JABEZ ROCKWELL'S POWDER-HORN
By Ralph D. Paine
"Pooh, you are not tall enough to carry a musket! Go with the drums, and tootle on that fife you blew at the Battle of Saratoga.
Away with you, little Jabez, crying for a powder-horn, when grown men like me have not a pouch amongst them for a single charge of powder!"
A tall, gaunt Vermonter, whose uniform was a woolen bedcover draped to his knees, laughed loudly from the doorway of his log hut as he flung these taunts at the stripling soldier.
A little way down the snowy street of these rude cabins a group of ragged comrades was crowding at the heels of a man who hugged a leather apron to his chest with both arms. Jabez Rockwell was in hot haste to join the chase; nevertheless he halted to cry back at his critic:
"It's a lie! I put my fife in my pocket at Saratoga, and I fought with a musket as long and ugly as yourself. And a redcoat shot me through the arm. If the camp butcher has powder-horns to give away, I deserve one more than those raw militia recruits, so wait until you are a veteran of the Connecticut line before you laugh at us old soldiers."
The youngster stooped to tighten the clumsy wrappings of rags which served him for shoes, and hurried on after the little, shouting mob which had followed the butcher down to the steep hillside of Valley Forge, where he stood at bay with his back to the cliff.
"There are thirty of you desperate villains," puffed the fat fugitive, "and I have only ten horns, which have been saved from the choicest of all the cattle I've killed these two months gone.
I would I had my maul and skinning-knife here to defend myself.
Take me to headquarters, if there is no other way to end this riot.
I want no pay for the horns. They are my gift to the troops, but, Heaven help me! who is to decide how to divide them amongst so many?"
"Stand him on his bald head, and loose the horns from the apron. As they fall, he who finds keeps!" roared one of the boisterous party.
"Toss them all in the air and let us fight for them," was another suggestion.
The hapless butcher glared round him with growing dismay.
At this rate half the American army would soon be clamoring round him, drawn by the chance to add to their poor equipment.
By this time Jabez Rockwell had wriggled under the arms of the shouting soldiers, twisting like an uncommonly active eel, until he was close to the red-faced butcher. With ready wit the youngster piped up a plan for breaking the deadlock:
"There are thirty of us, you say, that put you to rout, Master Ritter. Let us divide the ten horns by lot. Then you can return to your cow-pens with a whole skin and a clean conscience."
"There is more sense in that little carcass of yours than in all those big, hulking troopers, that could spit you on a bayonet like a sparrow!" rumbled Master Ritter. "How shall the lots be drawn?"
"Away with your lottery!" cried a burly rifleman, whose long hunting-shirt whipped in the bitter wind. "The road up the valley is well beaten down. The old forge is half a mile away. Do you mark a line, old beef-killing Jack, and we will run for our lives.
The first ten to touch the stone wall of the smithy will take the ten prizes."
Some yelled approval, others fiercely opposed, and the wrangling was louder than before. Master Ritter, who had plucked up heart, began to steal warily from the hillside, hoping to escape in the confusion.
A dozen hands clutched his collar and leather apron, and jerked him headlong back into the argument.
Young Jabez scrambled to the top of the nearest boulder, and ruffled with importance like a turkey-cock as he waved his arms to command attention.
"The guard will be turned out and we shall end this fray by cooling our heels in the prison huts on the hill," he declaimed. "If we run a foot-race, who is to say which of us first reaches the forge?
Again,--and I say I never served with such thick-witted troops when I fought under General Arnold at Saratoga,--those with shoes to their feet have the advantage over those that are bound up in bits of cloth and clumsy patches of hide. Draw lots, I say, before the picket is down upon us!"
The good-natured crowd cheered the boy orator, and hauled him from his perch with such hearty thumps that he feared they would break him in two.
Suddenly the noise was hushed as if the wranglers had been stricken dumb. Fur-capped heads turned to face down the winding valley, and without need of an order, the company spread itself along the roadside in a rude, uneven line. Every man stood at attention, his head up, his shoulders thrown back, hands at his sides. Thus they stood while they watched a little group of horsemen trot toward them.
