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Becca Blackstone's Turkeys at Valley Forge by Sarah J. Prichard

Tale of the American Revolution

Turkeys, little girl and apple-tree lived in Pennsylvania, a hundred years ago. The turkeys—eleven of them—went to bed in the apple-tree, one night in December.

After it was dark, the little girl stood under the tree and peered up through the boughs and began to count. She numbered them from one up to eleven. Addressing the turkeys, she said: “You're all up there, I see, and if you only knew enough; if you weren't the dear, old, wise, stupid things that you are, I'll tell you what you would do. After I'm gone in the house, and the door is shut, and nobody here to see, you'd get right down, and you'd fly off in a hurry to the deepest part of the wood to spent your Thanksgiving, you would. The cold of the woods isn't half as bad for you as the fire of the oven will be.”

Becca finished her speech; the turkeys rustled in their feathers and doubtless wondered what it all meant, while she stood thinking. One poor fellow lost his balance and came fluttering down to the ground, just as she had decided what to do. As soon as he was safely reset on his perch, Becca made a second little speech to her audience, in which she declared that “they, the dear turkeys, were her own; that she had a right to do with them just as she pleased, and that it was her good pleasure that not one single one of the eleven should make a part of anybody's Thanksgiving dinner.”

“Heigh-ho,” whistles Jack, Becca's ten-year-old brother: “that you, Bec? High time you were in the house.”

“S'pose I frightened you,” said Becca. “Where have you been gone all the afternoon, I'd like to know? stealin' home too, across lots.”

“I'll tell, if you won't let on a mite.”

“Do I ever, Jack?” reproachfully.

He did not deign to answer, but in confidential whispers breathed it into her ears that “he had been down to the Forge. Down to the Valley Forge, where General Washington was going to fetch down lots and lots of soldiers, and build log huts, and stay all Winter.” He ended his breathless narration with an allusion that made Becca jump as though she had seen a snake. He said: “It will be bad for your turkeys.”

“Why, Jack? General Washington won't steal them.”

“Soldiers eat turkey whenever they can get it; and, Bec, this apple-tree isn't above three miles from the Forge. You'd better have 'em all killed for Thanksgiving. Come, I'm hungry as a bear.”

“But,” said Becca, grasping his jacket sleeve as they went, “I've just promised 'em that they shall not be touched.”

Jack's laugh set every turkey into motion, until the tree was all in a flutter of excitement. He laughed again and again, before he could say “What a little goose you are! Just as if turkeys understood a word you said.”

“But I understood if they didn't, and I should be telling my own self a lie. No, not a turkey shall die. They shall all have a real good Thanksgiving once in their lives.”

Two days later, on the 18th of December, Thanksgiving Day came, the turkeys were yet alive, and Becca Blackstone was happy.

The next day General Washington's eleven thousand men marched into Valley Forge, and went out upon the cold, bleak hillsides, carrying with them almost three thousand poor fellows, too ill to march, too ill to build log huts, ill enough to lie down and die. Such a busy time as there was for days and days. Farmer Blackstone felt a little toryish in his thoughts, but the chance to sell logs and split slabs so near home as Valley Forge was not likely to happen again, and he worked away with strong good will to furnish building material. Jack went every day to the encampment, and grew quite learned in the ways of warlike men.

Becca staid at home with her mother, but secretly wished to see what the great army looked like.

At last the final load of chestnut and walnut and oaken logs went up to the hills from Mr. Blackstone's farm, and a great white snow fell down over all Pennsylvania, covering the mountains and hills, the soldiers' log huts, and the turkeys in the apple-tree. January came and went, and every day affairs at the camp grew worse. Men were dying of hunger and cold and disease. Stories of the sufferings of the men grew strangely familiar to the inhabitants. Affairs that Winter would not have been quite so hard at Valley Forge if the neighbors for miles around had not been Tories. Now Becca Blackstone's mother was a New England women, and in secret she bestowed many a comfort upon one after another of her countrymen at the encampment. Her husband was willing to sell logs and slabs and clay from his pits, but not a farthing or a splinter of wood had he to bestow on the rebels.

At last, one January day, when Mr. Blackstone had gone to Philadelphia, permission was given to Becca to accompany her mother and Jack to the village. Into the rear of the sleigh a big basket was packed. Becca was told that she must not ask any questions nor peep, so she neither questioned nor looked in, but found out, after all, for when they were come to the camp, she saw her mother take out loaves of rye bread and a jug, into which she knew nothing but milk ever was put, and carry them into a hut which had the sign of a hospital over it. Every third cabin was a hospital, and each and every one held within it men that were always hungry and in suffering.

In all her life Becca had never seen so much to make her feel sorry, as she saw when she followed her mother to the door of the log-hospital, into which she was forbidden to enter.

There large-eyed, hungry men lay on the cold ground, with only poor, wretched blankets to cover them. She caught a glimpse of a youth—he did not seem much older than her own Jack—with light, fair hair, such big blue eyes, and the thinnest, whitest hands, reaching up for the mug of milk her mother was offering to him.

Then, when Jack came to her, he was wiping his eyes on his jacket sleeve. He said “If I was a soldier, and my country didn't care any more for me than Congress does, I'd go home and leave the Red Coats to carry off Congress. It's too bad, and he's a jolly good fellow. Wish we could take him home and get him well.”

“Who is he, Jack?”

“O, a soldier-boy from one of the New England colonies. He's got a brother with him—that's good.”

The drive home, over the crisp snow, was a very silent one. More than one tear froze on Mrs. Blackstone's cheek, as she remembered the misery her eyes had beheld, and her hands could do so little to lighten.

