Quick: An Excerpt from The Rider of the Cross
Matthew Crow was adrift, his mind wayfaring. Yet his
thoughts circled back, time and again, to his hunger, his exhaustion, his
duty and its weight. His thoughts would circle back and dwell uneasy for a
time, like a traveler taking shelter in the shell of a house once grand,
now dark and empty and strange.
So he hoped he did not show his startledness when the German boy rode up
and addressed him. He hoped he kept his frame erect and his expression calm
when the boy spoke, and when the boy spoke of Captain Fiddler.
"Marauders," the boy said, "raiders, villains, a horde, a gang." He used
every word in English he knew, in hopes that one would be just the one.
"Deacon Shaffner goes, he goes after them, with two others, he goes, but I
he sent to find the Captain John Fiddler, called the Rider of the Cross,
for to seek out his help."
The boy was urgent and distracted, the way that boys can be, the way that
now struck Matthew as fabulous luxury. He considered the boy and his
request. This Shaffner needed Captain Fiddler. Well and good, but the
nation needed Captain Fiddler. The light corps, the Army in the South, the
Catawba Rangers and their captain needed Captain Fiddler, the captain
without command, the scout extraordinary.
Matthew gave the boy his answer. He watched the boy's expression collapse,
and almost lost his resolve. He did not turn to look when the boy reined up
his fine horse to let the Catawba Rangers pass, but he could not help
himself picturing the boy, muddy and dejected, by the side of the road. He
reproached himself. He knew what lay at the base of his motives.
"Captain," Quick said, and Matthew feared that Quick would reproach him,
too. "Reckon I'll hunt us up something," was all he said, though, and
Matthew nodded as Quick drew his mare Sadie into the woods.
Steady and hard the Catawba Rangers rode, as they had the day before, and
the day before that. If they should fail in this, the duty for which their
captain had volunteered them, the feint of the light corps would lay
exposed and likely fail. If the feint should fail, if Cornwallis should
come to know he chased a light corps only, like as not he'd catch General
Greene and his Continentals before they could cross the Dan River to safety
and re—supply. If he caught them he'd crush them, weakened as they were,
and then, for the third time in less than a year, the Continental Army
would lose its Southern Department. If the Continentals lost their third
army in the South in less than a year, they would lose as well what
support, what patriotism, remained. Georgia and the Carolinas would revert
to colonies, their Whig leaders hanged. Diehards like Matthew would turn
outlaw, flee west into the wilderness, where the Cherokees and Creeks would
chop them to pieces and burn what was left on their council fires. The
continent would lay open to British advance, for Cornwallis to drive north
a river and state at a time — the Dan, James, Rappahannock: Virginia; the
Potomac, Patuxent: Maryland; the Susquehanna, the Delaware: Pennsylvania;
the Hudson: New York. Clinton from the north, Cornwallis from the south,
would corner and crush General Washington, the Continental Army entire, the
rebellion, the republic.
Such would be the issue of the Catawba Rangers' failure, should they flag
in their patrolling, and so their captain would not let them flag or
falter. Matthew Crow would not let his hot words or all his warring come to
nothing but disgrace. At their head he rode, erect and soldierly, leading
them on this feint, this trick, this retreat, and he watched them and did
not know how much more they could take.
He did not know how much more he could take, and he was a tried veteran,
and he exulted in strain. He had not slept in two days. He had eaten
little, and nothing warm, in three. Twice they'd paused to rest and kindle
fires, and twice an alarm or report had called him, as captain, away from
breakfast to duty. Often he could look behind him and see the British
vanguard giving chase: just the other side of the last meadow or pasture or
corn field, the green—jacketed riders of Tarleton's British Legion, coming
for them. The sight meant the general's plan was working, and they were not
to engage. They were to keep running, leading Cornwallis toward Dix's Ferry
on the upper Dan, while the bulk of the army in the South ran toward Boyd's
and Irwin's ferries on the lower Dan.
Matthew Crow, late of the Continentals, knew they had to keep running, and
did not want to keep running. He knew they could not stand and fight, but
he wanted to stand and fight, as they had at the Cowpens.
He wanted to stand and fight, though he understood the general's design,
its brilliance and necessity. This army, depleted as they were, could not
face the British without destruction. Yet if they accomplished General
Greene's design, they would be like gods of war, for such an accomplishment
would be a miracle. They would have performed, Matthew well knew, a deed as
heroic and useful as any in this war, and their names would not be sung for
it, not once.
They still retreated. No one sang for retreats.
