The kitchen was a busy place that night after supper. The old Atwater house had stood for many a year by the side of the Boston Road that wound over the Berkshire hills from Westfield to Albany, but never had it been the scene of such hustle and bustle. Word had come that day that there had been fighting at Concord and Lexington and now, just as darkness fell, Uncle Silas had ridden across the fields to bring the news that the Minute Men were to leave in the morning.
While Mother made bread for the soldiers to take with them, Lucy sat on a ladderback chair, hurrying to finish a blue yarn stocking. Father was giving his long flintlock musket a last careful cleaning, and Sam knelt by the fire pouring hot melted lead into the bullet mold. By the door, old Peter, the farm dog, waited anxiously. His eyes flew from Father’s gun to Sam’s bullets and then back to Father’s gun. The little whine deep in his throat said, plain as day, “If you’re going hunting, take me.”
Hannah sat on a stool near the fire and listened while Father and Uncle Silas argued together on the settle.
“Silas,” said Father, “we must decide tonight which one of us is to march off with the Minute Men in the morning.”
“It’s certain we can’t both be spared with the spring plowing and planting just beginning,” sighed Uncle Silas.
Uncle Silas lived in the old Reed place with Gram and Hannah’s cousin, Ben. Who would take care of Gram and Ben if Uncle Silas went off to war, Hannah wondered. And who would take care of their own farm if Father went off with the Minute Men?
Hannah clutched her doll, Lydia, tighter in her arms. Lydia was a rag baby that Gram had made from a piece of a worn linen pillowcase. Her hair was brown wool and her staring eyes had been embroidered with more brown wool. Her red mouth, which Gram had made of yarn, was sweetly smiling, however, and she fitted comfortably in Hannah’s arms. The doll looked shabby and old in the firelight, but she was Hannah’s dearest possession.
“Hannah, child,” said Mother, “don’t sit there dreaming. ‘Idle hands,’ you know. Wind off some yarn for your sister on the swift, dear.”
Ebenezer, the bound boy, brought in the foaming milk pails and set them on the bench. Then he made slow trips back and forth across the kitchen, carrying wood from the shed to the big wood box. He listened, as they all did, to the argument between Father and Uncle Silas.
“I’ve fought in the Indian wars so I’ve had training,” Father said.
“But I’m younger than you are, David,” said Uncle Silas. “I can stand the long marches and the hardships better, perhaps.”
“Tut, Si! You’re only two years younger.”
“I’ve no wife to leave behind me.”
“I’ll grant you that,” said Father, looking across the kitchen at Mother.
“Best let me go, David,” said Uncle Silas. “ ’Twould be better all round.”
Father rose and crossed the kitchen to hang his musket on the wooden pegs near the door.
“It’s hard to make a choice,” he said. “If you go, it leaves Gram and Ben alone. Of course, they could come and live here, but who would tend your fields?”
“Yes, but on the other hand,” said Uncle Silas, “if you go, it leaves Sam to tend this big farm and he’s only a lad. This place is bigger than the Reed farm and you’ve more cows.”
“But we’ve a bound boy to help,” argued Father.
Mother swept the ashes from the oven and then, placing the loaves of bread on the long-handled peel, she thrust them far back into the dark brick cavern. When she had shut the little door, she turned from the chimney corner, her face hot and rosy from the fire.
“Well, whoever goes in the morning, he’ll have plenty of rye and Injun loaves to carry with him,” she said with a sigh.
“What do you think, Esther?” asked Uncle Silas. “Isn’t it better for me to go?”
“I hate to say,” said Mother. She crossed the kitchen and, sitting down on the settle, took the knitting from Lucy’s hands. “I work faster, dear. No, Silas,” she continued, “I fear my choice would be a selfish one. If there were but time to go to the village, we could ask Parson Ashley’s advice.”
“It is indeed a matter for prayer,” sighed Father.
“Why, that’s our answer!” Uncle Silas said. “Let us have prayers and then turn to the Bible for guidance.”
“Aye, that’s just what we’ll do,” Father agreed. “Come, children.”
The little group gathered round the hearth as they did for prayers every night at bedtime.
“Heavenly Father, in our hour of need we turn to Thee for help,” Father prayed. “Thou knowest our needs and our problems, Heavenly Father. Thou knowest that ‘Then shall two be in the field—the one shall be taken and the other left.’ Guide us now, O Lord. Send an answer to our prayer, we beseech Thee. Amen.”
“Amen,” echoed Mother from her place on the settle.
“Now, Hannah,” said Father, “shut your eyes and then open the Bible and put your finger on the page.”
The kitchen was very quiet as Hannah knelt on a ladderback chair. She opened the big Bible on the table and turned several pages. Then with her eyes tight shut she put her finger down on the page and held it there.
Father moved the candle across the table. “Read the verse under your finger, Hannah,” he said as she opened her eyes.
“Great A, little n, little d,” Hannah spelled.
“Yes! Yes!” said Father. “Go on! Read the verse.”
“Great A,” repeated Hannah.
“Never mind spelling it, child!” Father scolded her. “Read it.”
“I—I can’t read it, Father,” Hannah stammered, and she hung her head so low that her brown curls covered her scarlet cheeks.
“Everybody in school knows Hannah can’t read,” tittered Lucy.
“Hush! For shame!” Mother chided her, and Lucy’s cheeks turned scarlet, too.
“Well, well. Let me see the verse, Hannah child,” said Father, and, leaning across the table, he read, “ ‘And David girded his sword upon his armor.’ “
“David!” cried Mother, and one of her knitting needles fell to the floor with a clatter.
“That’s plainly an answer to prayer,” Uncle Silas said in an awed tone. “You’re to go fight the Redcoats, Dave, and I’m to stay at home and run the two places as best I can.”
“ ’Twill be work fully as important as fighting,” said Father. “If we’re to have a war, we’ll need plenty of food.”
“Oh, I’m not ashamed to say I’d rather be marching off to fight the Redcoats,” Uncle Silas admitted. “But I’ll do my duty here best as ever I can, Dave.”
“I know you will, Silas,” answered Father. “Now you drive your cart over in the morning,” he added. “The women and children will all want to go into the village to see the Minute Men leave. I’ll ride old Dolly in and you can ride her back home again.”
“Come, children,” said Mother, when Uncle Silas had gone and Father was kneeling to cover the fire for the night. “Early to bed if you want to drive to the Green in the morning.”
Hannah followed Lucy slowly up the back stairs. Lucy’s candle threw a dark shadow behind the girls. It seemed to Hannah that an even darker shadow hung over the whole house. Father was going away to fight the Redcoats in the morning.