Chapter 6 from The Autobiography of William Watson - Book I

by Lenny Bernstein, 1941-2016

Author's Note: Alternate history is a genre that uses fiction to explore questions about what could have occurred if actual events had turned out differently. The Autobiography of William Watson – Book I, the first part of an alternate history trilogy, looks at what might have happened had the American Revolution failed.

The sides of the barn the Hessians had chosen as our prison had many gaps, allowing in enough light for us to see. After considerable pushing and shoving, we found places to rest. I sat against the wall of a stall that smelt of cow manure. It was comforting after the agony of the march and the horror of the battle. Inside the barn was no warmer than outside, but we were sheltered from the wind and after a few minutes I stopped shivering.

Three Hessian privates guarded us. They were warmly dressed in grey greatcoats, hats, and gloves, and wore thick woolen scarves around their necks. Their boots gleamed, even in the mud of the barn floor. They were model soldiers, making me even more aware of how ragtag our army had been.

“What will happen to us?” one of the other prisoners asked.

The Hessians showed no signs of comprehension. A few more questions established that they spoke no English.

“Anyone here speak German?” the prisoner finally asked.

“I do,” I said.

“Try to find out what’s going to happen to us.”

Rather than asking that question directly, I started by asking our guards their names.

Was sind Ihre Namen?” Two of them pointed their muskets at me, but the oldest and fattest of the three smiled. He seemed happy to finally understand something that was being said.

Ich bin Dietrich,” he said pointing to himself. “Er ist Thomas,” he continued, pointing to the tallest one, “und er ist Heinrich,” pointing to the third guard, who was short with brown eyes.

Vielen dank. Ich bin William,” I said to thank him and introduce myself. He started to put out his hand to shake mine then pulled it back, realizing that he was supposed to be guarding, not befriending, me.

Was mit uns geschehen wird?” I asked.

Ich weiß nicht.” Dietrich shrugged his shoulders to signify that he didn’t know what would happen to us. Several more questions received the same answer.

Noon came and went, but we received neither food nor water. I should have been hungry, but if I was, I hadn’t noticed it in the turmoil. I hadn’t even eaten the stale bread in my pocket. For water we sucked on icicles, which we broke from the barn rafters. Several of the prisoners had been wounded, but we could do nothing for them. The worst was a blond-haired man who had been shot in the stomach and moaned piteously. He died in the early afternoon.

“Dietrich,” I called. “A man has just died. Can we move his body out of the barn?”

There was a hurried conference, then a blunt response. “Nein, you will keep him there.”

We moved his body to a corner, and several prisoners kept watch to chase away the rats that were certain to be in the woodwork.

Our guards wouldn’t let us out to relieve ourselves. With a hundred men in the barn and no latrine, the air soon became foul. The sleet and snow of the morning had turned into a light rain. It must have been about four in the afternoon because the winter sun was barely above the horizon. I returned to the stall where I’d claimed space. It was empty. The rest of the prisoners were congregated in the little bit of light at the centre of the barn, like children afraid of the dark. I sat head down against the wall in the growing darkness thinking things couldn’t get worse, when I heard a hoarse voice say, “What’ve we here? A pretty young lad who’s going to be my fag.”

I turned to see a big, stocky man with at least three days’ growth of heavy black beard on his face. He was clad in the ragged clothes that were the rebel army’s uniform and his feet were bundled in rags. His breath reeked of rotten teeth.

“Come here, boy,” he said, making a grab for my left shoulder. “Don’t make me hurt you.”

I scuttled away. He made another grab and this time caught me. I struggled to get out of his grasp and kicked at his legs, but to no avail.

“Leave the lad alone,” a voice with a strong Scots burr said.

“This is none of your affair.”

“I said leave the lad alone.” My protector appeared out the shadows. He was smaller than the man holding me, dressed in buckskins, and wearing shoes rather than rags. My assailant let go of me and lunged at him, but my protector sidestepped easily and punched the big man in the face as he lurched past. My assailant turned quickly, but the Scotsman was ready and punched him in the gut. He followed with a kick to the groin. The big man fell in a heap. My protector kicked him several times in the head and ribs as he lay there groaning, after which he was silent. The fight occurred in what seemed like no more than fifteen seconds.