He heard hooves clatter behind him, and wished he hadn't spun so fast to
look, and hoped that only a few of his Catawba Rangers had seen. Quick rode
up to his side, held aloft a gray squirrel by its tail.
"Little meat for the morning, Captain."
The squirrel was meager, almost an insult to Quick's hunting and the time
he'd been gone. Still, Matthew's stomach lurched at his glance. He hoped no
one but Quick had heard it roar, had seen him flinch.
"Should we get to pause long enough to dress it and cook it," he said, "put
it in a broth to feed the men."
Matthew frowned as his stomach skipped and gurgled. "And no more hunting.
No more riding off from the column."
"I ain't gone long," Quick said.
"Not long may be too long, now," Matthew said. He hated to deny Quick his
hunting, as faithful as he'd been. When Paw Tom sent Matthew from the
Charlottetown academy (to which he'd sent none of his own sons) to the New
Jersey college (where he'd sent none of his own sons), he'd sent his nephew
furnished as a gentleman, and with Quick as his groom. Quick had tended the
horses and the hound while he—no, not 'while,' Matthew said to
himself once, only once: not 'while,' but 'so that'
—so that Matthew could read his Locke and Montesquieu, his Cicero and Hume,
and join with the other boys who enflamed themselves with high talk, hot
declamations about tyranny and rights of men. They sat in their chambers or
in taverns, a coterie of Southern sons bearing the New Jersey winters with
cards and brandy, and engaged in the opposite of debate: instead of
dialectic's sharpening, they piled on, all in agreement, and sought to
outreach each other's rhetoric. In the warmer months, they raced their
He'd sent Quick home to Hotspur in the spring of '75, hiring him out to a
teamster heading down the Wagon Road. He'd sent him home after Lexington
and Concord, and the second Congress, and after the men of Mecklenburg—Paw
Tom proud among them—declared themselves free and self—governing. Matthew
said, hotly, that the time for hot talk—or, for hot talk only—was past. His
coterie formed themselves into a company, and voted Will Davie their
captain; a rankled Crow, lieutenant. They'd ridden, blood high, from
Princeton to Massachusetts, just missing Bunker Hill, and presented
themselves to General Washington. They'd sat for months in the camp at
Cambridge, and a few of them had not fallen ill.
Matthew had left the war that fall, but not for long. He and Davie were
reading law under Spruce McKay in Salisbury when the new, free State of
North Carolina called for a corps of light horse to offer the Continentals.
From Hotspur's stables Paw Tom had given him a horse to ride, and Quick to
ride at his side. Quick had not left his side since.
Matthew had gone to war with a plumed helm on his head, a saber won racing
horses in his hand. He'd been there at (for that was how the veterans like
to say it, 'I was there at' whichever battles they talked of, a formulation
that allowed both pride and modesty at once, for it encompassed and implied
'I was there, and somehow managed to survive the pestilence of camp life,
and the cannonade that shattered men, and the musket fire that tore them,
and the steel that ripped them, and the trampling, and the horror, and the
bloodbath, at . . .') Brandywine, a lieutenant of the North Carolina Light
Horse that lacked horses, and fought the battle on foot. He was there at
Germantown where they lost the field and left the seat of the Republic open
to the British, and were supposed to feel pride in how well they retreated.
He was there at Monmouth where the rear guard of a retreating army almost
routed them, until General Washington himself rode into the fray and
rallied the men and counter—attacked, so that the Continentals could hold
the ground, and the British could continue their march as they had before;
and this was supposed to be the war for which he'd volunteered, in which
he'd dreamed of winning honor if not glory.
Through all that warring Matthew Crow had taken no leave, and had suffered
only light wounds that could heal while campaigning. In Morristown that
winter, though, he took a cough and then a fever and then he almost died.
Matthew Crow survived, but it left him sapped of all vigor and for weeks he
could not leave his bunk. Quick stayed at his side throughout, but somehow
got word back to Hotspur. Matthew Crow, his sight still blurred by
exhaustion, thought sure he was seeing visions when he woke to his cousin
Gabriel standing above him. Gabriel was a cockfighter, quick to duel, who'd
settle for a brawl if no duel could be provoked, and he'd never liked
Matthew much, that Matthew could recall. Gabriel was a dozen or so years
older, and so Matthew had never known him but as a grown man.
"Paw says to fetch you home," Gabriel said, and in the stupor of his
illness Matthew feared the long travel, weakened and alone with Gabriel,
more than he feared the winter and the sickbed. Then he remembered that Paw
Tom had sent for him, and he remembered Tryon's muster, and he nodded to
Gabriel, and tried to sit up.
