April 18th, 1775
I can do no more repair work on the boats today, I must rest. It’s been a full five years since a British musket ball struck me in the back and came to rest in my kidney. Five years since the surgeon cut it out through my chest, leaving me with wounds that have never fully healed. Some days there’s fever, other days pain. On the worst days, like today, I am stricken with both. I am weak with fever, and have no desire for food or drink. I can do no more today, I must recover. My hands tremble as I lock up the boatwright shop early.
I drag my body up into the saddle, and begin the ride home. Just outside of town, the cobblestone gives way to dirt, and I nudge the reins to go up towards the North Bridge. Just past old Minister Emerson’s manse, past the Robbins house, then Hutchins’ Farm...and finally home. To be truthful, not my home, but the home of Mr. Garrett -- the master for whom I have apprenticed since I was a boy. Approaching the house, I’m welcomed only by darkened windows. Mr. Garrett is elsewhere, no doubt occupied by the business of the continental militia; the business of...the rebellion.
As I come down off my mare, I place one foot on the ground, and the lazy heel of the other is caught fast in the stirrup. I fall straight down on my back as one half dead, and from this state it seems to me -- through a sharp pain in my head-- that I might lose consciousness. I misplace some time here --a minute, perhaps two-- then gather the strength to get to my feet and finish the journey: up the walk, onto the porch, through the door, and up the stairs. I kick off my boots, and fall face first into bed, still dressed in my clothes. The sheets feel cool against my fevered face. Then, sleep. Sleep.
What must be many hours later, my sleep is disturbed by a firm knock at the door. Shuffling down the stairs, I observe that my legs feel a little better now after the rest. The fever has improved, but my hip joint still aches, as always. I pull a twist of paper from a jar on the mantle, touch it to the embers under the grate, and use it to light a candle as I walk towards the door.
“Who is it?” I ask.
“I am Captain Passeur. My men and I require quarters,” replied the stranger.
I know the law. British soldiers can demand quarters and food from citizens. But, this man’s voice does not carry a British accent, nor are there any Redcoats on this side of the Concord river.
I open the door. Even in the bright candlelight, his fine wool coat gives no hint of red. As such, his coat far too dark to be even the deepest shade of blue. Where rows of polished brass buttons should be, hang only dull grey knobs of tarnished metal. His fitted waistcoat and knee breeches are the color of soot, as if they had been used too many times to swab a cannon bore. Behind him, his men and their horses are shadows, shifting quietly about the yard with the movement of the candle flame.
“Good evening, Captain. I’m Christopher Monk, and this is the home of Mr. Thomas Garrett.”
While I must know the purpose of the captain and his men, I can bring neither the courage nor the words to ask. I decide it does not matter: whatever his answer, I have no means by which to deny these men what they seek. “Please come in, Captain,” I say, as I step aside. “I’ll light a fire for you and your men.”
The Captain strides into the room, his oiled leather boots are black up to his knees, dulled by the dust of countless miles of road. “My men will sleep in the stables.” He seats himself on the bench, at the table near the fireplace. His curved scabbard swings close to the floor behind the bench where he sits.
I feel him sizing me up; assessing me. I work on the fire, conscious that my injuries make me conspicuous. “Sorry, sir. I was shot in front of the Boston Custom House, five years ago. Never been right since, move a little slow. I’ll get you set right here in a minute.” I finish lighting the fire.
“Custom House…” He paused. “I was there too. They killed six men that day.” His words are slow and solemn. Despite the light from the fire, the Captain’s face remains in shadow beneath the dark leather of his bicorne hat. His choice of words “they killed” is comforting to me. He did not say “we killed” as a Redcoat --or a loyalist-- might have done.
“Well, sir. It was five, not six,” I stammer. “Three men died right there on the street. The other two were taken by their wounds not long after. Quite a few others, including me, were injured.”
The captain removes his hat, and places it on the table. His dark hair frames a ghastly face; pale skin stretched thin by hunger, and horrors. “Yes, of course,” he says, nodding. “Five.” My heart is struck with pity for the hardships man has surely endured. I’m in my 23rd year, I should be helping; I should be preparing to fight like the others my age. But, my wounds will not allow it.
I bring him a loaf of crusty bread, some hard cheese, a log of cured meat, and an apple, and place them on the table beside the Captain. “Master Garrett keeps a few bottles of hard cider about, care for a bit?”
I take a seat on the bench, across the table in front of the Captain, with two cups, a decanter of water, and a sealed bottle of Garrett’s best cider. On any other evening, the old man and I would crack into one together anyway, so no harm done.