“Are ye harmed, laddie?”

“No, sir,” I said, my whole body shaking from what I had just experienced. “Thank you for protecting me.”

“What’s your name?”

“William Watson, sir.”

“Well, young Will,” he said, sticking out his hand. “I’m Donald Mackenzie.”

“My name is William, sir,” I said, shaking his hand.

“Feisty, aren’t you? Aye then, William, it is.”

Donald studied the prostrate body on the floor for a moment before administering another kick.

“That lout will probably come after both of us when he wakes up. Sit by me. I was planning to depart these premises tonight anyway. Perhaps you should leave with me. Travelling alone is never a good idea, especially in the winter. And you speak German, which might come in handy if we run into Hessians.”

He said this so casually that my jaw dropped. But his manner reassured me, and I followed him to the next stall. The other prisoners, who’d watched the fight, quickly moved out of the way.

“The Hessians’ll starve us,” he said matter-of-factly, as if it should’ve been obvious to me. “In three days we won’t have the strength to escape. It’s now or never.”

I was too stunned to reply.

“What’s wrong? Cat got your tongue?”

“But where will we go? The Hessians are all around. They’ll shoot us.”

“First they have to catch us. If I can escape from the Cherokee, I can certainly outwit a bunch of clumsy Hessians.”

“You escaped from the Cherokee?”

“I did indeed, but it wasn’t easy. I’ll tell you about it some time.”

I was still pondering this turn of events, when Donald said, “If you come with me, you’ll have to follow my orders quickly and without question. Will you do that?”

“Yes,” I said hesitantly, not knowing what I was promising.

“You’re certain?”

“Yes sir,” I replied, in a louder, and I hoped more confident, voice.

“Aye then. Get some sleep. We’ll leave when it’s dark.” With that he closed his eyes.

I sat there for a while as visions floated through my head. I was standing against a wall in front of a Hessian firing squad as the officer-in-charge called “Ready.” I was climbing up the stairs to my grandparents’ home above the ironmongery shop. I was in the kitchen of our house on our farm in Graves End watching my mother knead bread for baking. After a while I fell asleep.

The next thing I knew a hand was shaking my shoulder. “Wake up, William. Time to go.”

Slowly, as my eyes got used to the dim light, I made out the form of Donald Mackenzie standing above me. I stood up, adjusted my clothes, and followed him to the closed barn door. A half dozen other prisoners were gathered near it, also intent on escape.

“Let them go first,” Donald said in a low voice. “They’ll flush out whatever Hessian guards are still around.”

Very slowly one of the prisoners eased the door open wide enough to squeeze through. Its hinges creaked with what seemed like the loudest sound in the world. I expected a Hessian guard to come running, but none appeared. The group of prisoners rushed through the door. I started to follow them, but Donald put his hand on my shoulder.

“Wait just a little while longer,” he said.

I heard shouts of halten sie, then a musket shot.

We peered around the open barn door and, by the light of the full moon and a few stars, could see Hessian soldiers running toward the woods to our right. We could see none in the other direction. Donald waited for another half minute, then said, “Now, William,” giving me a gentle push toward the woods on the left.

The rain had ceased and the temperature was still above freezing. I could see well enough to avoid walking into a tree, but with every branch dripping melting snow and ice, there was no way to stay dry. The ground was covered with slush and we were leaving a clear trail for the Hessians to follow. I wanted to go back to the barn, but couldn’t. The sodomizer was still there, and I wouldn’t have Donald to protect me.

After we had progressed a quarter mile into the woods, Donald found a large pine tree that provided some shelter.

“Stay here. I’ll be back shortly,” he said in a gentle tone as he disappeared into the trees. It was an order, but not given as one.

The position of the moon told me he’d been gone less than an hour, but it seemed like an eternity. The wind was calm, no leaves rustled or trees creaked. The weather had silenced the owls. The only sounds I could hear were my own breathing and the steady drip of water. The limbs of the tree I was under blocked my view. I was tempted to leave my den to explore, but fearful that I would miss Donald’s return. I could only sit there as the hour-long minutes slowly passed.

I must have dozed off because the next thing I remember is Donald Mackenzie shaking me awake. This time he was holding two muskets and a large bulging sack.

