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Sleet and Snow by Sarah J. Prichard

Tale of the American Revolution

Fourth of July, 1776.—Troublous times, that day? Valentine Kull thought so, as he stood in a barn-yard, with a portion of his mother's clothes line tied as tightly as he dared to tie it around the neck of a calf. He was waiting for the bars to be let down by his sister. Anna Kull thought the times decidedly troublous, as she pulled and pushed and lifted to get the bars down.

“I can't do it, Valentine,” she cried, her half-child face thrust between the rails.

“Try again!”

She tried. Result as before.

“Come over, then, and hold Snow.”

Anna went over, rending gown and apron on the roughnesses of rails and haste. Never mind. She was over, and could, she thought, hold the calf.

Barn-yard, cow (I forgot to mention that there was a cow); calf, and children, one and all, were on Staten Island in the Bay and Province of New York. Beside these, there was a house. It was so small, so queer, so old-fashioned, so Amsterdam Dutchy, that, for all that I know to the contrary, Achter Kull may have built it as a play-house for his children when first he came to America and took up his abode by the Kill van Kull. The Kill van Kull is that curious little slice of sea pinched in by a finger of New Jersey thrust hard against Staten Island, as though trying its best to push the island off to sea. However it may have been, there was the house, and from the very roof of it arose a head, neck, two shoulders and one arm; the same being the property of the mother of Valentine and Anna. The said mother was keeping watch from the scuttle.

“Be quick, my children,” she cried. “The Continentals are now driving off Abraham Rycker's cattle and the boat isn't full yet. They'll be here next.”

Anna seized the clothes line; Valentine made for the bars. Down they came, the one after the other, and out over the lower one went calf, Anna and cow. Valentine made a dive for Snow's leading string. He missed it. Away went the calf, poor Anna clutching at the rope, into green lane, through tall grass, tangle and thicket. She caught her foot in her torn gown and was falling, when a sudden holding up of the rope assisted by Valentine's clutch at her arm set her on her feet again. During this slight respite from the chase, the cow (Sleet, by name, because not quite so white as Snow) took a bite of grass and wondered what all this unaccustomed fuss did mean.

“Snow has pulled my arm out of joint,” said Anna, holding fast to her shoulder.

“Never mind your arm, now,” returned Valentine. “We must get to the marsh. It's the only place. You get a switch, and if Sleet won't follow Snow in, you drive her. I wish the critters wasn't white; they show up so; but Washington sha'n't have this calf and cow, anyhow.”

From Newark Bay to Old Blazing Star Ferry stretched the marsh, deep, dense, well-nigh impassable. Under the orders of General Washington, supported by the approval of the Provincial Congress in session at White Plains, the live stock was being driven from the island, and ferried across Staten Island Sound to New Jersey. At the same moment the grand fleet of armed ships from Halifax, England, and elsewhere, was sailing in with General Howe on board and Red Coats enough to eat, at a supper and a dinner, all the live stock on a five-by-seventeen mile island.

Now the Commander-in-chief of the Continental forces at New York did not wish to afford the aid and comfort to the enemy of furnishing horses to draw cannon, or fresh meat wherewith to satisfy the hunger of British soldier and sailor. Oh no! On Manhattan Island were braves—for freedom toiling day and night; building earthwork, redoubt and battery with never a luxury from morning to morning, except the luxury of fighting for Liberty. Soldiers from camp, light-horse and militia from New Jersey, had gathered on the island, and had been at work a day and a night when the news came to the Kull cottage that in a few minutes its cow and calf would be called for. Hence the sudden watch from the roof, and the escapade from the barn-yard.

The Kull father, I regret to write, because it seems highly unpatriotic, had gone forth to catch fish that day, hugging up the thought close to his pocket of a heart, that the English fleet would pay well for fresh fish.

Now Sleet and Snow were treasures untold to Valentine and Anna Kull. Anna's pocket-money, stored up to be spent once-a-year in New York, came to her hands by the sale of butter to oystermen; and the calf, Snow, was the exclusive property of her brother Valentine. No wonder they were striving to save their possessions—ignorant, children as they were, of every good which they could not see and feel.

Cow and calf, or rather calf and cow, never before were given such a race. Highways were ignored. There were not many beaten tracks at that time on Staten Island. Daisied and clovered fields the calf was dragged through; young corn and potato lots suffered alike by the pressure of hoof and foot. Anna nearly forgot her out-of-joint arm when the four reached the marsh. Its friendly-looking shelter was hailed with delight.