The Hotspur he came home to was not the home he'd missed and recalled in
the long, cold nights, but he came to admit it was the home in which he'd
grown to manhood, perhaps even more so now than when he was growing. Paw
Tom had dug a ditch, and had heaped the dirt from it into an earthwork.
Into the ditch he and Ben Tucker and Pompey had lain gnarled, forking
boughs of hickory and chestnut, and tangles of brier and thorn. The house,
the yard, the kitchen, the kitchen garden, all were inside this dry moat.
Pompey had dug a well and laid rails for a horse pen, both within the
defense. Paw Tom and Pompey were at work in the moat's one break, where the
drive came in from the road. They were setting massive posts on either side
of the drive, so that someday they could build a gate to swing shut on iron
"Goddammit, Paw, let Pompey do all that work," Gabriel had muttered at the
sight. "It's like he don't care that the neighbors could see him. It's like
he don't know he got station now."
They sought to make Hotspur a fortress, impregnable to all but a force
larger than any sane commander would send against it. Matthew had realized
he was surprised only that Paw Tom had not done so before.
In Hotspur he'd rested, and by March felt fully restored. By April they
heard that Charleston lay under siege, and Matthew rode out against the
Tories with Gabriel and the Paw Creek Boys. By May Matthew knew he could
ride with them no more, and was grateful when Will Davie, colonel now,
asked him to raise a company of his own.
The rain began to fall in the night, an hour or two after they'd tied their
horses and fallen onto the blankets they'd spread. They would not bother
with fires until they stopped at daybreak for breakfast. Now they needed
Matthew Crow would not sleep. He was captain. His back against an ash he
sat in the utter dark, and thought. Soon he wandered from the narrow track
of planning he'd set himself, and then he might have dozed.
If he did, he woke to chuckles. Two of the men (Davey Smith and Billy
Tennant, he thought) found funny some whisper they'd passed between them.
"If you need to laugh," Lieutenant Dale said, "more'n you need sleep, that
don't mean the rest of us do."
"No, sir," one (it was Billy Tennant) said. "Davey here just needs to take
a piss, and wanted ol' Quick there to open his eyes and smile so's he'd
have some light to see by."
More laughter, half—spat, came from a half—dozen directions out of the
"What you say, Quick?" Tennant said to more but lesser laughter, less the
guffaws of weary men than the giggles of overtired boys. "What you say to
Quick held still, as if asleep, as if they and their words were no concern
"You ain't got nothing to say? How 'bout that, Quick got nothing to say."
Tennant's fatigue was bettering him. Had Matthew just arrived at this camp
he'd have thought him drunk.
"Quick don't never got nothing to say to such as us." Tennant's voice
curdled as he spoke. "Every coon I ever saw plum overfull with laughter and
song, and this'un can't even give us a smile. Give us a smile, there,
Quick. Smile for us, you black . . ."
"Sure I can," Quick at Matthew's side said. "But a shark ain't got teeth
enough, nor a owl got eyes enough, light up a way for the likes of you."
No one laughed. But for the pitter of steady rain the wintry night was
"What's that you said, boy?" Billy Tennant said. Through the rain Matthew
could hear the sound of his rising: the whish of the wet blanket thrown off
and his body turning, the rustle of setting his feet and standing. "I sware
. . ."
"Tennant," Dale snapped, just as Matthew barked.
"Private Tennant," Matthew said, and when he spoke he tried, he knew,
without meaning to, to sound like Paw Tom. "Will you master yourself, or
He knew they would grumble—Billy Tennant, Davey Smith, Ezekiel Branch,
maybe more, maybe Dale—in the night, and in the morning, and in the days to
come. He knew they had grumbled for days, weeks before, since they'd left
the camp at Providence, maybe longer. They'd grumbled at the horse Quick
rode, the clothes he wore, the gun he hunted with, the blanket he slept in,
the choice words he spoke with. They grumbled at their quality.
He could hear Quick at his right hand breathing, and by the rhythm of that
breath knew him to be awake.
"You may sleep now, Quick," he whispered. "I will not."
"I'll stay up long as you will," Quick whispered in return. "Ain't you they
want to beat." Matthew would not have thought to watch his mouth and eyes,
even if he could have seen them, and so he was touched yet again by Quick's
Well before dawn Crow roused Lieutenant Dale to rouse the men, the few
Catawba Rangers left of the company. Dale went among them, kicking and
gruff, still more sergeant than officer. He was lieutenant only since the
Cowpens, and no gentleman. He was lieutenant only because Ben Tucker died.
