The quiet and loneliness was driving Ben Smithson to distraction and he couldn’t bear being in the house for any longer. Not that he was in an actual house. He’d been working on the room extension of his house on Sligo Creek nearly where the creek fed into the North River at the foot of the Appalachians to the west. The nearest town to him was Mount Solon, Virginia, a good five miles to the southeast. He didn’t really need the extra room now, which was framed and sheathed in rock up to his chest, the rock being Catherine’s choice. The house itself was a two-room log cabin, the rooms being commodious enough—the bedroom with the loft overhead that he’d put stairs up to early in the winter, and the “everything else” room. The extension was to be his office. The loft was for the child and the children afterward until they could build on to the house. He didn’t need the loft now, and it remained unfurnished.
Both Catherine and the baby had died in a difficult childbirth late in the winter. Ben could have gone back East, over the Blue Ridge, back to some semblance of civilization then—back to Williamsburg. It had been Catherine’s dream to go West, for him to establish his law practice in the Shenandoah Valley. He supposed that it was because that had been Catherine’s dream that he couldn’t leave now—and that he had to finish the room for his law practice. Catherine and the baby were buried out there, in the copse of chestnut trees near the creek’s edge. That was probably the real reason he couldn’t leave. He was bound to their graves.
That and what he had left in Williamsburg where he had studied for the law at William and Mary. He had been indiscreet there. He had thought that what happened in the fears and frustrations of battle would be buried there, but that had not quite happened. Perhaps Mount Solon was far enough away for his indiscretions not to catch up with him. Catherine had thought it would be. Catherine had never given up on him.
He couldn’t stay here longer today in the silence of the cabin, though, and he was tired of lifting rock into place in the frame for his office. It didn’t help that Catherine had declared this, the golden days of autumn, as her favorite time of the year in the valley. The trees were changing their color, there was a nip in the air, and the creek had lowered enough that he could hear the babbling of the water over the rocks. Further up the creek, at Thad’s Mill, before the creek split, giving lesser flow to the Sligo, the water was still high enough to work the wheel.
Thinking on that gave Ben the excuse he was looking for to pull himself away from the cabin and from the graves he could see from the cabin in the stand of trees. There had been so much for Catherine to forgive and she had loved it here, saying it was a new path for them. It was penance for him to stay.
But not for the rest of today. No, he had flour to pick up at Thad’s Mill. He had an excuse to pull away from here, if only for a few hours. He went to the shed and saddled up the horse. It was a good three miles to the mill. And the mill was located on the main road out of Mount Solon north and south, along the Appalachians on the western edge of the valley. He had heard talk that there would be a national census taken for the first time in the next year—1790—and census takers were being hired. As a lawyer, one of only a few in the Mount Solon area, he should be able to land that job. He could use the money as he established his law practice. The mill was the social center of the area this side of Mount Solon. He should be able to learn more about the census plans there.
When he rode up to the mill, it too was quiet, which was unusual. In the stand of trees over by the road, there was more activity, as there often was. Two Conestoga wagons, the distinctive blue color of their canvas covers and fanciful painting on the woodwork identifying them as a gypsy caravans, were pulled up beside the road. Their oxen were out of the traces and watering in the creek. Five men, two women, a few children—who Ben couldn’t count because they were running all around the wagons—were gathered around a fire, cooking a meal. Just more settlers headed up for the Northwest Territory through the Cumberland Gap, where new settlement was under way farther west than Ben and Catherine had come to settle, he thought. Or maybe displaced folk driven out from where they previously had been by suspicion and judgment, as he had been. But, in his case, it had not be suspicion. Gypsies everywhere were driven onward by suspicion and unconventional lifestyles.