“We’re in luck, William. Most of the Hessians are drunk from celebrating their victory. It'll be a while before they miss the muskets and food I’ve collected.”

With that Donald pulled out a bayonet and a ham from the sack. He carved a thick slice from the ham and handed it and the bayonet to me. He retrieved another bayonet from the sack and carved an even thicker slice for himself. There was silence for the next few minutes whilst we filled our bellies. Besides the ham we had roasted potatoes and hard tack for our supper. The sack also produced a canteen of water.

“Sorry there’s no rum,” he said with a laugh. “The Hessians emptied the hogshead.”

“You’ll have to do better next time,” I replied.

He quickly turned serious. “The Hessians’ll be out and about in the morning. We need to be far away from here by daybreak.”

We finished eating and each took a musket. Donald handed me a cartridge box and a canteen from the sack. I stuck my bayonet in my belt and strapped on the rest of the equipment. Donald did the same and slung the no longer bulging sack over his shoulder. Except for the bayonets, we looked like impoverished hunters. They would have carried knives, which were shorter than bayonets, but if we were lucky no one would look closely enough to tell the difference. Our ragged clothes gave no indication that we’d been soldiers. I realized that if we were to survive, we needed to hide the fact that we’d been in the rebel army.

“We’ll cover our tracks by going back the same way Washington came,” Donald said.

We cautiously made our way through the woods until we reached the road our army had taken on its way to Trenton. The slush contained so many footprints that two more sets would make no difference, even if they were going the wrong way. We were wary, but didn’t meet anyone, Hessians or escaped prisoners. No one else would have been wandering about that night. Once we found our army’s tracks, following them was simple. Even when I couldn’t see the path, the slush under foot told me that I was going the right way.

As we walked, I told Donald my life’s story: how I’d been left an orphan, joined the rebels, and became an orderly for General Washington. Donald told me that he had been born on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides in 1745, the year that Bonnie Prince Charlie, the last of the Stuarts, raised the flag of rebellion. His father was a poor crofter, who, even though he knew the cause was doomed, joined the rebellion. He was taken prisoner at Culloden the next year, when the English defeated the Scots, but he escaped.

“My father told me that life in Scotland was never easy, but after the rebellion it became impossible for a Scotsman to feed his family. Somehow he scrounged up enough money to bring our family to Philadelphia when I was seven.”

“So you were part of the Pennsylvania militia.”

“No. After a few years my father made enough money to buy a wagon and took our family to North Carolina. First we stayed near the Moravians in Bethabara. Good people, the Moravians. They helped our family, even though we’re Church of Scotland. Then we moved a little farther west and my father bought a farm in the Yadkin Valley from Squire Boone, my friend Daniel’s father.”

I’d never heard of Bethabara or the Moravians, but rather than ask about them I wanted to know how Donald had ended up in the battle. “Which regiment were you with? There weren’t any North Carolina militia in our army.”

He told me that when the colonies rebelled, he’d been in Virginia and had joined the company commanded by General Washington’s cousin, William Washington, which was why he was close to the General when we surrendered. The Hessians didn’t care which regiment you’d belonged to. Where you were standing on the battlefield at the time of the surrender determined which group of prisoners you ended up in. I was the only orderly close to Washington when he surrendered and thus the only orderly in the barn.

“Now we need to get away from the English and their Hessian servants,” Donald said. “This rebellion is over and the damn English have won again. They’ll grind us under their heels, just as they ground Scotland down.”

“But how are we going to cross the river?”

But, but, but. Have you no imagination, lad? We’ll go back to the ferry and steal one of the boats the rebels left there. It shouldn’t be difficult. We’ll cross the river and make our way to Philadelphia. My father worked for a merchant named Angus McNeil when we lived there. They remained friends. He’ll be easy to find if he’s still has his shop on Walnut Street. I’m sure he’ll help me get back to North Carolina.”

“To your father’s farm?”

“No, I live south of there. I trade with the Cherokee for deerskin. I don’t like farming. It ties a man too close to one place. I want to spend my time in the forest, not walking behind the arse end of a horse or an ox.”

