Roanoke River, Virginia
"William! No!" screamed his mother, Martha, as William broke out of her grasp. He leaped from the porch of their farmhouse and ran toward his brother, who stood surrounded by redcoats on horseback over by the freshly plowed field at the edge of the woods. "Dear God! William!"
Still dressed in her yellow dress and white bonnet, her arms covered in flour, she bent down to help her burly husband, Benjamin Tuck, who lay still after being shot in the leg by a soldier of the British procurement troops. Bo, the old family bloodhound, howled from the end of his rope, which was tied to the front stoop.
"Asher!" cried William. He raced along the wooden fence that held the family livestock, past two British supply wagons. Four black men, dressed in shirts with the words "We Are Free" written in red paint across their fronts, had begun to slaughter the Tucks' hogs and chickens and load the carcasses. Former slaves promised their freedom by the British, they went about their bloody business with axes and clubs.
William ran as fast as his legs could carry him across the field, past the bodies of three British soldiers and Asher's fallen friend, a fellow member of the Virginia militia. The battle had been short and deadly. What had begun as an argument had ended in an explosion of muskets. Asher, a crack shot with his Virginia rifle, had killed two of the twenty British soldiers who had come to take the family livestock for General Cornwallis's army as he rampaged through the southern colonies.
A British captain stood pointing an accusing finger at Asher. The brass buttons on the officer's red uniform coat gleamed in the sunlight. The black feather cockade of his dragoon helmet pointed straight up into the blue of the hot June sky.
Suddenly, the captain slapped Asher across the face with his glove, knocking his tricorn to the ground. He barked an order, and ten redcoats quickly dismounted and began to drag Asher to the nearby woods. Hopelessly outnumbered, Asher did not resist but stood proud and defiant as the soldiers tied him to a tree.
"Form up!" ordered the captain. He then marched arrogantly over to his men as they lined up to form a firing squad. The soldiers began to check and load their muskets.
"I, Captain Barrington Scroope, humble servant of His Majesty, King George III, do hereby sentence you to death for crimes against the Crown." Scroope drew his saber. "May God have mercy on your soul."
"No!" choked William, tears streaming down his cheeks.
"William! Stay back!" called Asher.
"Make ready!" commanded Scroope as he raised his sword above his head. In perfect unison, the ten soldiers brought their Brown Bess muskets up into position and pulled back the cocks.
"Present!" The redcoats took aim. Captain Scroope waited, as if relishing his power.
William sprinted, his feet flying over the ground.
Seeing William running toward his brother, Scroope cocked his head slightly and smiled with false pity-the saber scar that ran down the left side of his mouth turned it into a ghoulish grin.
"Asher!" cried William desperately, racing to get to his brother's side. As he reached the firing squad, one of the redcoats swiftly turned and smashed his musket into the side of William's head. William fell to the ground as blinding pain shot through his body. Blood began to pour from his scalp and drip into his eyes, and his ears rang as he tried to find Asher.
"Fire!" Scroope sliced the air with his sword. Asher turned his gaze from his younger brother and faced his death. The crash of ten muskets ripped the air and tore the heart right out of William Tuck.
William lay in his bed, staring numbly at the shadows on the ceiling caused by the lantern flickering in the humid night air. He briefly closed his eyes. He suppressed the urge to cry out as the vision of Captain Scroope's scarred, sneering face appeared before him. William gingerly touched the bandage on is head. The blow from the British musket throbbed terribly. He listened to the quiet. His mother's weeping had died down to a whimper. The sound of shovels digging the earth had stopped earlier in the evening. Throughout the day, visitors had come. Nearby farmers who'd heard the gunfire had dropped over to check on his family and express their sympathies. Two coffins had been hastily constructed from the wooden planks of the old henhouse, one for Asher and one for his friend. His father and mother had collapsed in grief at the sight of their son, lifeless and handsome, bloodied from his execution. The neighbors washed him and dressed him in his best shirt. William combed his brother's long brown locks before helping to lower the coffin into the ground. The minister from the little church down the road said his prayer of peace after Asher was buried and the body of his friend taken away in a wagon by his family. Two of the neighbors, war veterans, had remained behind to tend to his father's wound. They cut out the lead ball, sealing the flesh with a hot knife-promises had been made by all before they'd returned to their own farms. They would see to it that the Tucks would survive, though nothing was left after this terrible day. The redcoats had taken everything. Their livestock had been butchered and loaded up, the family horse and the two milk cows tied to the wagon and led away. For good measure, Captain Scroope had punished the Tucks for the loss of his own men by burning all the crops. Only some dried pork in the smokehouse remained.
William studied the room around him. Some of Asher's clothes hung on a peg next to the bed. His extra pair of shoes rested beneath. Asher was always very tidy. William held his breath and listened for his brother's voice, his hearty laugh. There was only silence. No longer would he hear of Asher's tales of glory, of heroic deeds done by the men of the Virginia militia. Asher was William's true hero and a growing legend in the Virginia farming community along the Roanoke River. A marksman, his nineteen-year-old brother had fought alongside "Old Waggoner," the brilliant and daring General Daniel Morgan, at the Battle of Cowpens. He had braved the cavalry assault of the cruel and despised Colonel Banastre Tarleton, one of the most feared British commanders, who'd run roughshod through Virginia and the Carolinas. Men like Asher had handed Tarleton his worst defeat that cold January day in North Carolina and, in just one hour of battle, had lifted the spirits of a tired revolution-a revolution that was now six years old. In all the terrible times of the war, the struggles to break from Great Britain, and the stranglehold King George III had on America, there had been few victories. Cowpens was one of them.