“So, at any rate, I’m lucky. And I'm thankful.” I say as I fill the two cups with cider. “The town has taken up collections several times to support me. Master Garrett looks after me like his own kin, and instructs me in the boatwright's trade. I’m permanently disabled, and my wounds will never heal properly, and I get terrible spells of pain, and fever...but I’m alive. Every day is a blessing, even the bad ones.”
Over the next hour or so, the Captain and I talk our way to the bottom of the bottle. Although, in truth, I do nearly all of the talking. He is quietly amused by how close we came to meeting before. I tell him the full story of what happened that day in front of the Custom House, five years ago.
“Are you sure nothing your men want, to make them more comfortable?” I ask, as the bottle gives up its last drops of cider.
“No, thank you. My men have everything they need.”
“Well then, sir. Please make yourself comfortable here in the house.” The cider, and the late hour, make me start thinking about returning to bed myself, and I start up the stairs. “Good night, sir.”
The next morning, the sounds of horses being saddled, and the low murmurs of men in the yard pull me up from my sleep. From the upstairs window, I see the dim grey light of morning just starting to break. The men below are still just shadows in the damp mist.
I go downstairs, to find the Captain has already risen, just finishing his preparations to depart. “Good morning, Captain.” I said. “Shall I make breakfast?”
“No, thank you. My men and I must get an early start.”
“Where will you go, if I may ask?”
“We have been charged with gathering men, brave souls, and leading them across the river.”
Now the Captain swirls into his fine, ashen wool coat with the dull metal buttons, and again casts his face in shadow under the two-corner hat. He opens the front door and steps out onto the porch, where he had stood knocking just a few hours before. He turns to face me, just as we had met, now with the dim grey morning to his back, and his men moving in shadowy mists behind him.
“My men and I have much to do today, and still a great deal more in the many days to come.”
“Well, I pray for your safety, Captain.”
“I’ve enjoyed your company Christopher Monk,” says the Captain as he swings up onto a sleek dark warhorse. “Thank you for your kind generosity. We will meet again, but not today. Until then, farewell”
And then, at the gentlest gait, Captain Passeur, his men, and their horses are swallowed by the grey mist of the dawn. And, I return to be swallowed by the warmth of my bed.
The pain in my head returns, but duller now, and brings with it the distant voice of Master Garrett. I recognize his voice, but my head is stuffed with warm honey; his words cannot get through. I pull myself up, and after a moment, his voice becomes more clear.
“You gave me quite a scare, Christopher,” he says. “The doctor feared you might not survive.”
“Survive?” I ask, as the last bit of honey clears from inside my aching head.
“Yes….I found you in the yard. Your pony was loose, grazing around your head as you lay flat on your back, unconscious from the worst fever I’d ever seen you endure. Here, drink this.” He hands me a warm tea that smells of Dogwood, and Tulip Poplar.
Through the open window, I hear the far-off shouts of men. I hear a distant, ragged volley of musket shots coming from the river, near the North Bridge. Farther off, another volley of muskets snaps back an answer. On the road below, one of the townsfolk is driving a horse, pulling a cart of tattered men behind; some dead, some wounded. I see neither a scrap of red nor blue, only threadbare waistcoats and shabby bandages, soaked through with the purple stains of death.
I think of the Captain, assembling his brave souls and leading them across the river. We will meet again, he’d said.
Well...take your time, good Captain. Take your time.
In March of 1770, a seventeen year-old boatwright’s apprentice named Christopher Monk was seriously wounded when he was shot by a British soldier during the Boston Massacre. The Massacre took the lives of five men, and Monk was left crippled for life and in chronic pain. This short bit of historical fiction is set five years later, on April 18th 1775: the day before the Revolutionary War began at North Bridge in Concord Mass., only twenty miles away from where Monk had been shot five years earlier. Monk would have been 23 years old.
One can imagine a captain like Passeur, in his irregular uniform, as an officer in the patched-together colonial militia, "gathering his men, and taking them across the (Concord) River" to rally at Concord and defend against the British.
Likewise, Passeur is French for "Ferry Man", and in this sense he is Death. He's come with his angels the day before the war begins, to begin the years of leading the tens of thousands of brave souls --on both sides-- across the river into the afterlife. Death has come to collect Monk as well, but Monk's selflessness and appreciation for life cause Death to give him a rare reprieve.
Monk’s wounds never healed, and he died in 1780, purportedly due to the injuries that he had sustained in the attack a decade earlier: making him the sixth, and final, victim of the Massacre.