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Pussy Dean's Beacon Fire by Sarah J. Prichard

Tale of the American Revolution

March 17, 1776.

A hundred years ago the winds of March were blowing.

To-day the same winds rush by the stone memorials and sweep across the low mounds that securely cover the men and the women that then were alive to chill blast and stirring event. Even the lads who gathered at sound of drum and fife on village green, wishing, as they saw the troopers march, that they were men, and the little girls who hung about father's neck because he was going off to war, who watched the post-riders on their course, wishing that they knew the news he carried, are no longer with us.

For nearly two years Boston had been the lost town of the people. It had been taken from the children by an unkind father and given to strangers. You have been told how British ships came and closed her harbor, so that food and raiment could not enter. You know how grandly the younger sister towns behaved toward stately, hungry Boston; how they marched up the narrow neck of land that holds back the town from the sea, each and every one bearing gifts to the beloved town, until there came the sad and fatal day wherein British military lines turned back the tide of offerings and closed the gate of entrance.

Then it was that friends began to gather across the rivers that wound their waters around Boston. Presently an army grew up and stationed itself with leaders and banners and forts.

Summer came. The army waited through all the long warm days. The summer went; the leaves fell; the chill winds and the cold sea-fogs wound into and out of the poor little tents and struck the brave men who, having no tents, tried to be strong and endure.

Every child knows, or ought to know, the story of that winter; how day by day, all over New England, men were striving to gather firearms and powder wherewith to take back from the foe poor Boston. But, alas, there was not powder enough in all the land to do it.

The long, wearying winter had done its worst for the prisoned inhabitants within the town; and, truly, it had tried and pinched the waiting friends who stood at the gates.

At last, in March, in the night, the brave helpers climbed the hills, built on them smaller hills, and by the light of the morning were able to look over into the town—at which the patriots were glad and the British commander frightened.

A little after nine of the clock on Sunday morning, the 17th of March, 1776, three Narragansett ponies stood before General Washington's headquarters at Cambridge.

“Go with all possible speed to Governor Trumbull,” said Washington, delivering despatches to a well-known and trusted messenger, who instantly mounted one of the ponies in waiting—Sweeping Wind by name—and rode away, with many a sharp and inquiring glance back at city and river and camp.

It was four of the clock in the afternoon, and the messenger had not paused since he set forth, longer than to give Sweeping Wind water to drink, when, on the highway in the distance, he saw a red cloak fluttering and flying before him.

It was Pussy Dean who wore the cloak. She was fifteen, fair and lovely, brave and patriotic as any soldier in the land.

At first she was angry at the law by which she was denied a new cloak that winter, made of English fabric, but when wrapped in the coveted broadcloth of scarlet belonging to her mother she was more than reconciled.

On this Sunday Pussy had been at the meeting-house on the hill, two miles from home, at both morning and afternoon service, and afterward had lingered a little to gather up bits of news from camp and town to take home to her mother, and so it had happened that she was quite alone on the highway.

Pussy chanced to look back to the summit of the hill down which she had walked, and she saw the express coming.

“Now,” she thought, “if I could only stop him! I wonder if I can't. I'll try, and then,” swinging her silken bag, “I shall have news to carry home, the very latest, too.”

As she swung the bag she suddenly remembered that she had something within it to offer the rider.

“Of course I can,” she went on saying to herself. “Post-riders are always hungry, and it's lucky for him that I didn't have to eat my dinner myself, to-day. Now, if I only had a basketful of clover heads or roses for that pony, I'd find out all about Boston while it was eating.”

The only roses within sight were blooming on Pussy Dean's two cheeks as Sweeping Wind came clattering his shoes against the frozen ground. He would have gone straight on had a scarlet cloak not been planted, like a fluttering standard, full in his pathway.

The rider gave the pony the slightest possible check, since he felt sure that no red-coated soldier lurked behind the red cloak.

“Take something to eat, won't you?” accosted Pussy, rather glowing in feature and agitated in voice by her own daring.

Meanwhile the rider had given Sweeping Wind a second intimation to stand, which he obeyed, and sniffed at Pussy's cloak and cheeks and silken bag as she held it forth to the rider, saying naively, “I went to meeting and was invited to luncheon, and so didn't eat mine.” She spoke swiftly, as though she knew she must not detain him.

