She’d heard cannon fire before. One never forgot that thunder cracking the quiet of day. Disembarking ships leaving Philadelphia would sometimes salute. And of course there were those occasional times the local militia would muster with their small brass field piece. But in better years the men rarely practiced long before slapping each other’s backs in congratulation and spending the rest of their training day in the tavern getting drunk and playing games. This was different.
Of course, they’d fired a canon repeatedly last July, when the delegates and onlookers assembled outside the State House, not far from her home on Arch Street. It led to this. Her fingers worked the needle, quickly sewing the two strips of wool bunting, red and white, as she concentrated. There had been a drawing of what the finished product should look like. She’d committed it to memory and improved one or two things from the design picked in June. Whoever had come up with the flag didn’t know how to sew a five-point star and made them look like snowflakes instead.
“They should have chosen something simpler,” she murmured, looking at the task ahead of her. Her expert fingers stitched quickly. Wartime needs had shifted her work lately from upholstery. But her help had fled town in the last few weeks, leaving her to work quickly, alone. Her fingers were not immune to the errant bite of the needle, but she was experienced enough to usually avoid it. Still, she’d never had to work so quickly, until now.
Thunder on a clear sky rattled the window panes in their wooden frames. There would be no tavern singing today. Guns from the north thundered for miles, as the war made its way to nearby Germantown. The streets lay abandoned. What law and order had kept the city calm since the conflict began, dissipated. She heard horses.
“Ross’s grandson and his wife got themselves a right cozy place, around here.” They heard the talk outside their home, with the clip clop of horseshoes on the cobbles. “Says here they took silver for work from the traitors.”
“As I heard it, Young Ross got himself under hatches in that powder blast last year,” another man on horseback said. She could not see them clearly from her angle. She left the needle in its last stitch and leaned down, looking through the windows without disturbing the view, for a better look. There were five of them, armed with cutlasses and rather new-looking Brown Bess muskets slung across their backs. It was the Doan Boys. They’d gone from Tory highwaymen outside of town to brazenly taking their crimes right into Philadelphia. They targeted Patriots. Her face reflected shock and fury while she watched them discuss her first husband this way.
One of them held a ledger book in his hand. “Well, then, his widow is still carrying on the family trade by my reckoning. That’s the house, over yonder.” He closed what must have been a stolen ledger from the Continental Congress and put it in his saddle bag. The others, as if on cue, checked their weapons. “Make it Beau-Nasty, my boys. Time to send a message to the local Whiggery.”
She saw Joseph drifting from upstairs towards the door, an old navy pistol in his hand. He’d slipped his shoes off, moving so quietly that even she had not heard him, being so affixed to what she saw outside. He leaned in at the door and called out, “You rogues had best take your business abroad. Elizabeth is a widow no longer, and I’ll make it my business to carve a punch bowl from the head of the first one of you to try and change her marital situation.”
She started to say something, but her husband gave her a shushing gesture with the barrel of his pistol. Her eyes opened wide to him, trying to silently convey what she had seen. Unfortunately, they were newly wed, and the subtleties of words unspoken had not yet come naturally to either of them.
One man had looped back on foot and hurled a rock through a window, distracting Joseph. The door slammed into Joseph’s back while he turned the wrong way. As Joseph sprawled to the floor, his pistol dropped at full cock, firing from a lucky angle into his assailant’s boot as it also met the ground. The room filled with smoke and the cursing of a Doan brother. A gang member helped the injured crook out of the doorway and back to his saddle.
She was married to a mariner, yet had never heard any such words. Joseph struggled to his feet, but slowly. It must have jarred him more than she had thought. She reached down quickly under her chair, hearing footsteps. Forthwith, another Doan brother replaced the injured one. He put his boot on the small of Joseph’s back just as he was getting to his feet, sending her husband painfully to the ground again. Betsy opened her mouth, gasping. Then her face contorted in anger.
“Adshooks, woman! Your eyes could turn wine to vinegar,” the Doan boy said to her. “Now your man here just made things worse, shooting my brother’s toes like that. Got the locality all interested, is what I think. So I will be to the point. Remove that foul banner. Tell me where the silver is, and we’ll be off. Act quickly — widowing is my trade.”
Betsy remained silent as stone. She merely peeled back the flag from her lap revealing the bell mouth of the blunderbuss pointed at the assailant. She never said a word. The highwayman, eyes terrified, lifted his boot from Joseph, who scrambled to his feet. Someone was calling for help across the street. The Doans galloped away before armed townsfolk arrived. Joseph stood up and and dusted himself off.
“Get yourself cleaned up, love,” she told her husband. With the blunderbuss hidden away again, she resumed her sewing of the flag.
Jonathon Grimes lives in Chattanooga TN. He has recently been published in Daily Science Fiction.