Originally, Nathan was assigned to help Rachel’s unit with fatigue duty, and the scene where she gives him her spare shirt came right after it.
Fatigue duty meant boredom and blisters, generally, and today was no exception. Rachel read the General Orders. Collect a list of men who needed new shoes, all right, don’t wander about in the trenches obstructing work, very well… She groaned. Their brigade was obliged to furnish sixty saucissons, eighty fascines, two hundred palisades, and eight hundred pickets by five o’clock for use in the earthworks. In other words, hours of bundling brush and branches securely together, stripping and sharpening small tree trunks, and picking splinters out of men’s hands.
“The sappers and miners are providing us with the wood and brush at least, don’t you think?” she asked Tench.
He sighed. “I doubt it. They must all be at work in the trenches. I heard we’re opening our first battery today.”
Rachel’s heart beat faster. After days of bearing British cannonades without answer, to finally fire back! For that she would even tromp through the woods cutting brush and making sure no one sliced his leg open with his fascine knife. Not that she knew anything about cutting brush. Or sharpening stakes, for that matter, but how hard could it be?
In the end, the Canadian Regiment was sent to cut the wood, and Rachel’s New Yorkers stayed in camp. Even more fortuitously, Tench and a few other men from upstate knew how to sharpen stakes, which looked to Rachel like a delicate business. That left her with tying brush and branches into bundles at least six feet long.
“It’s a bit like stuffing veal,” Zvi said cheerfully, tying off his twine with a flourish and twisting the next section of his bundle. “I suppose that’s why they call it a saucisson. That means sausage, doesn’t it?”
“Don’t talk about sausage,” someone said. “We’re too damn hungry.”
“I don’t know why they can’t give us our rum in the morning,” another chimed in. “At least it would make the time pass more quickly.”
“Because we want to keep your fingers attached to your hands,” Scipio said. “Foolish sentimentality, I know.”
Rachel had liked to drink a glass of wine in the kitchen. Probably it had led to a few extra burns and cuts, but it had been worth it. The thought woke her up a little; she had chosen to leave the boring drudgery of the kitchen behind and do this boring drudgery instead. That made it hers, and that was something at least.
“I’ve been instructed to make myself useful,” a voice said, somewhere above her right shoulder, cutting effortlessly through the babble of conversation and the men singing hymns to pass the time. Rachel was very glad she wasn’t sharpening stakes because she probably would have hatcheted her toes right off.
The sentry who accompanied him looked extremely long-suffering. “You’ve been instructed to shoot him if he tries to escape,” he said to Rachel, in an encouraging tone suggesting that at least there was some hope of reprieve.
“Good morning, Nathan,” she said, surprised at how evenly her voice came out. “Thank you, private. Did you hear that, everyone? Shoot him if he tries to escape.”
A few men patted their muskets in acknowledgment. Rachel’s stomach curled. “Don’t try to escape,” she told Nathan.
He smiled easily at her. “I’ve given my parole,” he said. “They didn’t have a Bible without the New Testament in it, but they opened it up and let me swear only on the first half. Is it really all right for Christians to lay their Bibles face-down on the table?”
She shrugged and showed him how to make a fascine. He sat awkwardly on the ground with his shackles, glancing at her and obviously being careful not to wince when his ankle banged into the iron. It reminded her of something she’d meant to do.
“I’ll be right back. Scipio?” she called. “Don’t let anyone beat him to a pulp while I’m gone?”