None of a Woman’s Business
Ridge Road, Chester County, Pennsylvania
January 22, 1778
The man following me on this lonely road is nowhere in sight—but that doesn’t mean he has given up. He can wait for me to ride Nelly to exhaustion and overtake us at his leisure. Though I want to gallop her, the mare is carrying a full load of provisions. She cannot do more than pick her way through the churned-up, frozen mud without the risk of coming up lame.
Despite the cold, a bead of sweat rolls down my cheek, and my tortured imagination conjures the rush of oncoming hoofbeats and the swish of a quirt. As I look back, the weak winter sunset flares along the edge of the ridge and I shade my eyes as I scan the shadows to make certain we are still alone.
His mission must have sounded like a lark—for how difficult could it be to waylay a lone woman and steal the message she carries? A strangled sob escapes my lips and I clap a gloved hand to my mouth. This is no time for weakness. I’ve eluded him for two days and kept my wits every time my capture seemed certain. The trick I pulled to make my escape just before dawn surely raised his ire and I reckon he’ll show no mercy if he overtakes me before I reach Valley Forge. I square my shoulders inside my husband’s jacket and trace the outline of the letter concealed in my stays—the only feminine garment I’m wearing at the moment.
Eyes gritty with exhaustion, I stand in the stirrups and peer into the darkness ahead. Before I left home, my brother-in-law sketched a crude map to guide me from Virginia to Pennsylvania and marked this stretch with the name of an ordinary he frequented before he deserted from the Sharpshooters last month. When I come upon the Seven Stars Inn, I’ll know I’m nearing the Continental Army’s camp.
Nelly shies as something scuttles across the path and rustles into the brush, and I struggle to keep my seat as I rein her down. It’s likely naught but a possum or raccoon, but telling myself so fails to calm my racing heart. As we carry on, I cast wary glances into shadowy clumps of trees lining the sides of the road. My pursuer may not be the only threat I encounter before I reach the picket line.
When I spot the warm glow of candlelight in a building’s windows ahead, I lean forward in the saddle in anticipation, and the wooden sign out front, emblazoned with seven stars, bolsters my spirits. Nelly jerks her head toward the inn’s fenced paddock as if to suggest she wouldn’t mind stopping to rest and eat, but succor cannot be ours until our task is complete.
“What’s a few more miles when we’ve already come so far? We can do it, girl!” Never one to disappoint, my weary horse minces onward. Minutes tick by and when we pass a mile marker at a crossroads, it has grown too dark to read the sign, but I remind myself it is just a few miles more. Further on, my scalp crinkles when a wolf howls somewhere in the hills to the north. Now my ears are attuned to every sound, but after that solitary cry, I discern only the creak of leather, the rasp of the rough fabric of my borrowed breeches, and the clop clop of Nelly’s hooves.
As we round a bend in the road, pinpoints of light flit through the darkness ahead the way fireflies dot the hills at home on summer nights. Is this my destination or an obstacle in my path?
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