Matthew had watched, helpless, the blow that killed his cousin, his foster
brother, his fellow orphan taken in by Paw Tom, and had held him as he
died. Ben Tucker had died just as the battle had been won, and the loss
still sat indigestible in Matthew's gut, its bitterness still in his
For all his gruffness, the Rangers liked Dale, even respected him, and he
had performed well as sergeant. Matthew had promoted him as they had fled
from the Cowpens to the Catawba. The Rangers had given him three cheers,
hats in the air, and then had whistled and hooted and jeered, smiling and
laughing, at the new lieutenant, a rougher and more heartfelt praise, of
the sort they would never feel free to give Matthew.
The Catawba Rangers rose and rode for Dix's Ferry, a baker's dozen: Smith,
Tennant, Ezekiel Branch who now was sergeant, Hugh Morrison, Robert Martin,
Martin Wilburn, Jamey Cartwright, Philip Kennedy, Freddy Isenhower, Billy
Armstrong, Andy McAfee, Lieutenant Dale, and Matthew himself, along with
Quick by his side. These were all who remained. When Matthew, last spring,
had sent out the call to form a new company, a hundred answered. No, more:
he did not take all. One father and son rode into the Hope Well churchyard
where Matthew held his muster, and they wore nought but breechclouts about
their waists and thighs, and carried nought but cudgels barely shaped from
hickory boughs. The mules they rode were spavined and malnourished,
tuckered by the short trot to the mustering ground. Yet the pair took most
grievous offense when Matthew sent them away. They brandished their hickory
cudgels, and threatened those who laughed, and liked to have threatened
Matthew, too, until he rose from his stool and drew his saber won racing
horses. He came around the pine table and advanced on the half—naked pair.
The father turned before the son, and they kicked their poor mules back
down the way they'd come, shouting curses over their shoulders, and all
there remembered that Matthew was a Crow, even if not a son of Paw Tom's,
even if the son of the Crow who'd let himself get killed.
He'd ridden away from the churchyard at the head of a hundred. That was in
May, nine months before: an apt and bitter measure for such a diminishment.
At the head of a hundred, Matthew had tried to mark each name and face.
They were, after all, not just his militiamen but his neighbors, fellow
settlers in the Catawba valley south of its southward bend, though he had
not lived among them, but for a few and scattered days, since his youth.
After almost a year of thirty—, sixty—, and ninety—day enlistments and
reenlistments; after a summer of fights with Tories, made bold by
Charleston's fall; and after the August ignominy of Camden, when Gates
blundered them into Cornwallis at dawn and every militia ran, sweeping a
suicidally outraged Matthew with them; and after Cornwallis took
Charlottetown in September, driving them and the rest of Davie's corps back
along Trade Street, and out of the courthouse square; and after an autumn
of raids, and ambuscades, and laying siege to houses turned to forts, he
could look at his Catawba Rangers and know each one of them there. After
Cowpens, and the flight back to and across the Catawba, and the sharp,
short fight at Cowan's Ford, and now this race to the Dan, he could look at
his Catawba Rangers, and know each one of them not there.
Most not there had not fallen before the enemy. They'd fallen ill or fallen
from their horses. They'd fled. They'd gone home the minute their
enlistments were up. They'd ridden away from the march or patrol under
cover of darkness or confusion, ridden away and gone home, where no one
would brand them cowards. Matthew, if dispassionate, knew that they were
not cowards, only farmers and tradesmen, husbands and sons, sick of
fighting and of the muck and drear of campaign. If dispassionate, he could
allow that that may not be a vice.
If passionate, though, he did not know if he could contain his burning
outrage, even if he sometimes knew that his outrage had nothing to do with
them, with any virtue or character or reputation of theirs'.
By dawn the rain reduced to something less than a drizzle, more than a
mist, a middling condition neither water nor air. They rode hard up the
road to Dix's Ferry, their object to put enough miles between them and
their pursuers so they could kindle fires and cook a breakfast. Colonel
Williams, miles ahead leading the light corps whose rear the Rangers
patrolled, had ordered that his men would eat a breakfast every day, a lone
meal to fuel their flight. Only Matthew's own demands on himself would not
let him eat.
They rode through a forest of leafless trees, elms and oaks and poplars
bare and dormant, the forest clear of underbrush, not long since burned.
The world was gray, Matthew's blue Continental jacket the brightest sight
around. When the gray of the sky had turned from charcoal to ash, he led
his twelve Catawba Rangers and Quick off the road, and ordered the halt.
They heard the lookout's shout as the cook fires caught and flared, and
spun, weapons drawn, before they processed his words.
