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Vignette: A Tavern In December, In Seventeen Seventy-Six

A brief vignette (hrm. Is there such a thing as a long vignette? If so, why?) for this July 4, which is a date of some significance to people in my country.

If you’re one of those for whom this is a holiday, I hope you have a good one. If you’re one of those for whom this is not, then I hope today is good to you anyhow.

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THESE are the times that try men’s souls.

The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.

Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated.

–Thomas Paine, American Crisis, The Crisis No. I

December, 1776.

The docks were frozen and icy. Winter crossings were never that good an idea, and it seemed like it might just be too cold to set off for France just yet.

In the tavern by dockside he sat, a hot mug near to hand. The barmaid was giggling as she left, which was pretty much what he had been hoping for. He didn’t have much time to take advantage — and truth be told he wasn’t as interested in the catch at his advanced age — but the pursuit gave life the spice to keep going.

At the next table over, a soldier sat. He wore the blue coat of the Continental army, and he did not look happy. Well, there hadn’t been much to be happy about, recently.

He noticed the old man watching him. “Doctor,” he said, curtly.

“You know who I am?” the old man asked, eyebrows up. “I’m surprised.”

The soldier shrugged. “Barmaid said your name enough times. She’s too good a girl to be trifled with.”

The old man snorted. “With the gout in my foot and knee and the prospect of getting on a ship within two hours, I should think she and you have nothing to worry about.”

The soldier shook his head. “Maybe she doesn’t.”

The old man leaned forward. “Meaning you do, son?”

The soldier snorted, nodding for another tankard. “We’ve been retreating as long as we’ve been fighting. The British have captured thousands of us. Congress has abandoned us. Hell’s teeth, Doctor — they abandoned Philadelphia. And in three weeks almost three quarters of the soldiers who are left have their enlistments expire. This so called war is over.”

“Is that why you’re here? To pronounce last rites and produce a post-mortum for Revolution?”

The soldier shook his head, looking into the fire. “I was bringing dispatches. I should be heading back, but it’s miserable out there and besides, there’s no good reason to rush.” He handed a coin to the barmaid as she set the tankard down for him.

“Well, perhaps one day there will be,” the old man said, taking a long pull off his own mug.

The soldier shook his head again, annoyance flashing across his face. “Tell me this — why? Why do I have to be the one to go?”

The old man frowned. “Excuse me?”

“Why me? Why do I have to be the one to go back to a cold camp, to bad food, to the British and the Hessians capturing or killing us? Why does it have to be me?

The old man considered for a long moment. “You don’t,” he said, finally. Not angrily, mind. But like he was surprised he even had to tell the soldier this.

The soldier blinked. “What?”

“You don’t? Oh, you would have to wait out your enlistment, I suppose, but I suspect it ends this month as most of our soldiers do. But you don’t have to reenlist. You don’t have to go out and fight or die, or do anything of the sort.”

“I don’t?”

“Good Heavens, man, of course not.” The old man drank his mug dry, and waved to the barmaid again. “I can’t, of course. Even discounting my advanced age, my gout would mean that I couldn’t walk in a straight line, much less crouch and fire at the oncoming enemy. But you certainly don’t have to. ”

“Then… then it’s all right if I just go home? If I let my enlistment lapse and get back to my family and my fields?”

The old man chuckled. “Of course it’s not all right,” he said. “It means the end of everything. It means the end of the dream, the end of independence. It means the end.” He turned to look at the soldier. “But you don’t have to go. And I know you don’t want to go. But someone does have to go.

“Someone has to go because our cause is just. Someone has to go because our oppressors have taken from us our right to decide our own fates. Someone has to go because liberty isn’t just a word — it is the ineffable, inalienable right to choose not to go. Someone has to go to protect the rights of that barmaid you were worried about, or the rights of old men like me, or of young men like you.”

The old man smiled to the barmaid as she handed him another steaming mug. “This is not a war fought for land. This is a war fought for hope. For freedom. And if you don’t go and those like you don’t go, then I will have to, because someone has to. If we believe in freedom, and believe in our cause, then it must be fought for. It must be suffered for. And yes, it must be died for.” He blew on the mug, and then sipped. “I don’t want to go to France, you know. My foot hurts. My knee hurts. It’s cold, and I’m far too old for this kind of journey. But the French have some modicum of respect for me, so I can plead our case in their courts and halls. Our fledgling nation needs allies, needs money, needs supplies — we have all too many needs and all too few friends, and this is something I can do. So it is something I will do.”

The door opened, and one of the sailors came in. “Gie me something hot,” he shouted. “We go within the hour. Doctor — the Cap’n says he’s taking the shot before we lose the tide. Shall I send for your sedan chair?”

“No,” the old man said. “No, I think I can walk to the end of the dock, if nothing else.” He looked at the soldier. “I just hope that there’s still a cause to fight for when I get there.”

The soldier looked down. “I don’t want to go,” he said quietly.

“I know that, son.”

The soldier looked back up. “You don’t need to walk for my benefit. Not if you’re in that much pain.”

The old man set his mug down, and dropped coins on the table. He pushed on the edge and forced himself up. “Of course I do,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “After all, if you choose to retire from the field after this, you’ll feel horrible, won’t you.”

The soldier smiled, despite himself. “Perhaps,” he said.

“I’ve got to get going,” the old man said, bundling against the cold.

“Yes,” the soldier said. He looked down into his tankard. “So do I.”

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