The next day Mr. Blackstone reached home from Philadelphia. He had seen the Britons in all the glory and pomp of plenty and red regimentals in a prosperous city. He returned a confirmed Tory, and wished—never mind what he did wish, since his unkind wish never came to pass—but this is that which he did, he forbade Mrs. Blackstone to give anything that belonged to him to a soldier of General Washington's army.

“What will you do now, mamma, with all the stockings and mittens you are knitting?” questioned Becca.

“Don't ask me, child,” was the tearful answer that mother made, for her whole heart was with her countrymen in their brave struggle.

Three nights after that time Mr. Blackstone entered his house, saying:

“I caught a ragged, bare-footed tatterdemalion hanging around, and I warned him off; told him he'd better go home, if he'd got one anywhere, and if not to join the army, of his king at Philadelphia.”

“What did he say, pa?” asked Jack.

“O some tomfoolery or other about the man having nothing to eat but hay for two days, and his brother dying over at the Forge. I didn't stop to listen to the fellow, but sent him flying.”

Jack touched his mother's toe in passing, and gave Becca a mysterious nod of the head, as much as to say:

“He's the soldier from our hospital over there,” but nobody made answer to Mr. Blackstone.

Becca's eyes filled with tears as she sat down at the tea-table, and sturdy Jack staid away until the last minute, taking all the time he could at washing his hands, that he might get as many looks as possible through the window in the hope that the bare-footed soldier might be lingering about, but he gained no glimpse of him.

Farmer Blackstone had the rheumatism sometimes, and that night he had it worse than ever, so that an hour after tea-time he was quite ready to go to bed, and his wife was quite ready to have him go, also to give him the soothing, quieting remedies he called for.

Becca was to sit up that night until eight-of-the-clock, if she made no noise to disturb her father.

While her mother was busied in getting her father comfortable, she thought, as it was such bright moonlight, she would go out to give her turkeys a count, it having been two or three nights since she had counted them.

Slipping a shawl of her mother's over her head, she opened softly the kitchen door to steal out. The lowest possible whistle from Jack accosted her at the house corner. That lad intercepted her course, drew her back into the shadow, and bade her “Look!”

She looked across the snow, over the garden wall, into the orchard, and there, beneath her apple-tree, stood something between a man and a scarecrow, and it appeared to be looking up at the sleeping turkeys. Both arms were uplifted.

“O dear! what shall we do?” whispered Becca, all in a shiver of cold and excitement.

“Let's go and speak to him. Maybe it is our hospital man,” said Jack, with a great appearance of courage.

The two children started, hand in hand, and approached the soldier so quietly that he did not hear the sound of their coming.

As they went, Becca squeezed her brother's fingers and pointing to the snow over which they walked, whispered the word “Blood!”

“From his feet,” responded Jack, shutting his teeth tightly together.

Yes, there it lay in bright drops on the glistening snow, showing where the feet of the patriot had trod. The children stood still when they were come near to the tree. At the instant their mother appeared in the kitchen doorway and called “Jack!”

The ragged soldier of the United American States lost his courage at the instant and began to retire in confusion; but Becca summoned him to “Wait a minute!” He waited.

“Did you want one of my turkeys?” she asked.

“I was going to steal one, to save my brother's life,” he answered.

“Is he only a boy, and has he light hair and blue eyes, and does he lie on the wet ground?”

“That's Joseph,” he groaned.

“Then take a good, big, fat turkey—that one there, if you can get him,” said Becca. “They are all mine.”

The turkey was quietly secured.

“Now take one for yourself,” said Becca.

Number two came down from the perch.

“How many men are there in your hospital?” asked Jack, who had responded to his mother's summons, and was holding a pair of warm stockings in his hand.

“Twelve.”

“Give him another, Bec—there's a good girl; three turkeys ain't a bone too many for twelve hungry men,” prompted Jack.

“Take three!” said Becca. “My pa never counts my turkeys.”

The third turkey joined his fellows.

“Better put these stockings on before you start, or father will track you to the camp,” said Jack. “And pa told ma never to give you anything of his any more.”

Never was weighty burden more cheerfully borne than the bag Jack helped to hoist over the soldier's shoulder as soon as the stockings had been drawn over the bleeding feet.

“Now I'm going. Thank you, and good night. If you, little girl, would give me a kiss, I'd take it—as from my little Bessy in Connecticut.”

“That's for Bessy in Connecticut,” said the little girl, giving him one kiss, “and now I'll give you one for Becca in Pennsylvania. Hurry home and roast the turkeys quick.”

They watched him go over the hill.

“Jack,” said Becca, “if I'd told a lie to the turkeys where would they have been to-night, and Joseph? There are eight more. I wish I'd told him to come again. Pa's rheumatism came just right to-night, didn't it?”

“I reckon next year you won't have all the turkeys to give away to the soldiers,” said Jack, adding quite loftily, “I shall go to raising turkeys in the Spring myself, and when Winter comes we shall see.”

“Now, Jacky,” said Becca, half-crying, “there are eight left, and you take half.”

“No, I won't,” rejoined Jack. “I'd just like to walk over to Valley Forge and see the soldiers enjoy turkey. Won't they have a feast! I shouldn't wonder if they'd eat one raw.”

“O, Jack!”

“Soldiers do eat dreadful things sometimes,” he assured her with a lofty air. And then they went into the house, and the door was shut.

The next year there was not a soldier left above the sod at Valley Forge.

Now the soldiers are gone, the camp is not, the little girl has passed away, the apple-tree is dead, and only the hills at Valley Forge are left to tell the story, bitter with suffering, eloquent with praise, of the men who had a hundred years ago toiled for Freedom there, and are gone home to God.