"Asher Tuck, the hero of Cowpens," whispered William. And what of himself? Compared to his brother, he was nothing special, he thought. Just a sandy-haired, brown-eyed boy of twelve years, lean and strong from working the farm. He was no one of consequence. And Asher? He'd fought and died today. For what? He shook away the questions.
William slowly sat up on the bed as Bo, the bloodhound, came in for some attention. He leaned over and held the old dog's sad face in his hands and stroked the floppy ears. William reached down for one of Asher's shoes. He pulled out the stocking inside and rolled it up his foot. Then he tried on the shoe, but it was too big. He placed it next to the other one and picked up the jackknife that lay on the stump that rested between the two rope beds. He ached as he pulled out the blade; Asher had promised to give it to William for his thirteenth birthday, which was six months away. Asher had always been doing things for William. William longed to do something in return. But his brother was gone. There was nothing.
Asher's red-and-blue drum sat on the end of William's bed and reached straight into his heart. Drumming was what they'd done most together, and it brought them the greatest joy. The lantern light flickered across the golden eagle painted on the side. It was the drum Asher had used in battle when as a young boy he ran away to join the Continental Army. It was a position of great responsibility. Once he had learned all the drum calls, Asher had beat them to signal men and armies into formations and battles for two years under the orders of Generals Morgan and Lafayette and others in the colonies of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas. After he'd returned from battle, he'd taught William every call. They had practiced whenever they could when they weren't plowing the fields or tending to the many other chores on the hundred-acre farm. For hours, they would drill with musket and drum, then race along the Indian path to the river and dive into its cool waters. Finally, when Asher was old enough to fight in the Virginia militia, he had taken up his backcountry rifle and given the drum to William.
William picked up the drum. The right talon of the golden eagle clutched a flag with the word Freedom stamped upon it.
"Freedom," he said quietly to himself. It was the word his brother was always saying. He could almost hear Asher's voice.
It's everything, William. It's the right of every man.
He turned the drum around. The eagle's other talon gripped a musket. He stared at the eagle as he rubbed his fingers across the stretched skin of the drum. The great bird's dark, fierce eyes beckoned to him. Reaching for the drumsticks, he softly, so as not to wake his parents, tapped General, the command given to the army to strike the tents and prepare to march.
"Advance," he said quietly as he tapped out the call. "Retreat." Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap. Sorrow turned to resolve as his hands softly flew over the drum. Suddenly he stopped. A feeling began to grow inside him. He stared at the drumsticks in his strong, calloused hands. He felt strength of purpose flow through him. It seemed to fill the dark holes of despair. Quietly, he lay the drum and sticks down, reached for his breeches, and pulled them on over his undergarment. He picked up Asher's stockings and rolled them carefully up his calves, buckled on his shoes, and then buttoned his breeches around his knees. He paused a moment to quiet the throbbing of his head and then gingerly put on his homespun hunting shirt and deerskin vest. As he pocketed Asher's jackknife, he noticed the blank, white parchment next to the quill pen on the little wooden desk by the door. He could feel the pounding of his heart as he sat down to write a letter to his parents. His eyes began to fill with tears, for he knew the words were sure to hurt them. But still he wrote.
Dear Mother and Father,
I am sorry. When you wake, I will be gone. Though I have no rifle to fire at the Enemy, the beat of my Drum shall be heard through all the Land and people may call my name as they do Asher's someday.
Your loving Son,
"I'm sorry, Mother," William whispered as the tears began to flow. He blotted the drops that had fallen on the parchment with his sleeve and placed the letter and pen in the center of the table. Pulling back his long sandy hair, he then tied it with a strip of leather. He grabbed his tricorn, eased it over the bloody bandage on his head, and then he picked up his drum and went outside. He set his drum down carefully on the porch, so as not to wake his parents. Reaching for the lantern, he made his way to the smokehouse. He stuffed several pieces of pork into his leather pouch, grabbed a large bone, and crept to where Bo lay on the porch, his tail wagging. The old dog gave him a questioning look as William set the bone down. Bo seemed to know something was up for he ignored it and gave a quiet whine.
"I'm sorry, Bo, not this time. You stay here," said William as he slipped the rope over the dog's head and tied the other end to the porch post. He sat down beside the bloodhound. "You take care of Mother and Father, hear?" He held out his hand and Bo gave it a lick. He took the big dog's head in his hands and inhaled his scent one final time, so he could remember. His throat thickened as he felt the ache of leaving. He offered the bone again. "I'll be back, I promise." That seemed to satisfy Bo, who chomped on the bone, holding it between his paws.
William picked up his drum and headed out into the field. He had no real plan, but as it was known that the French General Lafayette was fighting in Virginia to harass General Cornwallis's rear guard and curb the destruction caused by Banastre Tarleton and the traitor General Benedict Arnold, he would head that way and maybe catch up with the army or militia. Bo suddenly gave a deep bark from the porch. William took one last look back at his home and doubled his pace, fearing his parents would wake up. He shook his head against the doubt that was starting to build and listened to his shoes as they brushed over the tall grass in the bloodied field. Quietly, he began to beat the call to march on the skin of his drum with his fingers. He would follow that beat past the farms of the Roanoke River, past the ghosts of fallen patriots, and past the lonely wail of Bo, who called again for his friend in the moonlight.