"One rider," McAfee called from his post by the road, "on a mule. Don't see
Matthew kept his saber drawn. Through the trunks he watched a farmer come
up bouncing, and told himself not to think it comical, and asked himself,
'For do you not fight this war for such as him?' but did not let himself
"I need to see the General," the countryman hollered. "I got to see the
General." He pulled up the mule and looked at Matthew, blue—jacketed and
saber drawn. "You the General?"
"No, but I'm the closest you'll find for many a mile."
"I got to see the General. I got news for the General. And I got to see the
Lieutenant, too. You the Lieutenant of the Catawba Rangers? You Dale?"
Matthew lost any amusement. "No." He turned and looked at Lieutenant Dale,
and jerked his head toward the countryman.
"It seems this fellow seeks to speak only to those above or below me,"
"You Dale?" the countryman said. "I got a letter for you." From his breast,
from beneath his soaked jacket and dampened shirt, he pulled a folded piece
of paper, typeset on the outside. He slapped it into Dale's palm, and
breathed actual relief.
"There," he said. "Now, where's the General at?"
"What news do you have for the General?" Matthew asked.
"I got news of the Redcoats' doings that the General needs to hear, and
quick, so where the hell is he?"
"Give me your news, and I'll relay it."
The countryman looked at least unsure, and possibly angry. "I don't know.
This here's pretty big news. What are you that I should . . ."
"I am Matthew Crow, captain of the Catawba Rangers, and if your news is as
urgent as you say, you're wasting time."
Dale finished reading his letter, mouthing through each word. "Who gave you
this?" he demanded of the countryman, brandishing the letter, and Matthew
looked at it for the moment it hung before him. The sheet itself was the
title page from a King James Bible; the reverse was filled with words
scribbled in charcoal. He could not make out any one.
"I walked out last evening to collect more wood for my fire," the
countryman said, "and he comes upon me like a haint. I never saw him, never
heard him till he speaks, him nor his horse, neither. A rider all by his
lonesome, a hood pulled over his face. Assuming that he had a face."
Matthew looked at Dale, shocked at this report of Captain Fiddler. Dale
looked back at the note, and back at the men behind him, at the cook fires,
at the fire by which Quick quartered his squirrel.
"So I tell him I'll set out to find you before first light, and he just
nods and is gone. So I do, I do like I promised, like I promised that dark
rider, you best believe. But I ain't done got to the ferry road before I
hear a thundering, and turn this bitch off into a tangle to hide from
whatever's a—coming, and I see what's got to be the whole Redcoat army come
marching by, marching up the Dix's byway. So I knew right then I had two
messages to deliver, and now, by God, I have delivered them."
He jerked his reins to turn his mule, but Matthew said, "Wait," and
snatched the reins from his hands. He looked about as if for clues or keys
while he thought.
"Reckon we ought to take him to Colonel Lee," Dale said, not asked.
Matthew reckoned, too, that he should, except that he knew he knew what to
do. He knew he knew what Lee would, or should, order him to do.
"No," he said. "We are ordered to patrol, so we will patrol. We will look
for ourselves, then report to Colonel Lee."
He turned to his Rangers. "Eat quick, lads. You heard the man. He says the
Redcoats are nearer than we thought."
"How'd they come upon this road," Zeke Branch asked, "that's supposed to be
"That's a good question, Branch, but now a pointless one," Matthew said. He
walked toward Quick and his squirrel, and so did not see Dale look again at
They wolfed their corn meal, more paste than grits, and sipped the broth
heartened with Quick's squirrel. They drank water from canteens. They
offered to share with the countryman, but he said he'd not take food from
hungry soldiers, seeing as how his wife would lay out far better fare for
him when he got home. The Catawba Rangers finished their hurried breakfast
and mounted up, and the countryman began to give directions.
"But you will come with us," Matthew said.
"I?" He looked from Matthew to Dale and back. "But why should I do such a
"To show us the spot where you saw the British soldiers."
"But I can tell you the spot. I was telling you the spot. I . . ."
"It would be a better service for you to show us," Matthew said.
"But I . . ."
"I do not doubt you when you say they are upon this road. I do doubt that
you are exact on the distance. I do not believe the British to be as close
as you say, and I do not wish to overpass the spot you describe."
His voice sounded patient and reasonable, giving the countryman less ground
to object than if he'd been abrupt and imperious. He'd learned that much,
at least, leading militia.
"I'll go with you, then," the countryman said at last, "but I ain't a—going
on this mule. We run into Redcoats, I got to be astride something with a
tinker's chance of getting away."
