I’ve given you the Prologue of The Snake Fence in my blog about Quaker lingo. Here’s the first chapter as a teaser. You can now order an advance copy of The Snake Fence at http://www.quakerbooks.org/the_snake_fence.php at a discounted price. The book will be mailed to you by the end of the month.
Clutching both reins, I yelled, “Giddyup, Hope! Home, Seth! Faster! Faster!” Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette was tucked inside my shirt. Bags of newly milled flour thudded against the bed of Pa’s old farm wagon. My teeth rattled as the horses pounded the dirt road. Here’s my chance, I thought, if only Pa will let me go!
My straw hat slipped off the back of my head and my hair whipped across my eyes. I brushed it back with my forearm, not letting go of the reins. Bad things were happening on Pennsylvania’s frontier. Indians were killing people, burning houses and crops. Not here in Chester County, but in the Back Counties. And the English were sending a grand army to defend us.
Because we are Quakers and don’t believe in war, I couldn’t join the army. But I sure wanted to help make things right. If Indians attacked our farm, would we defend ourselves? If we didn’t, what would happen? Bloody scenes flashed through my mind.
I loved my family too much to let something that awful happen without trying to . . . to what? To kill to avoid being killed? Could I even do that? If I did, the Meeting might disown me. That in itself would be a kind of death.
I had never met an Indian. At Quaker Meeting, I heard that they, like everyone else, had “that of God” within them. But the Pennsylvania Gazette painted a different picture. Why were Indians suddenly violent? Mayhap others had it right: they were just savages who couldn’t be trusted. I was sitting on the snake fence on this issue.
People I knew seemed more interested in following Quaker teachings than in questioning them. Not everyone in the world believes as Quakers do. What makes Quakers so sure they have the Truth and everyone else is wrong? But when I asked Pa, he just looked at Ma as if to say, “Where did this young’un come from?” So I didn’t ask again, but I kept wondering.
I didn’t expect to find answers at home on the farm. Mayhap Franklin’s advertisement would make all the difference. But I would have to put it to Pa in just the right way. Pa was a good man, but not easy. He had an edge in his voice, a challenging look in his eyes. He was fair but tough, and he lacked patience with anything he considered a hare-brained idea.
According to Pa, I had come up with more than my share of those ideas. One was to mount chair legs on curved runners so the chair could tilt back and forth. Istill thought it was worth pursuing, but Pa had really scorned that one. “Why would I want to tilt my chair back and forth? When I sit down, I want rest, not exercise!”
I hoped this latest idea was not hare brained. It was Benjamin Franklin’s idea, after all. I just wanted to be part of it. I wanted to be part of something big.
The late afternoon sun winked through little spring leaves as I careened up the hill to our barn. My finger fumbled unhitching and watering the horses. Then I raced down to the house, jerked a dripping bucket of water from the well, splashed my sweaty face, and burst through the kitchen door. The Pennsylvania Gazette was hidden in my shirt.
The family had just finished supper. Everyone was there, even my oldest brother Enoch and his wife, Deborah. Pa and Ma sat in their chairs at either end of the long plank table. Bersheba and Will, older than I, and our younger brother Benjamin were perched on stools on either side. My place was still set.
“Time for the Bible reading, Noble,” Pa said. “Eat thy supper while I read.”
I squatted on my stool. My knees bumped up under the table now that I’d grown taller. Ma passed me a plate of bread and sausage gravy. Pa read from the big Bible, as he did every day. Then he prayed and the family all said “Amen,” same as every day. Then he put the Bible back in its heavy wooden box. Time to make my move.
“Pa,” I said, “I brought home the new Pennsylvania Gazette. Want to read it?”
Pa put his glasses back on his nose, and Will and Ben breathed a sigh of relief. Listening to news beat going out for evening chores. Pa opened the paper and began to read aloud. Never ones to sit idle, the women took out their needlework. My older brothers either leaned their elbows on the table or tipped their stools back against the blue hutch.
I had a plan, if I could just be patient enough. I hoped my voice wouldn’t crack. It hadn’t for a while now, but it still did when I least expected it.
Pa droned on about the latest squabble between the Pennsylvania Assembly and the governor. This whole year of 1755 had been full of war talk. I knew Pa would read all the news before he got to the advertisement that had captured my imagination.
Pa always read the ads. There were descriptions of runaway apprentices, indentured servants, and horses. Who knew when we might see one of them and be able to claim the reward? “Keep eyes sharp, lads,” Pa would say. He read all notices of sales of farms, houses, and estates. Not that he wanted to buy, but he wanted to know what the market was. Pa had a reputation for making money where others might not think to try or want to take the risk.
A sudden change in Pa’s voice caught everyone’s attention. He had found the advertisement signed by Benjamin Franklin himself. “Forty-one Wagons are immediately wanted, to carry a load of Oats and Indian Corn from Philadelphia to Wills’s Creek, for which they are to be paid twelve pounds each wagon. Protections and passes will be given the Wagoners by authority of the General, to prevent their being impressed, or detained after delivery of their Loads. They are to set out together on Thursday the 29th instant. Apply to Benjamin Franklin, in Philadelphia. Note: several neighbors may conveniently join in fitting out a wagon, as was lately done in the Back Counties. If the Wagons cannot thus be obtained, there must be an Impress.”