As Ben came off his horse, one of the men—a boy, he now could see and had a tightening reaction to—a strapping dark-headed boy nearly half as old as Ben’s own twenty-six, he reckoned on first glance, stood up from the fire and strode to the edge of the road, giving Ben a close inspection. Ben tried not to notice, but his demons stirred. The boy was a dark beauty, as yet with nothing on his chin to shave. His hair was curly and cascaded almost to his shoulders, and his body was well formed, lithe and slim hipped but developing a muscular chest. Although Ben was blond and taller and more solidly built than this boy, he couldn’t help but think back to when he was that young and vulnerable—and about to enter battle and about to suddenly mature in so many ways. Ben turned and quickly moved into the dimness of the main mill room, calling out “Thadius,” as he entered the chamber.
A voice—one higher in pitch than Thadius Cartwright’s—answered him from the wheel room, telling him the owner of the voice would be there shortly—that he was grinding the last of a job.
Thad, Ben thought, Thadius’s young son, given the abbreviated name to distinguish the father from the son—as Thadius’s father, the originator of the mill, had been known as Thad, to maintain the same distinction with a name that had gone down the generations from one oldest son to the next oldest son.
Ben felt the clutch of being in a trap. He wouldn’t have come if he had thought that Thadius wouldn’t be here. He wouldn’t have come if he had known that the miller’s son, of the same age, at fourteen, and aspect as the dark boy over at the gypsy wagons other than being a redheaded version, would be the only one here.
When Tad, the son, came out from the wheel room, he seemed a bit flustered, and it perhaps was just Ben’s imagination that the boy was hitching up his belt. He smiled when he saw Ben, though, and blushed a bit, a redheaded young man not being able to control the flushing of his face as one of another aspect could.
“Hello, Mr. Smithson,” he said in a low, soft voice. “Have you come for your sack of flour?”
“Yes, please, if you have ground what I brought in last week yet,” Ben answered.
“We have it, yes. It’s just over here.” Young Tad backed away to a shelf area off to the side where several sacks of flour were being stored. He kept glancing back at Ben, though, and Ben felt he was flushing as well, although his blond coloring wouldn’t show it as easily as Tad’s red coloring did. Ben always felt the embarrassment of old yearnings when he was around the mill owner’s fourteen-year-old boy.
“Is your father around?” he asked, hoping that the older Cartwright was just around the corner somewhere. “I thought to ask him what he knew about the organization of this census to be taken next year.”
“No, sir,” Tad answered, returning to Ben’s side with a sack of flour. Ben wondered if it was his imagination that Tad maintained contact between their hands for longer than was required to pass the sack, but he didn’t really want to think about that. He shouldn’t have come, he now realized. He now realized that what had made him so jittery at the cabin wasn’t being lonely for his departed wife—it was more the frustration of another sort of loneliness that he had been saddled with through a spring and a summer. He should have known that was the problem as soon as his eyes had met with the exotic, dark gypsy boy across the road when he’d ridden up to the mill. But at least the boy who had risen to come look at him would be gone the next day. Chances were good that Tad would be here whenever Ben came to the mill. Perhaps, he thought, he should take note where the other mills were in the area where he could take his business, such as it was. He was a lawyer, not a farmer, so he only raised the grain he personally needed.
“My father is in Mount Solon today. They are meeting to come up with a delegate to send to Richmond in the coming elections. I would have thought you would be there too.”
“Was that today?” Ben asked. “I must have lost track of the days.” There was no lie in that. Living uncustomarily alone as he now did, Ben had considerable trouble keeping track of the days. He hadn’t been in church on a Sunday since Catherine and the baby had died. He hadn’t forgiven God for that yet. But perhaps he should start going again if only to have some index of how the days fell or because the community would expect their lawyer to do. I was quite sure God hadn’t forgiven him for being what he was yet.
“Well, I guess I will ride on over to Mount Solon then,” Ben said. “I have to talk to Mr. Hitchcock about the drawing up of his will anyway. I’ll ask about the census there.”
“Does that mean you plan on staying in the area?—I mean, if you are interested in the census being taken next year.” The boy’s voice had a hopefulness in it that he couldn’t hide. “I’d heard you were thinking of going back east.”
