Search every house, destroy all contraband. Capt. Laurie, you’ll post your companies at the north bridge, and Capt. Pole, you may secure the south crossing.”
Officers exchanged salutes, and scarlet ranks spread through the village.
“Innkeeper,” said the colonel, reining his horse toward the tavern, “what have you for breakfast? I and my men have been a’march all night.”
Soldiers battered down doors and smashed windows. The troops pillaged whatever fancied them – timepieces, jewelry, silver, pewter, copper.
“Come inside, Rachel, and close that window,” Sarah said. “They shall see you.”
“Not just yet.”
“Maj. Cauldon, sir,” said a sergeant, “we found three unmounted field cannon in the livery, and their carriages. There’s five barrels of musket balls in the town house.”
“None, sir. I expect most everything’s been moved during the night.”
“Cursed, scheming scoundrels. Very well, Sergeant, spike the guns, fire the town house.”
“Col. Smith, sir,” Cauldon said, “I request permission to lead a detachment of light infantry beyond the town.”
“Will you not join me first for a bit of breakfast, Major?”
“I think some haste would be in order, sir. Whatever stores have been removed may not be sufficiently hidden.”
“Very well, if you insist. Make certain you destroy the bridge after you’ve done with it.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Black smoke and flame billowed from the townhouse.
“Rachel, do come inside,” Sarah said. “You shall get us both into trouble.”
“Hush. How can I hear what is said with you jabbering like that?”
A shot echoed beyond the woods. Rippling volleys followed.
“Mercy,” Sarah said, “is that gunfire?”
She squeezed into the window beside her cousin.
“Bother,” she said. “The fighting’s past the trees. Why did they choose to have their battle there?”
A thunderclap rebounded from the river. The staccato of answering shots thickened into a roar. Smoke plumed through the forest and drifted across the village green. From the haze ran a lone soldier.
“Colonel Smith, sir,” he said, saluting. “There’s rebel minutemen – hundreds of them – attacking us at the north bridge. Capt. Laurie requests immediate assistance.”
“Madness,” Smith said through a mouthful of mutton. “‘Tis farmers we’re up against, not the French. Surely the captain is capable of handling these poltroons.”
“They fear us not, sir. We are badly outnumbered.”
“Preposterous. A good show of force will hurl them into the hills.”
“The provincials are well hidden behind fences and trees, sir. Our volleys affect them not at all.”
“Did I ask your opinion, private? Report back to the captain and tell him I said to be about his business. Badly outnumbered, indeed.”
“Sarah, look there,” Rachel said, pointing. A torrent of scarlet troops tumbled from the smoke. Hats were missing, muskets gone, tunics torn, breeches bloodied, flags and drums peppered with holes. Terror marred every face. The stricken soldiers poured into the village.
“Rally,” officers shouted, swatting men with the flats of their swords. “Reform your ranks.”
Smith bolted from his table, his napkin still tucked to his chin.
“Return to your ranks,” he yelled. “Form up, I say.”
Sergeants swung fists and cudgels, even grabbed fleeing soldiers by their collars. In the forest appeared ragged clusters of riflemen. They wore farmers’ frocks, town coats, buckskins. Some stood in their shirtsleeves, many were barefooted.
“Look, Rachel,” Sarah said. “Yonder are the patriots. Hooray.”
Flashes brightened the trees. Smith pitched forward and lay in the grass.
“Sergeant,” Cauldon yelled, “rig a stretcher at once. Carry the colonel back to Lexington. Captains, I shall assume command in the colonel’s absence.”
“Major, there’s thousands of them,” said a battered officer. “Every rock and tree harbors a rifle. We tried to hold the bridge, but…”
“Get your men to the rear, Captain,” Cauldon said. “Edwards, send a scout to the south crossing and summon Capt. Pole back at once. We must evacuate Concord, now. Each captain will be responsible for his own company. Fall back to Lexington and rally at the common, understood? Lord Percy shall meet us there with a relief column.”
“But sir,” said a lieutenant. “The field guns – the rebels will take them back from us.”
“You spiked the touch holes, did you not? Forget them. Fire as many houses and fields as you can and fall back. I shall remain to bring up the rear.”
Drums beat the signal to withdraw. Already the townsfolk were retrieving flour casks from the river and dragging the field guns back to the livery. Soldiers hurled torches into homes and barns, but inhabitants quickly doused the flames. Shots flashed from open windows.
“Hurry on, you louts,” Cauldon said, his horse engulfed in a flood of swirling scarlet. “Get along, quick march.”
Minutemen spilled into the town.
“Move your legs,” Cauldon said as bullets whistled past him, “or your carcasses will feed the buzzards tonight.”
He cantered among the fleeing ranks, urging the men onto the highway, rounding up the laggards. From every tree, wall and field came incessant firing. Soldiers collapsed in the grass and on the lanes.
“Look, Rachel,” Sarah said, bouncing up and down, “the patriots have put them to flight.”
A clapboard near her head splintered. She yelped and retreated behind the bed. The door banged open.
“Rachel, away from that window,” Grandfather said. “Are you mad?”
“We’re being shot at,” Sarah said.
“We must get to Boston,” he said, “before that redcoat army reaches the city.”
“But where is Regina Silsby?” Sarah said. “Why has she not come?”
“Time enough to fret about her later, child. We’ll travel the north country to Charlestown and ferry across the harbor from there. Sarah, get you downstairs to the innkeeper and order our horses saddled.”
“I shall be killed.”
“The battle’s already moved beyond the town, lass. Hurry on, we’ve no time to lose.”
“Go, child, now.”
“Aye, sir.” She bustled from the chamber.
“Rachel,” he said, “this little fracas today complicates our chore a good bit. You mustn’t be seen in Boston’s streets. If someone should recognize you…”
“We can’t have Sarah running all our errands.”
“Come nightfall,” he said, “I’ll go to Josiah Sinquin’s shop and fetch Robert out. We’ll leave Boston by the same route we came.”
“I am quicker than you,” she said. “Perhaps I should go.”
“The streets won’t be safe.”
“I’ve done it before.”
“As Regina Silsby, aye,” he said. “There wasn’t a man sober or drunk who dared go near you as the ghost.”
“Should I disguise myself as before? It is easily done.”
“Mercy, child. ‘Twas only last year you nearly got yourself hanged for your escapades. Are you so eager to start them again?”
“How difficult can it be? I shall fetch Robert out of Sinquin’s shop and return before you’ve missed me. If anyone sees us I shall scare him to death.”
“There’s no denying you’re nimbler than I,” he said. “And you’re certainly a formidable phantom. Very well, then, I suppose you’ll be needing this.”
He dug into his saddlebag and extracted a leather mask.
“I wore this,” he said, “when I followed after you before.”
From her cape pocket she produced her own mask and said, “I, too, have come prepared.”
“Bless my soul, child.”
He inspected the leather. Its tattered skin, blackened eyeholes and gnarled mouth were uglier than a rotted corpse.
“Is this the same face you wore before?” he said.
“The very one. Regina Silsby has returned to Boston.”
“Well,” he said, “your cousin Sarah wishes to see the ghost. Perhaps she’ll get her chance.”
Copied with permission from Regina Silsby’s Phantom Militia by Thomas J. Brodeur. © 2005, BJU Press. Unauthorized duplication prohibited. | journeyforth.com