The standoff had not gone on for long, just after the sun began coming up over the meeting house, the far steeples of Boston and the ocean between us and who we wanted to be.
But the Regulars didn’t care if it was day or night. They could kill us with their eyes closed, if their commander, or we, let them.
A few hours before, most all of us were in the Buckman Publick House, drinking ale and rum, some smoking pipes. The rest of us, mostly lads like me, got our first real tastes of adult courage off the drink, the smoke and the rhetoric of our elders that night.
“Gentlemen, let there be no great fear of the regulars should they enter our town,” said Captain Parker, his own red coat hanging from the back of a chair. “We shall stand our ground and show them our resolve to hold onto what is rightly ours as lawful citizens of His Majesty,” he whispered and then coughed.
The Captain has the consumption, I’m told by Mother, his cousin, so all the smoke in the room from the hearth and the men’s pipes harmed his breathing quite sorely. That and his harsh coughs practically choked the great man, making him difficult to hear. So I edged up close to him. That seemed to make me feel braver. He’d fought for the Crown in the late war against the French and knew well the tactics and propensities of the Redcoat soldier. If he didn’t sound like he would die by next harvest, I would have had a run at Gage’s whole bloody army by myself.
At sunrise, Thaddeus Bowman, the last scout the Captain had sent out, come bursting into the tavern.
“They’re here, they’re here,” he said in a voice nearly as choked as Captain Parker’s, though not from the consumption. “They’re right behind me, Sir, and this time they are coming in force. Maybe three, four hundred of ‘em,” I heard him tell the Captain. I grabbed my Papa’s old fowler and headed for the door.
About half of us unknotted ourselves from the doorway and ran out into the front yard of the tavern. Everything had an eerie glow to it, ourselves included, from the combined moon’s and sun’s lights shining upon us. I took this as an omen of what lay ahead for us this day and said to my cousin Amos, “The Lord is with us, cuz. He most surely is. We have right on our side and will not be bullied from our own field by redcoated tavern scum.”
The fact that our whole company had spent the night in a tavern, many tasting its wares, and were blinking in the new day’s smoldering light, suddenly arose upon me and I’m sure my face took on a wholly different glow, the hue of a boiled lobster.
All eighty of us men and boys who had been in the tavern began to form ranks on the village common. It was a damned ragged line compared to the ones of the approaching Regulars. They looked like they had been formed buy some great carpenter’s square. We, while most resolute, took on the form of a snake-rail fence.
Over by the road, I could see my grandfather and sister out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look and wave a greeting, but our sergeant, William Munro, gave me a strike from his musket barrel and whispered hot blasphemy and spit in my red ear. But now Grandfather and Deliverance could see where I stood.
Captain Parker walked down our column and looked like Grandfather when he had to dispatch poor old Benedict, his sorrel, when the gelding’s time had come. This did knock all those mugs of my previous courage from my head past my heart and from there to my feet.
“Men, we shall stand our ground, but not provoke the Regulars. Most of our militias’ powder and supplies at Concord have already been safely hidden away,” Captain Parker said. “We’ve all seen the Regulars on such fishing expeditions before. Once they find nothing, they will march back to Boston and we can get back to our lives until the next time.”
Sergeant Munro stalked up and down our lines out there on the Common, truing us up into a more respectable looking force.
“We’re not here to block their advance to Concord, lads,” he said. “We’re just going to show them we shall not be cowed by their brutish arrogance. And to insure we do that to our best abilities, I want you, boy, to move to the rear of our lines. Or better yet, across the road to your family. You are at heart a coward. You have no character and don’t deserve to stand with these honorable men.”
Mister Munro never did have much truck with me. Not since he caught me talking to his daughter, Abigail, behind the Meeting House without an adult family member within arm’s length. He pushed me backwards with the butt of his musket, but I just lined up behind Prince, the Estabrooks’ towering Negro, where he stood in the back row.
Now that Sergeant Munro had squared us up, I could peer through the gaps between men and see the Redcoats approach, their leader riding a fine black.
The sun had climbed high enough for us to see the Regulars advancing on the road to Concord now. They marched as one, dully, with little life to their strides and less to those faces we could make out. They looked for all the world like they were marching in their sleep, their shoes and gaiters caked with drying mud. The only liveliness to this red mass on the road to Concord were their drumbeats, the clinking metal of their equipment and the glint of dawn light on their buttons and weapons.