“I know what you mean,” I said, even though I didn’t. I knew nothing of life in the forest, or trading with Indians, or any of the other things that Donald was talking about. I knew that North Carolina was one of the Southern colonies, but that’s all I knew about it. My teacher, Mr Anderson, thought it more important to teach us the history and geography of Britain than that of the other colonies.

“You can come with me if you like. We’ll have to work for a while in Philadelphia to earn enough money for the trip, but you don’t look like a lad who is afraid of work.”

I quickly said yes.

“You know I seem to be reliving my father’s life. He was a soldier in a rebellion that failed. He was taken prisoner, but he escaped. He went to Philadelphia. He had to work for a while to make enough money to go to North Carolina. Here I am thirty years later doing the same thing.”

“But he has a happy life in North Carolina.”

But again. Don’t you know any other word? Yes, my father had a happy life in North Carolina for many years. He died four years ago, and my mother shortly afterward. Like you, William, I’m alone.”

After that we were both quiet for a long time.

Dawn found us on the Bear Tavern Road, less than two miles from where we’d crossed the Delaware scarcely thirty hours earlier.

“It’s going to be too light for us to steal a boat,” Donald announced. “We’d better hide until dark.”

We found a collapsed shed and crawled in. Donald’s sack provided more ham and hard tack. I was exhausted and soon fell asleep. When I awoke, many hours later, the sun was low in the sky. It was nearly three in the afternoon, about two hours before dark. Donald seemed not to need much sleep. He was awake and obviously had been busy. Instead of two sets of footprints in the slush, there were many. He’d walked back and forth enough times to make it look like our army had used the shed.

“I trust the young master has had a restful sleep,” was his sarcastic greeting.

I didn’t answer, but left the shed to relieve myself.

“We’ll leave as soon as it’s dark and find a boat,” Donald said when I returned. “You stand watch for a while. I’m going to get some sleep.”

I hadn’t looked carefully at Donald Mackenzie the day before, but now I studied him as he slept. He was medium height and wiry. He had fair skin and the tan of a man who spent most of his time outdoors. His hair was light, not quite blond, and I’d seen earlier that he had blue eyes. His buckskins were stained and his shoes worn. He didn’t snore.

Since I was supposed to keep watch, I stared out through a crack in the shed wall. Nothing was moving in the fading daylight. After a while my mind began to wander. I wasn’t a very good sentry.

Donald Mackenzie had saved me from sodomy and starvation, and I was grateful, but should I follow him blindly? Life over my grandfather’s ironmongery shop might not be pleasant, but it would certainly be safer than going off into the wilderness with Donald. But if I left him now, I would have to make my way alone across New Jersey, which was swarming with brigands and British soldiers. Going with him as far as Philadelphia and making some money seemed like a good idea. I could decide later what to do.

Night had fallen and it was time to wake Donald up. I touched his shoulder, but before I could say anything he stood up, fully alert. We ate the last of the food he’d stolen, left the shed and followed our army’s track to McConkey’s Ferry. The trip down the embankment that we had so painfully climbed two nights before was equally challenging. I lost my footing and began to slide.

“Grab a tree branch,” Donald yelled.

I did and was able to stop myself. Donald grabbed a branch on a nearby tree and we both stood there for a moment whilst I caught my breath.

“It’s too slick for us to walk down. We’ll have to slide on our arses. Dig your feet in to keep from going too fast.”

With that he sat down and began to slowly slide down the slope. I did the same. In a few seconds my pants were soaked and my rear end was freezing, but it was safer than trying to walk. It took no more than two minutes to get to the riverbank, but by that time I was shaking with cold.

Donald said nothing, but quickly ducked under a pine tree to grab handfuls of dry twigs and pine needles. Next he found a birch tree and pulled off a large piece of bark. He rolled this into a ball and set it down. Then he tore open a paper cartridge, poured some gunpowder over the birch bark and set it ablaze with a spark from his musket.

“Find wood, the driest you can,” he ordered.

I rushed to this task, whilst Donald built the fire he had started. By the time I returned with my first armful of wood, he had a roaring blaze going.

“We need to start a second fire so that we can dry both our fronts and backs at the same time. Bring more wood.”

I quickly gathered a second armful of wood, by which time Donald had a second, smaller fire going. We spent several more minutes gathering wood for the two fires, then stood between them to dry our clothes.