"That's a fair point," Dale said.
"You have some spare mounts I'm not aware of?" Matthew said to him.
"Give him Quick's," Dale said. "Let the farmer swap mounts with Quick."
Matthew looked at Dale a moment, a beat, a measure. He had heard a strange
insistence, almost victorious, in Dale's suggestion, in his manner of
suggesting. He searched Dale for the something he could not see. He
realized his men were watching him, waiting his response.
When he turned to Quick he saw that Quick watched him, too. "Captain,"
Quick said, "can't nobody make Sadie mind good, except for me. You know
Matthew almost nodded, before remembering he knew no such thing. Sadie was
ever a well—mannered mare.
"Oh, I'm a deft hand at any horse," the countryman said. "I'd a fine pony
that the Tories took two years ago, leaving me only with this here bitch."
"Captain," Quick said, not pleading but edging that way.
The Catawba Rangers still left still watched him, every one. Matthew felt
their eyes upon him like a wire.
Never mind inheritance, of name and blood and wealth. He was, in truth,
superior: smarter and more educated, braver, taller, stronger, fiercer,
more tested, more country—loving, better. He would fight any one of them
hand—to—hand, even Dale, and give himself odds better than even. For nine
months now he had outridden them all, and with his little carbine was more
accurate than most others with a rifle. He had not once failed them or
Why then would they not trust him? Why would they not let him simply lead,
having voted him captain of the company he himself had raised? Should not
this and all militias be miniatures of the very Republic for which they
fought? Was this not why they fought — to clear the field so that men of
ability and reason could rise to their natural height?
Matthew had gone to the college furnished like a gentleman, but there had
found himself among actual gentlemen, sons of Chesapeake planters and
eastern mercantiles. No matter how profitable this Hotspur may have been,
they found Matthew rustic and hard, they whose parents had not died at the
hands of the Cherokee. This shocked and amused him, having always found
himself soft and coddled next to Gabriel or Ben, much less Paw Tom. He
learned in a hurry, though, in less than his first week, to turn this to
his advantage. He was bigger than most, more sure with a pistol, and could
ride with any Virginian. He found that he could bristle and buck, in less
than an instant, when any well—born son tried to maneuver him into a sort
of lieutenancy, the brawn to this other's brain, like a well—trained hound
to sit at his master's heels. Three tried that first semester. Their
attempts did not end well for them.
Matthew had watched these gentle sons, even as he enjoyed their company,
and would often want to say to them, Do you not see, do you truly not see?
If our high talk of nature's laws and natural rights ever becomes more than
talk, ever becomes a principle of governance, then we will have blown
away—later, or sooner—all notion of gentleness. What will it count for in
such a land as this? If God gives kings no right to rule by birth alone,
why would he give such rights to gentlemen? What did gentility mean,
anyway, in a land where a man could leave indenture and come west with an
ax and the clothes on his back, and with work and good fortune prosper, and
prosper so well that his sons could learn to read, and then to read Greek
and Latin, and never have to lift a finger but to draw checks and keep
ledgers? Matthew knew such men and such sons back home, and that was in the
iron clay of Carolina. What space, what chance, awaited in the vasty West
across the mountains?
Were such sons then gentlemen? Was he, just because his uncle could send
him to college, and send him furnished as one? Did he, did they, then
inherit any right to lead, as they inherited land and slaves and horses?
Their own high talk said that they did not: Did they then have to prove
their right, by wiles or might or both, every moment, every day?
He could not help but think then of Tryon's muster. He had seen then and
there the inheritance he most desired of Paw Tom. He sometimes felt that
the motive trail of his every thought and deed led back, sooner or later,
to that muster, just before the Regulators broke into open war, when
Governor Tryon called all the colonial militias from the Catawba and Yadkin
valleys together, and bribed them into drunken fools. He was mere Matty
Crow then, a boy at his first militia muster. He was an orphan but hardly
minded. He'd been only a year old when Indians murdered his parents during
the war with the French, so he had no memory of them or of their loss, and
Tom and Mary treated him as well as any of their sons. Paw Tom had formed
the Paw Creek Boys some years before, not long after he'd claimed and
cleared the land between Paw Creek and the Catawba and named it Hotspur. He
called them to range against the Cherokee raiders who'd thrown in with the
French, and he led them well. By the time of Tryon's muster the Paw Creek
Boys were known to be a formidable force, and Paw Tom Crow to be a serious
man, and a man who at the very least sympathized with Regulation.