In front rode a commanding figure in buff and blue. The tall, lithe frame sat the saddle with the graceful ease of the hard-riding Virginia fox-hunter. The stern, smooth-shaven face, reddened and roughened by exposure to all weathers, lighted with an amiable curiosity at sight of this motley and expectant party, the central figure of which was the butcher, Master Ritter, who had dropped to his knees, as if praying for his life.
General Washington turned to a sprightly-looking, red-haired youth who rode at his side, as if calling his attention to this singular tableau. The Marquis de Lafayette shrugged his shoulders after the French manner, and said, laughingly:
"It ees vat you t'ink? Vill they make ready to kill 'im? Vat they do?"
Just behind them pounded General Muhlenberg, the clergyman who had doffed his gown for the uniform of a brigadier, stalwart, swarthy, laughter in his piercing eyes as he commented:
"To the rescue. The victim is a worthy member of my old Pennsylvania flock. This doth savor of a soldier's court martial for honest Jacob Ritter."
The cavalcade halted, and the soldiers saluted, tongue-tied and embarrassed, scuffling, and prodding one another's ribs in an attempt to urge a spokesman forward, while General Washington gazed down at them as if demanding an explanation.
The butcher was about to make a stammering attempt when the string of his apron parted, and the ten cow-horns were scattered in the snow. He dived in pursuit of them, and his speech was never made.
Because Jabez Rockwell was too light and slender to make much resistance, he was first to be pushed into the foreground, and found himself nearest the commander-in-chief. He made the best of a bad matter, and his frank young face flushed hotly as he doffed his battered cap and bowed low.
"May it please the general, we were in a good-natured dispute touching the matter of those ten cow-horns which the butcher brought amongst us to his peril. There are more muskets than pouches in our street, and we are debating a fair way to divide them. It is--it is exceeding bold, sir, but dare we ask you to suggest a way out of the trouble which preys sorely on the butcher's mind and body?"
A fleeting frown troubled the noble face of the chief, and his mouth twitched, not with anger but in pain, for the incident brought home to him anew that his soldiers, these brave, cheerful, half-clothed, freezing followers were without even the simplest tools of warfare.
The cloud cleared and he smiled, such a proud, affectionate smile as a father shows to sons of his who have deemed no sacrifice too great for duty's sake. His eyes softened as he looked down at the straight stripling at his bridle-rein, and replied:
"You have asked my advice as a third party, and it is meet that I share in the distribution. Follow me to the nearest hut."
His officers wheeled and rode after him, while the bewildered soldiers trailed behind, two and two, down the narrow road, greatly wondering whether reward or punishment was to be their lot.
As for Jabez Rockwell, he strode proudly in the van as guide to the log cabin, and felt his heart flutter as he jumped to the head of the charger, while the general dismounted with the agility of a boy.
Turning to the soldiers, who hung abashed in the road, Washington called:
"Come in, as many of you as can find room!"
The company filled the hut, and made room for those behind by climbing into the tiers of bunks filled with boughs to soften the rough-hewn planks.
In one corner a wood-fire smoldered in a rough stone fireplace, whose smoke made even the general cough and sneeze. He stood behind a bench of barked logs, and took from his pocket a folded document.
Then he picked up from the hearth a bit of charcoal, and announced:
"I will write down a number between fifteen hundred and two thousand, and the ten that guess nearest this number shall be declared the winners of the ten horns."
He carefully tore the document into strips, and then into small squares, which were passed along the delighted audience. There was a busy whispering and scratching of heads. Over in one corner, jammed against the wall until he gasped for breath, Jabez Rockwell said to himself:
"I must guess shrewdly. Methinks he will choose a number half-way between fifteen hundred and two thousand. I will write down seventeen hundred and fifty. But, stay! Seventeen seventy-six may come first into his mind, the glorious year when the independence of the colonies was declared. But he will surely take it that we, too, are thinking of that number, wherefore I will pass it by."
As if reading his thoughts, a comrade curled up in a bunk at Rockwell's elbow muttered, "Seventeen seventy-six, I haven't a doubt of it!"
Alas for the cunning surmise of Jabez, the chief did write down the Independence year, "1776," and when this verdict was read aloud the boy felt deep disappointment. This was turned to joy, however, when his guess of "1750" was found to be among the ten nearest the fateful choice, and one of the powder-horns fell to him.