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The Road to Peekskill

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Late November, 1777

The transition from broad sunlight hadn’t bothered Hamilton when his horse had first trotted under the forest canopy. Absorbed in the urgency of his mission, he had urged his horse along the cart ruts that passed for a road for hours until he finally noticed that he could see the exhausted beast’s breath, and immediately shivered, himself. Not far ahead, he heard the gurgle of a small creek, and guided his mare down a steep bank to the churning water. While she drank, he reached into a saddlebag for his greatcoat, when he heard the sound of weeping.

Through the dense veil of poplar and maple he saw nothing but a single squirrel sizing him up from a branch. He followed the weeping around a bend in the creek, horse trailing behind, until he spotted a young woman clad only in a diaphanous linen shift kneeling on the opposite bank. From behind a thick tree trunk he observed the jet black hair that swung across her porcelain cheek as she washed something in the icy water, sobbing.

“What misfortune has befallen this poor girl, to find herself in this state? I cannot, in good conscience, leave her like this, though it delay my return to the General.”

He stepped slowly away from the tree and toward the woman.

“Please excuse my intrusion, but I can’t help noticing that you appear to be in some difficulty and offer my assistance in anything you require.”

The woman appeared not to hear him, and continued to weep. Hamilton moved to the very edge of the creek, ready to repeat his offer when he saw that she was rubbing at a bloody shift, threads of pink waving in the water around the scrap of cloth and just as it seemed the stain would be gone, fresh blood appeared.

Hamilton immediately froze. Though inexperienced in such matters, he knew about women’s monthly trouble and while he could imagine no good reason for her to wash her linens alone, crying, in a cold creek, wearing nothing but her undergarment, felt ashamed to have caught her in such an intimate act and tried to leave as silently as he’d arrived. His horse, however, had no such qualms and cracked a branch under a hoof as he turned her around. Hamilton whipped his head over his shoulder to see if she noticed.

The woman looked up, and rose to her feet, fixing fierce black eyes on him. She seemed luminous, her naked body through the transparent fabric, almost shimmery, as if made of dust and air.

“Where is my cap?” she keened.

He tried not to stare, but she demanded attention.

“Where is my cap?” She repeated in a shrill voice, each syllable measured and heavy. This time, it sounded almost like an accusation.

“I’m afraid I don’t know,” Hamilton croaked, unsure if she could even hear him over the sound of water.

The woman’s face contorted with rage and a shriek like nothing he’d ever heard emanated from her entire body. She raised two fingers of one hand to her face and slipped them into the corners of her eyes, twisting them around, blood running like tears over her white skin, until both eyeballs rolled into her palm. The empty sockets glowed like embers and she hurled her eyeballs at Hamilton.

Too stunned to move, the eyes headed directly toward Hamilton’s chest and yet, when they were sure to hit, he felt only a sharp, stabbing pain in his lungs and saw nothing fall to the ground.

The woman stood on the other side of the creek, hair flying wildly around her bloody face and burning, empty eyes.

Hamilton mounted his mare rapidly and galloped toward the road, leaping over a fallen tree and ignoring the brambles that tore at his breeches. They ran until they left the forest and birds began to roost in the trees, and stopped at the first house they came to.

Upon dismounting, Hamilton’s knees buckled, and words poured out of his mouth in a jumble.

“Sir,” said the householder, Dennis Kennedy, catching him as he collapsed. “You are in no shape to continue your journey. A glass of ale, my wife’s stew, and a warm bed will set you to rights again.”

Bundled under a pile of quilts and propped up on pillows, Hamilton could not get warm. When he tried to lift the bowl of stew that Letitia handed him, it wobbled so precariously she took it from him and lifted a spoonful to his mouth. The rich, warm broth revived him a little, and after a couple bites, he was able to feed himself. The meal restored his voice but he continued to shiver and sweat at the same time and each breath seared his lungs. Letitia felt his forehead with the back of her hand and looked at him with concern.

The next morning, he could not get out of bed. Fever consumed his mind and air filled his inflamed lungs only with the greatest difficulty. When he tried to speak, savage coughs that tore his throat and ravaged his body did not stop until he lay quietly back against the pillows and closed his eyes. By supper he was listless and unresponsive when Letitia brought him his meal.

He remained in this state, each day slightly worse than the next. He was a mess of chills, sweats, and aching in all his joints. A cold numbness traveled down his body, into his legs and feet. After a week, Kennedy and Letitia drew chairs next to his bed and Letitia took his hand while her husband held a glass of beer to his lips.

“Colonel Hamilton,” he began. Hamilton startled. “Don’t be afraid. We’re not Loyalists.”