His Paw Creek Boys stood soldierlike nonetheless, as Governor Tryon spoke
to them from horseback at that muster. He spoke of duty and the king's
affection, and he spoke well, and he'd brought proof of George's regal
love: a wagon, covered until his speech was done, loaded to the wales with
brandy and rum. All those men mustered in the meadow, all those Carolina
men, and all of them broke like children when they pulled the canvas back.
They whooped and hollered and ran for the spirits like castaways, gone out
of their minds with thirst.
No more than a boy, Matthew Crow still knew that not a one of those men
wished their governor well; no one west of the Haw did. The governor did to
them, rather than for, much less by. He thought them not citizens, but
clients at best; at worst, no more than a palisade between the planters and
merchants of the east and the tribes of the west. Just a boy, Matthew Crow
still knew that this was and would be how the freedom of men is confined,
stripped, and stolen: not at first with steel and lead, but with liquor,
with luxury, with the promise of childish ease. No more than a boy, Matthew
Crow knew all this as he sat minding Paw Tom's wagon and mules, listening
to Tryon assure "his" backcountry militiamen of friendship, his friendship,
the King's friendship, as well as their kindly regard. Having promised that
he and their King wanted and knew what was best for them, he let them loose
on the spirits. Then he would exact a promise from them, and on their honor
they would have no truck with Regulation.
Hard men of the backwoods, pioneers of the west, men who perforce had seen
much of death and the elements of raw life, bitter men who'd cursed the
governor and threatened with grievous assault his lace—draped assemblymen
and their crony sheriffs, whooped and howled and took his bribe. Militia
companies from the valleys — from Mecklenburg, Rowan, Anson and Surry —
broke rank and swarmed the governor's wagons.
Save for two: one from somewhere in Rowan, and the Paw Creek Boys. Still
and soldierly stood all the men under Paw Tom's command, save one fellow
who was new to the county and the country around Paw Creek. He took one
step. He took that step forward, then noticed that no one else had moved to
break ranks, and then the poor dumb pilgrim noticed that his solitary step
had been enough to catch Paw Tom's eye. Tom's eyes were burning coals as he
stared down the fool who'd broken his ranks. The fool looked like he'd have
swallowed himself right there, if only he could. He looked like he might
forswear hard drink until Judgment, rather than risk such a look from Tom
Crow again. He looked like he'd put his hand into a fire, and not even ask
for how long, if Paw Tom now so ordered.
That poor fool's face was in the back of his mind every day of this war,
and before. That face was in the back of his mind, like a shadow
candle—cast on the cave wall, when he watched his Rangers waver and almost
break at the Cowpens, before Ben Tucker died, before Captain Fiddler stood
before them and held them fast by the sight of him alone. He did not know
how Fiddler had done it, could do it, and since he did not know how, he
wished Captain Fiddler were here with him to do it now. He wished Fiddler
were here with them this day, this breaking and broken day, amid the bare
and gray trees beside the road to Dix's ferry. Perhaps if Captain Fiddler
were here to look back at the faces who looked at him now, waiting for his
response to Dale's suggested swap, then he would see faces like that of the
poor fool at Tryon's muster. He searched his Rangers for a face like that,
but found it not, though his eyes, he felt, were fiery, and his visage as
fierce as he could manage.
He knew how he must respond. If he did not, their grumblings would turn to
desertion if not mutiny. Though Quick was the best horseman among them—
no, he thought, just the once and never again: not 'though' but
—he must have Quick give up his horse for a mule. Though Quick he'd known
the longest, and Quick alone he loved almost like a brother, he knew he
must put Quick in the gravest danger.
He ordered Quick to make the trade.
He had been confident the countryman was wrong. He'd been confident the
countryman had seen only a patrol or picket, not Cornwallis's vanguard, or
that the British were not camped nearly so far forward as the man had
Then they stumbled into the Redcoats much as Gates had done at Camden.
They'd come around a dreary bend, where the road ran through a bottom
choked with cane and vine, and seen the British column above and before
them, astonished themselves. There'd been a pause, a moment of collection
before time itself and the life of each man on that road turned and burst
in a clatter of boots and hooves and firelocks. Matthew felt his mind had
raced a thousand miles in a hundred directions. Then the countryman had
screamed out his fright and fled, off like the shots about to come,
plunging Sadie into the very woods, hugging her neck like a lover.
"Go!" Matthew shouted, not 'Turn About' or 'Wheel' or even 'Retreat' but
just, "Go!" The column's first line levelled their muskets; the second and
third lines loaded theirs. Behind them, the green—jacketed Legion riders
put their spurs to their horses and drew their sabers.