Said Valentine, tugging the tired calf, to Anna, switching forward the anxious cow: “I should like to see the riflemen from Pennsylvania and the Yankeys from Doodle or Dandy either, chase Sleet and Snow through this marsh.”

“It's been awful work though to get 'em here,” said Anna, wiping her face with a pink handkerchief suddenly detached for use from her gown.

In plunged the boy and up s-s-cissed a cloud of mosquitoes, humming at the sound of the new-come feast; fresh flesh and blood from the uplands was desirable.

The grass was green, very green—lovely, bright, light green; the July sun shone down untiringly; the tide rushing up from Raritan Bay met the tide rolling over from Newark Bay, and the cool, sweet swash of water snaked along the stout sedge, making it sway and bend as though the wind were sweeping its tops.

When within the queer infolding, boy, cow, and calf had disappeared, Anna called: “I'll run now and keep watch and tell you when the soldiers are gone.”

“No, you won't!” shrieked back her brother; “you'll stay here, and help me, or the skeeters will kill the critters. Bring me the biggest bush you can find, and fetch one for yourself.”

Anna always obeyed Valentine. It was a way she had. He liked it, and, generally speaking, she didn't greatly dislike it, but her dress was thinner than his coat, and the happy mosquitoes knew she was fairer and sweeter than her Dutch brother, and didn't mind telling her so in the most insinuating fashion possible. On this occasion, as she had in so many other unlike instances, she acceded to his request; toiling backward up the ascent and fetching thence an armful of the stoutest boughs she could twist from branches.

She neared the marsh on her return. All that she could discern was a straw hat bobbing hither and thither; the horns of a cow tossing to and fro; the tail of a cow lashing the air.

A voice she heard, shouting forth in impatient bursts of sound, “Anna, Anna Kull!”

Here! I'm coming,” she responded.

“Hurry up! I'm eaten alive. Snow's crazy and Sleet's a lunatic,” shouted her brother, jerking the words forth between the vain dives his hand made into the cloud of wings in the air.

“Sakes alive!” said poor Anna, toiling from sedge bog to sedge bog with her burden of “bushes” and striving to hide her face from the mosquitoes as she went.

It was nearly noon-day then, and the Fourth of July too, but neither Valentine nor Anna thought of the day of the month. Why should they? The Nation wasn't born yet whose hundredth birthday we keep this year.

The solemn assembly of earnest men—debating the to be or not to be of the United States—was over there at work in Congress Hall in the old State House. They were heated with sun and brick and argument; a hundred and ten British ships of war were anchoring and at anchor over on the ocean side of Staten Island. Up the bay, seven or eight thousand troops in “ragged regimentals” were working to make ready for battle; but not one of them all suffered more from sun and toil and anxiety and greed of blood than did the lad and the lass in the marsh.

They fought it out, with many a sting and smart, another hour, and then declaring that “cow or no cow they couldn't stay another minute,” they strove to work their way out of the beautiful green of the sedge.

On the meadow-land stood their mother. She had brought dinner for her hungry children,—moreover, she had brought news.

The Yankee troops—the Jersey militia—had gone, but the British soldiers had arrived and demanded beef—beef raw, beef roasted, beef in any form.

The tears that the fiercest mosquito had failed to extort from Anna came now. “I wish I'd let her go,” she cried, fondly stroking Sleet. “At least she wouldn't have been killed, and we'd had her again sometime, maybe; but now—I say, Valentine, are you going to give up Snow?”

“No, I ain't,” stoutly persisted the lad, slapping with his broad palm the panting side of the calf, where mosquitoes still clung.

“But, my poor children,” said Mother Kull, “you will have to. It can't be helped. If we refuse them, don't you know, they will burn our house down.”

If they do, I'll kill them!” The words shot out from the gunpowdery temper of Anna Kull. Poor innocent girl of thirteen! She never in her life had seen an act of cruelty greater than the taking of a fish or the death of a chicken; but the impotent impulse of revenge arose within her at the bare idea of having her pet, her pretty Sleet, taken from her and eaten by soldiers.

“You'd better keep still, Anna Kull,” said Valentine. “Mother, don't you think we might hide the animals somewhere?”

“Where?” echoed the poor woman, looking up and looking down.

