The Pivotal Portrait
Elizabeth Maxwell Steele bent with poker in hand, trying to prod life into the banked fire. Her ears picked up a distant sound in the predawn darkness. Hoof beats. Her heart matched the galloped beat as she straightened up.
Her eyes swept over the dining room of the modest tavern. Every inch built with Robert’s sweat and love, she mused, passing a shaky hand over her eyes. Hostile Indians stole Robert’s life and scalp, leaving two fatherless children.
The fast approaching clatter halted her reverie. Her mind raced. After five long years, war had finally made its way to her door. Would the rider prove to be friend or foe? She glanced up at the painting over the hearth, shame gathering in her hot cheeks.
Before she could remove it, the door slapped open. Frigid February air assaulted her, threatening to snuff out the weak fire. She realized she still gripped the poker with the intensity of a trapped quarry.
“Morning, ma’am,” the dusty rider greeted her, tipping a worn hat. “Dr. Reed, Continental Army.” His sharp eyes swung from her flushed face to the painting. A wry smile touched his lips.
“Expect General Greene any moment. Can you rustle up some breakfast for us?”
“Yes sir,” she responded, crossing the floor to gather hot tea and honey.
“Cream?” she asked.
“Please,” he responded before sinking into the nearest chair.
Mrs. Steele retired to the kitchen. I saw how he looked at the painting, she thought. He’s thinking I’m a Tory. How could I know the Continentals would arrive before the Brits? Besides, I’m 48, twice widowed and have three children. She continued her argument. I’m too old to start over if the Brits burn me out.
Another burst of the wintry air announced the general’s arrival. She crossed the puncheon floor with two steaming plates of her famed Johnny cakes, accompanied by her own cured ham. She placing the food before the two men, before retiring to a discreet distance.
The man certainly didn’t look like a general. His broad shoulders stooped forward with the weight of too many losses. Rain drenched clothes clung to his muscled frame. Red Carolina mud clung to his worn boots like a tenacious dog in possession of a tasty bone.
She caught the look of concern in Dr. Reed’s eyes. He bent forward. “General. How are you?”
Greene grunted. “Fatigued. Hungry. Alone. Penniless.” The general bit off each word. “Davidson’s dead. My men are barefoot and ragged. The militia’s scattered.”
He raised large hands in defeat. “I can’t expect my men to fight with air in their stomachs and nothing covering their backs.”
Elizabeth slipped out of the room to her private quarters. Quickly she located two small bags, hidden in a secret niche by her fireplace. For a few moments she caressed her life’s savings before hastening back to the dining room.
“Sir,” she began while approaching the general with a firm step. “Forgive my intrusion, but I cannot be silent.” She jutted her chin a bit. “Do you really consider yourself alone? Penniless? Your men may be hungry for food, but they are Americans. Americans are hungrier for freedom than food. They will fight.”
Dr. Reed and General Greene stared at their hostess. At that moment, she withdrew the bags from her apron. “Take these,” she instructed. “For you will need them, and I can do without them.”
The general’s eyes widened as a smile lit his face. His shoulders straightened to match those of the petite patriot before him. He scraped his chair back, rising to his full height.
His laughter filled the room, shattering all gloom.
Greene sauntered over to the fireplace and with great deliberation selected a piece of charcoal. Next, he removed the painting over the mantel — that of King George III and Queen Charlotte arrayed in all their oppressive royal splendor.
“O, George, hide thy face and mourn,” he scratched on the back. Then he carefully replaced the painting, allowing the royal couple to face the wall. He turned and winked at Dr. Reed.
“With such patriots backing us, we cannot lose,” he grinned.
“Dear lady,” he said as he took Mrs. Steele’s work roughened hand in his own. “On behalf of the Continental Army, I thank you for reminding me of the mettle we Americans are made of. I promise you I will never forget.”
With a salute and a smile, the general departed the tavern, mounted his horse and rode into history.
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