“We looked through your things when it began to look like… We needed to know who we should write to,” Letitia stammered sheepishly, looking toward Dennis for support.

“If I died,” Hamilton whispered. Letitia blushed. “Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy for your concern. Your suspicions are correct. I fear I shall not outlive this illness, but if I do, I will not forget your kindness. Aside from General Washington, there is just one who needs to know of my passing, my dear friend, John Laurens.”

Kennedy offered him another sip of beer, which he drank gratefully, exhausted from the effort of speaking. Kennedy and Letitia made to leave but Hamilton caught Letitia's hand and they paused.

“The day I came here,” he coughed for a long time. “The day I came here, I saw her.”

“Who did you see, Colonel Hamilton?” Kennedy asked.

“A woman. At a creek. Washing. She asked for her cap.”

Letitia and Kennedy exchanged alarmed glances and he turned back to Hamilton.

“Lots of women wash at creeks, my dear sir,” he patted Hamilton’s shoulder. “Don’t think of it anymore.”

Days passed and Hamilton did not die. In fact, his fever broke and his joints loosened. Though still filled with pain, he could walk across the room to use the pot and eventually, sit with a board on his lap and write a letter. As he regained his strength, Kennedy took to visiting with him after dinner, sharing his madeira and thoughts on the war, but evading Hamilton’s questions about the woman.

One night he appeared in the doorway with a somber expression.

“Letitia says you won’t get well until you know about the Weeping Woman.”

“At last!”

Kennedy sat down with a sigh.

“A long time ago a man named Josiah Attwood arrived in Peekskill from England and started a dairy farm. He had no local family, and no one knew anything about the life he had led in England. He seemed to know little about farming or dairying, far less than the three enslaved African men who turned his business into a success. In addition to the men, Attwood had help from a succession of indentured dairymaids from England and Ireland, all of whom disappeared after a few months.

“Ran away,” he said when people asked, and though some found it odd that he never offered a reward or placed ads for their return, he was the sort who kept to himself and didn’t give anyone trouble, so no one thought much of it.

“One of these dairymaids was Abigail, a beautiful girl with jet black hair and cheeks kissed by roses. Abigail attended church each Sunday where her beautiful voice floated above the congregation’s hymns like a flock of larks and caught the handsome Reverend’s attention. He searched out her blushing face during his sermons and found himself thinking of her while writing them. People started noticing his distraction and as the popular young man had yet to take a wife, found excuses that brought them into proximity with one another. After a few months of this, he began to court Abigail openly.

“Then, on a snowy Sunday in January, Abigail failed to show up for church. When the Reverend called on her, Attwood said she had run away, as had all the dairymaids before her. Rumors circulated that she had a lover in another town, and that she was pregnant with his child. The Reverend was shattered.

“About a month later a poor farmer who had gone into the forest hunting to get meat to feed his children followed his dog along the scent of what he hoped was a deer. When the dog stopped and began digging into a pile of snow, he caught up and there, covered loosely with dirt and leaves, was Abigail, her body bloated but because of the cold, not yet badly decayed, and clad only in a bloody shift. Her throat had been slashed and her eyes removed and placed on her chest. A group of men carried her back to town, where the Reverend mourned her so fiercely he couldn’t preside at her funeral.

“A town meeting was called to decide what to do. Attwood spoke eloquently at the meeting and wept so, that he moved those present to tears as well. By the end of the meeting, several men began shouting, “Why bother sending for the judge? We all know it was the Indians.”

“A murmur of assent rippled through the crowd.

“First Abigail, next your wives!” shouted one woman. Another woman reminded the crowd that Indians had killed several of the first Englishmen to settle in this area.

“Get out your muskets, boys!” an old man exclaimed.

"The Revered stepped up to the pulpit and addressed the crowd for the first time since Abigail’s body had been found.

“We must not blame the Indians. They are our neighbors, though we know them not well, and we have no evidence that they committed this crime.”

“Are you suggesting it was one of us?” a man asked.

“I’m suggesting that we ask questions and use reason to find the murderer and bring them to trial, Indian or no.”

“What kind of Christian would do this sort of thing?” someone yelled. And with that, no one could hear anymore above the roar that filled the church. A large group of men marched out, making angry plans. The next night, they rode with guns, swords, and knives and slaughtered a small village of Indians-- men, women and children while they slept.

“After that, everyone stopped asking who murdered Abigail, even if they didn’t believe it was the Indians, and as the months rolled by, only the Reverend continued to mourn. That winter, a fever swept through the town that claimed many souls. One of them was Mr. Attwood. The men he enslaved, seeing their golden opportunity, fled toward freedom, and when a creditor finally showed up to claim his payment, he discovered no one on the farm but Attwood’s dead body.