Truly there seemed to be no place. Already six thousand British soldiers had landed and taken possession of the island. Hills and forests were not high enough nor deep enough; and now the very marsh had cast them out by its army of winged stingers—more dreadful than human foe.

“I just wish,” ejaculated the poor sunburned, mosquito-tortured, hungry girl, who stood between marsh and meadow,—“I wish I had 'em every one tied hand and foot and dumped into the sedge where we've been. Mother, I wouldn't use Sleet's milk to-night, not a drop of it,—it's crazy milk, I know: she's been tortured so. Poor cow! poor creature! poor, dear, nice, honest Sleet!” And Anna patted the cow with loving stroke and laid her head on its neck.

“Well, children, eat something, and then we'll all go home together,—if they haven't carried off our cot already,” said the mother.

They sat down under a tree and ate with the eager, wholesome appetite of children. Mrs. Kull kept watch that the cow did not wander far from the place.

As they were eating, Valentine said to Anna, nodding his head in the direction of his mother: “I've thought of something. We must manage to send her home without us.”

I've thought of something,” responded Anna. “Yes, we must manage.”

“I should like to know what you could think of, sister.”

“Should you? Why, think of saving the cow and calf, of course; though, if you're very particular, you can leave the calf here.”

“And what will you do with the cow?”

“Put her in the boat—”

“Whew!” interrupted Valentine.

“And ferry her over the sound,” continued Anna.

“Who?”

“You and me.”

“Do you think we could?”

“We can try.”

“That's brave! How's your arm?”

“All right! I jerked it back, slapping mosquitoes.”

“Give us another hunkey piece of bread and butter. Honey's good to-day. I wonder mother thought about it.”

“I s'pose,” said Anna, “she'd as leave we had it as soldiers. Wouldn't it be jolly if we could make 'em steal the bees?”

The wind blew east. Up came martial sounds mingled with the break and the roar of the ocean.

“Oh, dear! They're a coming,” gasped Mrs. Kull, running to the spot. “They're coming, and your father is not here.”

“Hide, hide, my children! Never mind the cow now,” she almost shrieked; her mind was running wild with all the scenes of terror she had ever heard of.

“Pshaw! pshaw! Mother Kull,” said her boy, assuringly. “They won't come down here. Somebody's guiding them around who knows just where every house is. You and Anna get into that thicket yonder and keep, whatever happens, as still as mice.”

“What'll you do, bub?” questioned Anna, her sunburned face brown-pale with affright.

“Oh, I'll take care of myself. Boys always do.”

As soon as Mrs. Kull and her daughter were well concealed in the thicket, the sounds began to die away. They waited half an hour. All was still. They crept out, gazing the country over. No soldier in sight. Down in the marsh again were boy and cow.

“I'll run home now,” said Mrs. Kull. “I dare say 'twas all a trick of my ears.”

“But I heard it, too, Mother Kull.”

“Your ears serve you tricks, too, Anna. You wait and help Valentine home with the animals.”

Anna was glad to have her mother gone. She sped to the marsh. She threaded it, until by sundry signs she found the trio and summoned them forth.

The old Blazing Star Ferry was seldom used. A boat lay there. It was staunch. The tide with them, they might get it across. Had they been older, wiser, they would never have made the attempt.

A fresh water stream ran down to the sea. They passed it on their way thither. In it Sleet drank deep, and soothed for a moment the bites that tormented her; the children kneeled on the grassy bank, and drank from their palms; the calf frolicked in it, till driven out. An hour went by. They reached the ferry. It was deserted. Somebody had used the boat that day. It was at the shore. Grass was yet in it.

“Come along, Snow,” said Valentine, urging with the rope. “Go along, Snow,” said Anna, helping it on with a stout twig she had picked up. The calf pranced and ran, and before it knew its whereabouts was in the broad-bottomed boat. Sleet stood on the shore, and saw her baby tied fast. One poor cry the calf uttered. It went home to the motherly heart of the dumb creature. She went down the sand, over the side, and began, in her own way, to comfort Snow.

“Now we are all right!” cried Valentine, delighted with the success of his ruse; for he had slyly, lest Anna should see the deed, thrust a pin in Snow to call forth the cry and win the cow over to his side.

“Take an oar quick!” commanded the young captain.

His mate obeyed. They pushed the boat out, unfastened it from the pier. Before anybody concerned had time to realize the situation the boat was adrift, and they were whirling in the tide.

“Now, sis,” said Valentine, a big lump in his throat, “we're in for it. It is sink or swim. It's not much use to row. You steer and I'll paddle.”