He answered with a smile and a “Thank you,” took the bag, and rewarded her by saying, “The British are getting out of Boston, bag and baggage.”

“And where are you going?” demanded Pussy, determined not to go home with but half the story if she could help it.

“To Governor Trumbull with the good news and a demand for two thousand men to save New York,” he cried back, having gone on. His words were entangled with a mouthful of gingerbread or mince-pie to such an extent that it was a full minute before Pussy understood their import, and then she could only say over and over to herself, as she hastened on, “Father will be here, father will come home, and we'll have the good old times back again.”

But notwithstanding her hope and a country's wish, the good old times were not at hand.

Pussy reached home and told the story. Baby went down plump into the wooden cradle at the first note of it, and set up a tune of rejoicing in his own fashion which no one regarded. Brother Benjamin, aged thirteen, whistled furiously, regardless of the honors of the day. Sammy, who was ten, clapped his hands and knocked his heels together, first in joy, and then began to fear lest the war should be over before he grew big enough to be in it.

“Mother,” said Pussy, a few minutes later, “let Benny come with me to tell Mr. Gale about it; may he?”

Pussy laid aside her Sunday bonnet, tied a straw hat over her ears with a silk kerchief to keep out the wind, and in three minutes got Benny into the highway.

“See here, Ben, I'm going to light a fire on Baldhead to tell all the folks together about it, and I want you to help me; quick, before it gets dark.”

“You can't gather fagots,” responded Ben.

Yes, she could, and would, and did, while Benny went to the house nearest to Baldhead to ask for some fire in a kettle.

The two worked with such vigor and will that the first gathering of darkness saw the light of the beacon-flame burst forth, and the great March wind blew it into fiercest glow. Every eye that saw the fire there knew that it had been kindled with a purpose, and many feet from house and hamlet set forth to learn the cause.

While Pussy and Ben were yet adding fagots to the fire, they heard a voice crying out: “The young rascals shall be punished soundly for this,” and ere Pussy had time to explain or expostulate, a strong man had Ben in his grasp.

“Stop that, sir!” cried the girl, rushing to the rescue with a burning fagot that she had seized from the fire, and shaking it full in the assailant's face.

By the light of it, the man saw Pussy and she saw him; and then both began to laugh, while Ben rubbed his ears and wondered whether they were both on his head.

“It means,” spoke the girl, waving the still flaming brand toward the east, “that the British left Boston this morning, and that General”—(just here a dozen men were at the fire. Pussy raised her voice and continued)—“Washington wants you all, every one of you, to march straight to Governor Trumbull, and he'll tell you what to do next.”

“If that's the case,” said the responsible man of the constantly-increasing group after questioning Pussy, “we'd better summon the militia by the ringing of the bell,” and off they went in the direction of the village, while Pussy and Ben went home.

The next day saw fifty men, well armed, and provisioned for three days, on the road to Lebanon. They marched into town and into the now famous war-office of Governor Trumbull, to his pleased surprise.

“Who sent you?” asked the governor, for it was not yet six hours since the demand on the nearest town had been made.

“Who sent us?” echoed the lieutenant, looking confused and at a loss to explain, and finally answering truthfully, he said: “It was a young girl, your excellency. She lit a beacon fire on a hill and gave the command that we report to you.”

A laugh ran around the sides of the old war-office. The messenger who had ridden from Cambridge sat upon the counter pressing his spurs into the wood and heard it all.

“And who commissioned the girl as a recruiting officer?” questioned the governor.

“I'm afraid,” said the messenger, “I am the guilty party. I met a young patriot in scarlet cloak who asked my news, and, I told her.”

“Where is the girl's father?” demanded Governor Trumbull.

“He is with the army, at Cambridge,” was the response.

“And his name?”

“Reuben Dean.”

A scratch or two of the quill pen was heard on the open paper. It was folded, sealed, and handed to the ready horseman, with the words: “Reuben Dean; he is mentioned for promotion.”

The words, as they were spoken by Governor Trumbull, were caught up and gathered into a mighty cheer, for every man of their number knew that Reuben Dean was worthy of promotion, even had his daughter not gained it for him by her services as recruiting officer.