They ran, these last of the Catawba Rangers, back the way they'd come. They
had a lead and, Matthew soon realized, better horses. Their horses were
fresher, even, for despite the strain of the last few days, they had not
had to travel as far as the British. The country to them was not treasonous
waste, and they were used to travelling light and rough. The race became
not much of one, and soon the Rangers had outpaced immediate danger.
Quick had not. He'd coaxed the countryman's mule to full gallop, helped by
the clamor and the panic in the air, but she still was just a mule and
could not keep the lead. On a long straight stretch Matthew looked and saw
the Legion riders about to overtake his Quick. He thought to wheel about
and charge right then, but thought better. He called to Dale and to Branch
and Martin as they entered a turn in the road. They stopped and he told
them his plan. Zeke Branch rode ahead to share it with the rest of the
Rangers, while Matthew and Dale and Bob Martin rode into the woods, into
hiding. If Quick only could make it this far, they would ambush their
pursuers and effect his rescue. The rest of the Rangers would turn about
and join them, smash the Legion riders, take their horses, and run to Lee
and Williams and the rest of the light corps. Quick only had to reach the
bend. Matthew drew his saber won at races, watched and listened.
At first he thought Quick was calling to, for, him.
"I am with you!" Quick cried out. "Do not strike, for I am serving you!"
Then, with the horsemen almost upon him, "God save the King! God save King
George! Ask Captain Beauchamp! Where's Captain Beauchamp?"
Reckless, pierced, Matthew urged Blueskin forward through the trees to
their edge, saw and heard. A Legion rider struck Quick hard with the flat
of his sword. He and another stopped, circled Quick on the countryman's
mule, while the rest charged on after the Rangers.
"Dead, you cur," the Legion rider said. "Dead some miles behind us, with
five other good men." He struck Quick again.
"I'd told him how to find Captain Fiddler," Quick said, "I helped him find
the Rider of the Cross."
"And find him they did. They fell into your trap."
"No trap, no trap. I been serving Captain Beauchamp. I been spying for him,
sending him intelligence. How come you come to find this byway, you
Then the Legion met the Rangers, far ahead on the path, beyond Matthew, and
they shuddered at the sound of the clash. When they shuddered Matthew put
the spurs to Blueskin and charged them, enraged, put the two Legionnaires
to the sword, welcomed the warmth and stain of their blood. Bloody and
silent he stared at Quick.
Dale came to him then and said, "Not now, Captain, we must away," and tied
the mule's leads around Quick's wrists.
When they caught up to Colonel Lee and his light dragoons, when they at
last could pause and rest, Dale showed Matthew the note he'd had from the
countryman, the note scrawled across a page from a King James Bible.
"How in hell can I betray you, Matthew?" Quick said when Matthew questioned
him. He'd not said his Christian name since they'd gone to war, that
Matthew could recall. "I don't owe you a damn thing. You owe me for a life
Ezekiel Branch struck Quick then and, unthinking, Matthew Crow knocked the
white man back.
He reminded Quick he'd always treated him well—dressed him well, fed him
well, mounted him on good horses.
"God damn your treat me well. I ain't your pet to treat well. I'm a man if
you are. Or are you just the Crow's pet, then? He treat you awful well."
Matthew felt the expectations then of those who'd caught and bound and
brought Quick to him. They needed the Captain then to strike, if not to run
In a soft voice he asked Quick why he hadn't just run away.
"'Cause I want you all to die! All y'all with all y'all's talk about
liberty and rights. God damn every last one of y'all. God damn and may His
judgment come down."
Lieutenant Dale had long since finished the noose. Unable to wait for the
order, he drove his fist into Quick's groin to double him over, so that
Quick's head would be lower than his own. He jerked the loop over the crown
and onto Quick's throat. He threw the rope over an ash bough and the other
guards grabbed the loose end. They pulled until Quick stood erect and then
they pulled until Quick stood swaybacked, twisting and leaning as if a reed
in a current, only his toes still touching the ground.
"You were like a brother to me," Matthew said.
Jubilant, hideous, murderous, Quick smiled.
"If I was your brother, you couldn't buy nor sell me," he said, gasping,
glad to fight for the breath of each word. "You, at least, couldn't."
For a moment Matthew searched Quick's eyes for answer, for clues to what he
meant. For a moment Matthew wanted him to explain. Then the moment
collapsed, gave way, and Matthew only hung his head, swallowed hard, and
closed his eyes. He hoped his men could not see his legs quiver. He looked
at Dale and said, "He's yours," as he turned away, and as he turned away,
he heard the sound of Dale's knife scraping out of its sheath.