Sleet looked wildly around. She tossed her head, sniffed the salt, oystery air, and seemed about to plunge overboard.

Anna screamed. Valentine threw down his paddle and dashed himself on the boat's outermost edge just in time to save it from overturning. Mistress Sleet, disgusted with Fourth of July, had made up her mind to lie down and take a nap. The boat righted and they were safe. Staten Island Sound at this point was narrow, scarcely more than a quarter of a mile in width, and the tide was fast bearing them out.

“Such uncommon good sense in Sleet,” exclaimed the boy. “That cow is worth saving.”

At that moment a dozen Red Coats were at the ferry they had just left. The imperious gentlemen were in a fine frenzy at finding the boat gone.

They shouted to the children to return.

“Steady, steady now,” cried the young captain. His mate was steady at the helm until a musket ball or two ran past them.

“Let go!” shouted the captain. “Swing your bonnet. Let them know you're a woman and they won't fire on you.”

The little mate stood erect. She waved her pink flag of a sun-bonnet. Distinctly the soldiers saw the pink frock of Anna Kull; they saw her long hair as the sea breeze lifted it when she shook her pink banner.

A second, two, three went by as the girl stood there, and then a flash was seen on the bank, a musket-ball ran through the bonnet of the little mate, and the waves of air rattled along the shore.

The bonnet was in the sea; Anna had dropped to her seat and caught the helm in her left hand.

“Cowards!” cried Valentine, for want of a stronger word, and then he fell to working the boat on its way. The tide helped them now; it swung the boat over toward the Jersey shore.

The firing from Staten Island called out the inhabitants on the Jersey coast. They watched the approaching boat with interest. Everything depended now on the cow's lying still, on the boy's strength, on the meeting of the tides. If he could reach there before the tide came up all would be well; otherwise it would sweep him off again toward the island.

“Can't you row?” asked Valentine, at length.

“Bub, I can't,” said Anna, her voice shaking out the words. It was the first time she had spoken since she sat down.

“Are you hurt?” he questioned.

“I tremble so,” she answered, and turned her face away.

“I reckon we'd better help that boy in,” said a Jersey fisherman as he watched, and he put off in a small boat.

“Don't come near! Keep off! keep off!” called Valentine, as he saw him approach. “I've a cow in here.”

The fisherman threw him a rope, and that rope saved them. The dewy smell of the grassy banks had aroused the cow. She was stirring.

The land was very near now; close at hand. “Hurry! hurry!” urged the lad, as they were drawing him in. Before the cow had time to rise, the boat touched land.

“You'd better look after that girl,” said the fisherman, who had towed the boat. The poor child was holding, fast wrapped in the remnants of her pink frock, her bleeding hand. The musket ball that shot away her bonnet grazed her wrist.

“Never mind me,” she said, when they were pitying her. “The cow is safe.”

The same evening, while, in Philadelphia, bonfires were blazing, bells ringing, cannon booming, because, that day, a new nation was born; over Staten Island Sound, by the light of the moon, strong-armed men were ferrying home the girl and the boy, who that day had fought a good fight and gained the victory.

At home, in the Kull cottage, the mother waited long for the coming of the children. She said; “Poor young things! Mine own children —they shall have a nice supper.” She made it ready and they were not come.

Farmer Rycker's wife and daughter came over to tell and hear the news, and yet they were not come.

Sundown. No children. The Kull father came up from his fishing and heard the story.

“The Red Coats have taken them,” he said, and down came the musket from against the wall, and out the father marched and made straightway for the headquarters of General Howe, over at the present “Quarantine.”

Then the mother, left alone in the soft summer gloaming, fell on her knees and told her story in her own plain speech to her good Father in Heaven.

It was a long story. She had much to say to Heaven that night. The mothers and wives of 1776 in our land spake often unto God. This mother listened and prayed, and prayed and listened.

The fishermen had left Valentine and Anna on the shore and gone home. Tired, but happy, the brother and sister went up, over sand and field and slope, and so came at length within sight of the trees that towered near home.

“Whistle now!” whispered Anna, afraid yet to speak aloud. “Mother will hear and answer.”

Valentine whistled.

Up jumped the mother Kull. She ran to the door and tried to answer. There was no whistle in her lips. Joy choked it.

“Mother, are you there?” cried the children.

“No! I'm here,” was the answer, and she had them safe in her arms.