“Because he died with no known heirs, the crown claimed his estate and in the process of sorting through his things for auction, someone found a large black box in the basement. Inside were items of clothing and clippings of hair from eight women, each wrapped in a numbered piece of paper that described acts so gruesome that the man who found them vomited on the floor.

“The paper labeled eight contained a cap and jet black hair. The violence described on the paper matched the desecration of Abigail’s body.

“Someone brought the cap and lock to the Reverend, who recognized them immediately and fell to the ground weeping. Though he tried, he found no comfort in the Bible. Attwood's treatment of Abigail and the other women, and the town's vengeful massacre of Indians had shaken his faith in that men are creatures of God, and his words from the pulpit sounded hollow. He took up farming, eventually marrying and raising a family.

“Ever since, some people say they have seen a woman with jet black hair crying and washing a bloody shift in the creek not far from where Abigail’s body was found, though few now recall her story. I never believed the stories, and do not believe in ghosts. But you are the first to hear her speak, and what she said sends a chill down my spine."

Kennedy took a deep breath and long draught of wine. To his surprise, Hamilton looked lost in thought, not incredulous or aghast.

"What think you of that story, Hamilton," Kennedy asked, refreshing Hamilton's glass.

"I should have known."

"Known what?"

"Sometimes no science can explain our ills, Mr. Kennedy. I learned that a long time ago, in a faraway place, and the lesson seems to have followed me here."

"What are you talking about?"

"Thank you for telling me the story of the Weeping Woman, but Mrs. Kennedy is wrong about one thing. The story is not over yet, and I will not recover until it ends."

Kennedy searched Hamilton's sparkling eyes for meaning, finding it in a barely perceptible narrowing of the lids. He nodded and left the room, returning a few minutes later with a plain wood box, which he handed to Hamilton.

"The Reverend was my father, you see."

Hamilton lifted the lid and saw a starched white linen cap edged with lace on top of a tuft of black hair. A yellowed piece of paper lay folded beneath it all. Hamilton lifted the cap, with enquiring eyes directed toward Kennedy.

"No, Hamilton. You're not strong enough."

"I'm nearly better, Kennedy. I walked downstairs and around the garden today."

"That's hardly better."

"I've lived through worse, and I assure you, if you bring me my boots, I can ride as well as you."

"If you do this and die, I'll have to answer to General Washington!"

"If I don't do this and die, you'll have to answer to God."

Kennedy grunted, but Hamilton was already up, pulling on his breeches and stockings.

"Would you be so kind as to bring me my boots and coat, over in the corner?"

Helpless before Hamilton's resolve, Kenndy did as directed. Before long, both men were swinging into the seats of their saddles, their way lit only by starlight reflecting off snow that dusted the road. Their horses jogged at a fair clip until they reached the bridge near the spot where Hamilton had let his horse down for water. He directed them down the embankment and around the bend. When they approached the spot where the Weeping Woman had been, it was empty. Hamilton stopped, and Kennedy stopped behind him.

"This is madness, Hamilton. There's nothing here. Let's go home."

Frustrated, Hamilton shouted, "Show yourself!"

When nothing happened, he repeated himself, only louder.

Kennedy put a hand on his shoulder.

"Calm yourself and save your energy. You might need it. Let me try."

He hesitated for a moment, then called, "Abigail!

They thought they felt a current of warm air brush their cheeks, and heard a rustle in the bushes that could have been a fox. Kennedy called again, softly, almost seductively, "Abigail!"

A faint light appeared across the creek that grew stronger and bigger until it gradually took the form of a woman with dark hair, which began to keen with a wail that pierced the darkness. Her hollow, burning eyes fixed on the men and she screamed, "Where is my cap?"

Kennedy brought the linen cap out of his pocket and held it aloft.

"Reverend Kennedy returns your cap," he shouted in a clear, strong voice that only wavered at the start, when he mentioned his father's name, and threw the cap with all his might at the iridescent figure opposite them. "He knew what happened."

The woman caught the cap and held it to her chest, then placed it on her head and burst into a flash of blinding light.

Hamilton and Kennedy picked their way home in almost utter darkness, for a cloud had covered the stars, but neither one felt tired or cold. When they reached the house, Letitia dragged them in the door and punched Kennedy on the arm.

"You're a damned fool, riding out on a night like this! And dragging our sick friend with you! What mischief have you been up to?" But his breath did not smell like whiskey and both men seemed too shaken to be drunk.

Hamilton walked upstairs by himself and put himself to bed. In the morning, his fever was completely gone, and, though exhausted, the pains in his joints and feet had subsided. After a few more days, he thanked his hosts heartily and set out on his journey toward Valley Forge.