I felt a chill beyond the normal cold of an April morning and shivered as I stood with Papa’s fowler in my hands. I’d loaded it yesterday with birdshot and a ball, reckoning, if need be, my aim was poor with the rifle ball, I’d at least get a piece of one of the Regulars like he was a pheasant. Instinctively, I pulled the hammer to half-cock. My knees shook and I knew not if it was a shiver from that chill or from something I didn’t wish to admit. Perhaps Munro was right after all. Maybe I was a coward.
But I held my ground. I would not let Munro or the Redcoats run me off. No more.
Just as the wind shifted into our faces, Captain Parker raised his short sword and his rasp wafted over us, saying something like, ”Stand your ground, men. Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” Or so Amos told me later.
I heard another click.
A murmur went through the men ahead of me. Out on the road, the column’s advance guard, rather than taking the left fork to Concord, turned to right and then toward us. I could hear the shouted orders run down their column. I saw the big black horse of their commander turn from the road, leading even more Regulars to the left, close enough for me to throw a rock and hit one. They now formed a solid wall of red before our motley line of farmers and tradesmen.
The officer on the black then rode forward, waving his sword, and called out for us disperse. On the breeze I heard him shout, “Lay down your arms, you damned rebels!”
More orders were yelled down the lines of Regulars. Men within our company began to look at one another, talking all at once. The line looked like it was a row of rye waving in that breeze in our faces.
I could see our Captain Parker say something. I could barely hear his voice, it was now so faint. He lowered his sword and pointed it to the ground. Many in the front line began to back away from the regulars, others stood in alert position as if waiting for someone to say something like an order, show them what to do beside stand as statues.
At the shout of “Poise firelocks,” the Redcoats brought their muskets, bayonets shining in threat at their muzzles, to a position upright in front of them. Most of our men stood stock still.
Next across from us we heard, “Cock firelocks,” and saw the mounted officer shouting at his men and waving his sword, as angry at them as at us. Our line held as Captain Parker shouted in his consumptive whisper.
The breeze died and suddenly the whole world went quiet as the grave. Neither side appeared like it was going to move and no one wanted to stay. Sergeant Munro had left his position at the left end of our first rank. He walked back from the killing ground between the lines and came trotting toward the road with a fearful look as he stared right past me. I, the coward who couldn’t stand like a man to request permission to speak with his daughter. I, the boy who he wished was standing on the other side of the Boston Road.
I took a deep breath and let it out. This impasse between us all would end today.
I touched off my fowler over his head and watched Munro drop to the ground as if he was a baby cowering from a thunderstorm. Or he thought himself dead. Almost instantly there came a roar of a different kind. Red coated men advanced like lions, growling and howling like wild beasts, some firing their muskets. All of them thrusting forward their bayonets.
Some of our men fell like empty grain sacks where they stood, huge holes in their heads and bodies. Others spun like tops, choking on blood and prayers.
We ran for the trees, over rock walls and newly blossoming shrubs. More fell around me. Behind me all I could see was a cloud of sulfurous smoke with glimpses of shadow men, some in what appeared to be pink coats, and flashes of shiny metal within. But I could hear the screams of men so unluckily slow as to taste the steel of Sheffield, and not on their tongues.
Ahead lie the road to Concord, along which I last hunted turkey. That day, April 19, 1775, I hunted my fellow man. That night, I wept, my head upon Mother’s lap, and then gathered my things and marched toward Boston.
No one ever again thought me a coward, even though I don’t believe I took another full breath for the next six years. Not at Breed’s, Quebec, Valcour, Saratoga nor any other of the horrible places I never spoke of to Abigail Munro, who became my wife and the mother of our eight children.
They never met their grandfather, but know he was there with me the day the War for Independence began. That was the day his war ended and I began ours.
A short story based upon what’s considered the first bit of face-to-face armed resistance that ultimately lead to the independence of the thirteen colonies from the rule of the British Empire. In this case, it was a young man’s resistance to the strict and judgmental father of his sweetheart that led to The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.
© 2017, Joseph Hesch