“No, I plan to stay on here,” Ben answered.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Tad said, his eyes and slight smile again giving away more than he probably intended.
Ben touched his finger to his hat as a farewell salute and turned and left the mill—being afraid that, if he stayed, he’d give away more than he intended to as well. As he was getting on his horse and trying not to look at the dark-haired gypsy boy still standing across the road and looking at him, Ben was surprised to see Sam Culper, a farmer who lived nearby almost slink out of the door of the mill and do a double take when he saw that Ben, who had fumbled a bit at getting the flour sack hooked on his saddle, was still in the mill yard.
Ben tipped his hat to Sam, who, with a guilty look tipped his back, and disappeared around the side of the mill. There were only the two rooms in the millhouse. Sam obviously had been in the wheel room with Tad when Ben had ridden up. Ben wondered why Sam hadn’t revealed himself before Ben left. But, then again, maybe he didn’t wonder at all. The thought didn’t relieve Ben’s own sense of frustration, though. Maybe, just maybe, Sam had been getting what Ben ached to be getting. He looked at Tad, but Tad wasn’t looking at him; his eyes were following Sam Culper getting on his horse and riding away.
“You have the roof on but not yet shingled.”
Ben looked up at the sound of the voice. He had been boiling clothes in a cauldron behind his house, taking a break from carrying rock up from the stream bed to continue building up the wall enclosing what was to be his office. He was stripped to the waist. It was an Indian Summer day—too warm to do hard work all bundled up, but the air too crisp to remain bare-chested for long without physical exertion. Ben had built a working-man’s musculature. Starting a law office in Williamsburg would not have made the physical demands that clearing his own land and physically building his house and law office in the shadow of the Appalachians had. He had a laborer’s physique now—well-defined chest muscles, tapering down to a flat-bellied waist, tanned and with curly blond chest hair swirling around his pectorals and descending in a line where it fanned out on his belly—and lower. His breeches were tight and sat low on his hips.
“Aye, I had help framing the roof,” Ben answered the dark-haired boy standing between him and the in-progress addition project. “But I’ve had to put in the rock walls all myself, and I trust it will be the same with the shingles. Haven’t I seen you before—at Thad’s Mill? Weren’t you with a couple of wagons bound for the Cumberland gap?”
“Yes, that was me, Mr. Smithson, but I was not part of those families, and I had a mind to stop here apiece before going out to the new territories.”
“You know my name.”
“Yes, I asked at the mill. I was told you were a man of learning. My name is Liam.”
“But you are of the gypsies, are you not?” Ben asked. “You have the Romany coloring and you dress as they do.”
“Yes, but my family has passed and I am setting out on a new life.”
“Setting out rather young, aren’t you? How old are you?”
“I am fourteen. I have little choice on setting out, I’m afraid.”
Ben felt himself go hard at being told the boy was fourteen. He knew a thing or two about not have a choice about setting out.
“Well, greetings, Mr. Liam,” he said, giving the boy a closer look, and feeling the old yearnings gripping him. He was so much like Andrew—especially the way the sun caught his unruly black locks, giving them a blue-tinged sheen, and in his small body and slim build. “Is that what brought you out here to my holdings—because I am a man of learning, as you say?”
“Yes, sir, it is. I don’t want to go into the new territories without skills that will see me right. I thought to learn sums before I went. Tad, at the mill, tells me you are a man of the law—that you are college educated.”
“Yes, I studied law at the College of William and Mary under George Wythe.” Ben looked at the boy man, thinking the name of the great scribe of the Revolution would be recognizable, but there wasn’t such a reaction. “George Wythe, who taught law to the likes of our wartime governor Jefferson.” Still no notable reaction. He sighed. “My name is Ben to you as you wish to be Liam to me. Where do you hail from, Liam?”