Pa’s voice was heavy with significance as he read that last word. Leaning back in his armchair, he looked over his spectacles. The family silently considered what he had just read. I forced myself to keep quiet. I mustn’t be in a hurry.
“What’s an impress, Pa?” Ben asked.
“It means the army could force farmers to deliver grain, willing or not.”
“And General Braddock might keep the horses and wagon, maybe even the farmer, for as long as needed,” added Enoch. Even though he and Deborah were expecting a child of their own, he still enjoyed frightening Ben.
“If Indians are attacking as close as the Susquehanna, how much longer will we be safe here in Chester County?” Ma worried.
“An army must be splendid, all those uniforms, horses, and guns,” Ben sighed.
“An army isn’t splendid, Ben,” William scoffed. “When thee sees an army, thee is seeing men who kill each other. We don’t believe in war, remember.”
I glared at him. “But soldiers and their horses need to eat, surely,” I said. “We can’t fight, but we can feed them, can’t we?”
“Making money on the war,” Will grumbled. “That’s as bad as fighting.”
“The army is already here, to defend us. Why shouldn’t we feed them?” Enoch said. “Don’t we owe them that?”
“But, Pa, isn’t supplying an army the same as fighting?” Will asked.
I couldn’t wait for Pa to answer. “Nay, Will, think of it this way: it would be unchristian to let soldiers starve in the wilderness, wouldn’t it, Pa?”
Pa looked from one of us to the other, a hint of a smile on his face. He enjoyed watching us argue. It sharpened our minds, he said, though Ma pleaded with him not to encourage us. Finally he said, “The Lord wants us to be good stewards. If an opportunity comes along and does no one harm, I find naught wrong with it. ‘Twelve pounds and safe passage for any who would drive a wagon loaded with oats and corn,’ ” he read again.
I had waited long enough. About to burst with excitement, I chose my words carefully, watching Pa’s face for any reaction. “Pa, since thee bought the new wagon,don’t we have a spare one?”
“Aye, we do.”
I couldn’t help wriggling on my seat. “And now that Ben is getting so stout, might thee spare me to make this trip?”
“What? That would leave me with just Will and Ben to help out here.”
“Aye, but we’ve nearly finished planting, so there is only haying to do in Sixth Month. Sheba can help with that, and I’d be back before time to pull flax and cut rye.”
“And what will draw the wagon?” Pa replied. “I can’t spare two horses.”
Enoch broke in. “Deborah’s brother Jonathan has a horse he might let us use, if thee could spare one.”
“Us? Does thee think to go with me?” Suddenly I saw my twelve pounds halved.
“Nay, little brother, I may let thee go with me,” Enoch taunted. “Not likely Jonathan would let thee borrow his horse.” Deborah nodded her agreement.
“Why would I trust either of thee with my horse and wagon?” Pa asked.
“Thee let me drive a load to Philadelphia alone, and on this trip there would be a whole train of wagons,” I said. “Pa, how can I prove myself without such a chance?”
“And what would thee do with the twelve pounds?”
I thought fast. “We’d split it evenly.” Half my profit gone, but I needed that horse. Pa waited for me to continue.
“I’d buy woodworking tools.”
“Well, if Jonathan Swayne is willing to lend his horse, I suppose we could spare thee for a while. We managed well enough during thy apprenticeship, didn’t we?” Then he added, “But don’t come home with an empty wagon.”
Until I heard those words, I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath. Then it burst out in amazed relief. Pa was actually going to let me go. Now I could be part of showing those Indians they couldn’t get by with attacking civilized people. I didn’t know how that could be done without violence, but I was too excited about the coming adventure to worry about details.
Ma shook her head in resignation. I knew she was relieved that two of us were going, because we would look out for each other.
Pa folded his spectacles and put them away with the newspaper.
I tried hard not to show how smug I felt. What a great adventure I was about to have! It almost made up for not getting a journeyman job right away. This way I could do something about stopping those awful attacks on settlers, see the world, or a different part of it leastways, and earn money for tools.
That night Ben hopscotched silver squares of moonlight on the floor of our bedroom as we shimmied out of our breeches and hung them on wall pegs. He said, “I wish I could go with thee, brother.”
“I’d rather have thee than Enoch for a traveling partner any day. He always acts as if he’s just eaten a sour apple. Pa can spare but one of us, though, and thee is rather young.”
“Thee will see soldiers, maybe Indians and Frenchmen, maybe even a battle.”
“I hope so. Someone has to keep them from killing people. I wish the Meeting would allow us to fight. But maybe there’s a way to stop violence without adding to it.”
Ben curled up like a puppy on our rope-strung bed, his chin resting on his hand. We were buddies as well as brothers. Joking with Ben had made dull days nearly bearable. I would do anything to defend him, I told myself, Quaker or not.