“Birch bark’s a wonder for starting a fire,” he said. “It’ll burn even if it’s wet. You just need something to get it started.”

I said nothing, too cold to talk.

“Well, William, we’ve announced our presence to any Hessians who might be wandering these woods,” Donald said after we’d both warmed up. “But it’s better than freezing to death.”

A few minutes later he took his musket and headed upstream, along the riverbank. He soon reappeared.

“We’re in luck again. The militia Washington left to guard the boats are gone and there don’t seem to be any English or Hessians around. Let’s borrow a boat and get ourselves to Pennsylvania.”

I followed him along the riverbank to where the rebels had left their boats. We pulled a small rowboat onto the bank and turned it over to dump out the rainwater it had collected.

“I don’t suppose you know how to row one of these?” Donald asked.

“I know how to row a boat. My brother and I used row out into the harbour to fish.”

“Well then, heave to, and get us across the river. I’ll stand guard.”

I positioned myself at the oars as he pushed the boat off the bank and jumped in. A short distance from the shore the current took over, and I couldn’t keep the boat pointed in the right direction. Donald put down his musket, moved behind me, and took over the oars. He got the boat back on course and twenty minutes later we were scrambling ashore in Pennsylvania. We pushed the boat back into the current. When he was sure that the boat would float downstream, Donald said, “We can’t stay here, lad. We’re strangers and we’ll stand out too much. I don’t want some damn loyalist reporting us to the English Army.”

He headed for the road that ran alongside the river. I grabbed my musket and the rest of my gear and followed. He set a fast pace and at times I had to trot to keep up. We kept to the road as much as possible, but circled around farms and hamlets. Dozens of dogs announced our presence. Since we didn’t approach any of the houses they guarded, they soon lost interest, and no one came out to investigate. We must have covered ten miles before Donald relented. We rested under a large oak tree.

“Are ye all right, lad?”

“Yes sir.”

“Aye then, let’s get moving.”

He grabbed his musket and was off down the road. I jumped up and had to run for a few minutes to catch up with him.

“Give me a little more warning next time,” I said, my breath coming in pants.

“You’ll get no warning from anyone who wants to do you harm. You need to be prepared.”

Just as the sun was coming over the horizon, we approached a prosperous-looking large grey stone farmhouse with a matching barn. Instead of circling the buildings as we had been doing all night, Donald walked up the front path toward the house. Dogs howled, and a large hound came out to greet us with a menacing growl. I instinctively dropped behind Donald.

“Hallo,” he called loudly while we were still far from the house. The front door opened to reveal a grey-headed man with a full beard, wrapped in a blanket, pointing a rifle towards us.

“What’d you want?”

“My friend, my son William and I are travelling to Philadelphia and wonder if you could spare us a bite to eat in the name of Christian charity. We’ve no money, but we’ll be happy to do some chores for you in exchange.” He was taking a big risk. If the farmer was a loyalist, he might hold us prisoners until the British came.

A younger man appeared in the doorway behind the old man. He was similarly attired and even from a distance I could see that he was the old man’s son.

“They’re probably deserters from the rebel army,” the son said. “Let’s just chase them off. If the British find them here we’ll be in trouble.”

“We were with the rebel army, but the rebel army is no more.” Donald said calmly. “Washington surrendered to the English two days ago. We escaped and stole these muskets, but we need your help to go farther.”

The farmer pondered this news for a moment, then said, “Come have breakfast with us and tell us your news. I’m Archibald Wainwright and this is my son, Tobias.” Donald introduced himself.

Mr Wainwright backed out of the doorway and beckoned us into the front room. The hound followed us in. A grey-haired woman was stoking the fire in the fireplace. It was a large room, but curiously empty of the furniture and other accoutrements that you would expect in a farmhouse.

“Leave your weapons by the door,” Wainwright said. Then, turning to the woman, he added, “Mrs Wainwright, these men will be joining us for breakfast. They say Washington has surrendered to the British.”

“Thank God,” she said. “I hope this means that the rebellion is over and that we can go back to leading a normal life instead of hiding everything.” I noticed she had no words of welcome for us.

“I wouldn’t take my belongings out of hiding yet,” Donald said. “The Hessians’ll be here soon, and they’ll be interested in only two things: women and plunder.”