“The eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge. And I know of Thomas Jefferson well,” Liam said, almost indignantly. “He hails from close to the hollow where my family tried to settle but was not allowed to. Did he learn his sums from this Wythe man?”
“I imagine he learned his sums well before then,” Ben answered gently. “It is a good and useful thing to acquire such learning, though.”
“You’ve raised the rock on your addition, I see, to the level where it would be better to have help to go from there to the roof, and I have nailed shingles to roofs before.”
“Have you now?” Ben asked, realizing why it was the boy was here—what had brought him here to tempt Ben in his frustration. His mind raced on the possibility of hiring this boy on—but with what money? If Ben could have afforded the help in building this law office, he would have hired someone locally. Also, the temptation, as delicious as it might be, might be too much for Ben to resist and even to endure.
“I can help you finish off your room,” Liam said. “If you will teach me sums in the evening, I will work with you on this addition during the day. Just for a place to sleep—maybe in the shed over there—and a bit to eat.”
Ben realized the temptation of the offer, but it was true that he had reached a point where help would be valuable. He couldn’t spend all of this time on the construction and have it finished before winter set in. His law practice was building, and that was crucial.
“The shed is no place for you to have to sleep. The nights are turning cold. You’re welcome to sleep in the house and we will work on your sums there as well.”
That evening, in the candlelight, the two with their heads close together over the sums, Ben was surprised to find Liam quick on the understanding. The lawyer also was disturbed, though, to find that putting their head this close together in the dim light of the candle had made him go hard.
Seeing a scar on the back of Ben’s hand prompted Liam to ask, “Were you in the war? Is that a war wound?”
“Aye, I reckon that came from a .25 Long Rifle ball fired by a Redcoat at Yorktown,” Ben answered. “But it was just a graze. A man pulled me down just at the right moment, or it would have been worse.” Andrew, he thought, looking at Liam and remembering. Andrew should not even have been there. At fourteen, he was too young to fight. But he also was too young to know to know that he could die in the midst of fighting.
“But, yes, I was in the war. My beginning was the war’s ending, though—at Yorktown—the fall of ‘81. Eight years ago. It seems a lifetime. It was after that that I went to the college to learn the law.”
“You joined that late?”
“Aye. I couldn’t join before then. I was just eighteen.”
“I will be eighteen soon enough,” Liam answered—again that slight tone of indignation. “I wish I’d been old enough to have been in the Revolution.” This said with some force.
Ah, not too soon will you be eighteen, Ben thought, and immediately regretted his selfishness at wanting the beautiful boy to remain fourteen forever.
“I think you are lucky not to have been,” He said, with a sad sigh. “It was a time that took some of the best of us and scarred and scared the ‘you know what’ out of the rest of us. It did strange things to men—put them on a path they would not have gone on otherwise that was dangerous and fearsome.” He was looking into the more-pretty-than-handsome face of the young Liam, wanting so much to run his fingers into that unruly mop of raven-dark hair—but knowing that would be going down the wrong path. Again. Indeed, the fright of war brought out a great deal in a man that otherwise could be hidden forever.
They had been hacking at the abatis, the bracken stretched along the pit in front of the British Number 10 redoubt at Yorktown, almost on the banks of the York River when Andrew, slashing at the branches with his bayonet next to Ben, gave a cry and pulled Ben down. All of the young, golden blond, newly minted colonial soldier dipped below the bracken except his hand. He felt the sting as the bullet grazed his hand, and he called out in pain.
“Where yer hit?” cried out the dark-haired Andrew—at fourteen, nearly four years younger than Ben but a more seasoned soldier than he by nearly two years as he had lied about his age at his enlistment and, as obviously boyish as Andrew was, a needy recruitment enlister had looked the other way. Andre would have done anything to get out of the oppressive apprenticeship at the stables outside Philadelphia. Ben, the son of a Williamsburg doctor, had been held back from the war by his doting parents until they no longer had a say in the matter.