“You can wash at the rain barrel out back then have a seat at the table,” Wainwright said pointing to the wood plank table along the far wall of the room.

I was bursting with questions as Donald and I walked out to the rain barrel. “Why did you tell him we’d escaped from the Hessians?”

“Later, William. Just stay quiet for now. I’ll tell you if you should speak.”

By the time we returned there was a roaring fire in the fireplace and the table had been set with wooden trenchers. We took our places. Mrs Wainwright brought a large bowl of porridge, a plate of bread and cheese, a jug of water, and some wooden spoons, and then joined us.

“Lord, make us truly grateful for thy bounty,” Wainwright prayed. “And bring your blessing of peace unto this land.”

We all said “Amen.”

After a few seconds of silence, he looked at us and said, “Fill your plates and tell us about Washington’s surrender.”

“Three nights ago,” Donald began, “Washington’s army crossed the Delaware to attack the Hessians.”

“That’s impossible,” Tobias interrupted. “There was a nor’easter that night.”

“Tobias, let Mr Mackenzie tell his story,” Mr Wainwright scolded. “You can judge its truthfulness when he’s finished.” Tobias shrank back after this reprimand.

“Please continue, Mr Mackenzie.”

“Tobias is right,” Donald said. “There was a nor’easter that night, but we crossed the river anyway and marched to Trenton in the midst of the storm. We thought we could surprise the Hessians in the morning, but when we got there, they were ready for us. So were the English. They circled behind us and we were trapped. Washington surrendered and we were all taken prisoner. My son and I escaped. We’re trying to get to Philadelphia.”

“We’ve seen no soldiers since the rebels were here before Christmas,” Mr Wainwright said. “Do you know where the British and Hessians are?”

“No, but I’m sure they’ll cross the river soon and take Philadelphia. I hope that we can get to there before they do,” Donald replied.

“Why are you heading to where the British will be?”

“We need help, and that’s where I have friends.”

“You still have fifteen miles to walk, but you should reach Philadelphia by early afternoon. You’d best be on your way quickly. Eat your breakfast and Mrs Wainwright will give you some food for your dinner.”

When we’d finished, Mrs Wainwright gave Donald and me some bread and jerky wrapped in a square of cloth. She seemed none too happy about this, but her husband had instructed her to do so. We thanked her and Wainwright, collected our muskets and headed toward the road. The hound that’d seemed so threatening when we approached the farm was friendly now and followed us for several hundred yards. As we walked, I noticed Donald glancing back at the farmhouse until it was out of sight. I asked him why he was doing that.

“I thought we could trust the Wainwrights,” he answered, “but you must always be careful. If Mr Wainwright was going to alert the English, he would have sent Tobias to the nearest garrison as soon as we left. I wanted to be sure that no one was rushing away from the farm to report on us.”

We walked about half a mile farther as I pondered what being careful meant.

“If we have to be careful, why’d you tell Wainwright that we had escaped from the Hessians?”

“It was a chance I had to take. When Tobias said that he was worried about the English, I guessed they were like most of the farmers around here and didn’t want any trouble from either the English or the rebels. Loyalists would have welcomed us, then held us captive until they could turn us over to the English.”

“You told them I was your son.”

“It was easier than explaining who you were. Did I offend you?”

“No, I don’t care.”

Secretly I was pleased. I’d loved my father, but he was dead, and Donald McKenzie seemed like the ideal second father to me.

It was a clear, cold day and we were on a good road. The miles slipped by easily. Even though I had no idea what fate awaited me, I felt safer than I had since re-joining the rebel army.

Lenny Bernstein started writing fiction five years ago after a forty-year career in chemical engineering. He spent the last twenty years of his career working on climate change. He is an avid hiker, who has completed the Appalachian Trail and currently serves as a member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Board of Directors.

About William WatsonThirty years ago I visited the Pennsylvania state park commemorating Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. Reading the placards, I learned how desperate he was for a victory. The American Army had been retreating for five months; 90% of it was gone: killed or wounded in battle, incapacitated by sickness, or deserted. This raised an obvious question: what if Washington had lost? My novel, the first book of a trilogy, is my answer to that question.