Hamilton came upon John Laurens in the midst of the great commotion of encampment, when the baggage carts were overflowing with stewards attempting to make sense of the jumble of crates while soldiers ran about in an effort to appear busy. John was actually busy directing men in the erection of the General's own tent and did not notice him until Hamilton grasped him by the arm, but gently so that he would not startle. "Have you seen His Excellency?" he asked.
"Yes, he and Lafayette—" John turned his attention from his task to face Hamilton and, seeing his haggard countenance, held him by the shoulders in a gesture of concern. "Has something happened?"
"Burr," was all Hamilton could say, biting out the name like a curse.
Though he couldn't possibly have understood the situation from that syllable, John nodded gravely. There were times when Hamilton believed they might share a single soul and all his thoughts were as clear to John as if they'd come from his own mind. "Follow me," John told him.
They left the bustle of the haphazard preparations and walked along a newly beaten path through some tall grasses to the west of camp. John lead the way with sure feet, and Hamilton soon found himself in a clearing surrounded by a few shaggy elms. General Washington's great black cloak was spread there on the ground, and upon it lay the man himself alongside the Marquis de Lafayette. They both slept the deep slumber of the exhausted, the General with one strong arm flung over his eyes to keep the sun at bay, Lafayette sprawled on his stomach with his head pillowed on his folded hands.
"Neither have had a moment's rest in days," Laurens whispered. "The General instructed me to wake them in an hour's time, but I haven't the heart. I've let them lie here nearly three."
"His Excellency will not be pleased with you," Hamilton said, "but I commend your actions." Sometimes, Hamilton mused, Washington needed decisions to be taken from him for his own well-being.
He crouched down at the edge of the cloak and observed the pair. Lafayette, who seemed perpetually ready for battle in his waking hours, now looked even younger and very vulnerable in sleep. The warm breeze ruffled through his tuft of clubbed hair, and his handsome nose twitched only slightly at this disturbance. General Washington, however, was not softened in his slumber. Hamilton saw that his mouth was set in a determined line and his jaw was tight. Perhaps the worries of his command plagued even his dreams.
Hamilton hated to add to those worries, but he saw no alternative. "Your Excellency," he said, soft and apologetic. "Sir, it's Hamilton. Please wake." He didn't dare touch him.
Washington did not stir. At his side, Lafayette let out a sleepy snort.
"Oh, you won't rouse him like that," Laurens said. "His Excellency can sleep through Hell itself." He stooped down and gripped Washington's shoulder, shaking him much too roughly, in Hamilton's opinion. "Sir! It is time."
Washington let out a low groan, but Lafayette was the first to reach wakefulness. The Frenchman sat up on his knees blinkingly, stretching his arms toward Heaven and testing his joints. "Could you not let me dream, dear Laurens?" he muttered in his native tongue. Then, noticing Hamilton on the other side of the General's outstretched body, he switched to his much-improved English. "My Hammie, have you come to join us? A rest may do you good," he said, pressing his fingertips to the skin under his own eyes.
Hamilton huffed out a laugh; he knew the dark shadows he harbored there were growing by the day. The temptation to fold himself into the small space between Lafayette and Washington was great, but his need to keep working was greater. "I'm afraid not. I have news for the General."
Those words, along with John's continued harassment, finally caused Washington to stir. He sat up and passed a hand over his careworn face, saying, "The sun is much too low. Colonel Laurens, I thought I said—"
"Sir, there is a matter that requires your attention," Hamilton interrupted.
Washington looked at him as if seeing him for the first time. Then, with swiftness, he was as alert as ever. "Tell me as we walk," he said as he gained his feet. He strode toward camp, Hamilton rushing to follow, leaving Laurens and Lafayette to gather the cloak from the ground.
"Lieutenant Colonel Burr is waiting for you in the working tents, sir," he said. "He requested to speak to you privately without delay or explanation but I informed him that Your Excellency cannot be expected to handle personally every single matter that appears in the course of our campaign."
"And?" Washington asked, his voice still deep and dark from sleep.
Hamilton attempted to ignore that particular sound, and its consequences to his body. He swallowed and charged ahead with his hateful task.
"And Burr said he happened upon Colonel Enslin in flagrante with one Private Monhart early this morning, sir."
Washington stopped suddenly on the narrow path, and Hamilton had to be quick to make certain he didn't run directly into his General's broad back. That noble head turned to regard him closely. For a long moment, there was silence.
"The Lieutenant Colonel wishes to court-martial both men to the full extent of the law, Your Excellency," Hamilton plowed ahead, "and he requires your decision on the matter of... punishment."
"My god." Washington lifted a hand and pinched the bridge of his nose, his eyes squeezing shut as if in great pain. "Do we not have more important issues at hand, Hamilton? I am trying to keep this Army from falling apart entirely."
Hamilton nodded in sympathy. "My exact arguments, sir. Yet Burr will not yield. He is adamant that Enslin and Monhart must answer for their crimes, and he says if that does not happen soon—"
"Then Congress may hear of this," Washington finished with able understanding. "This is the last thing we need: an infernal busybody."
Hamilton's jaw worked, but he held his tongue regarding his more private thoughts on Burr's sudden interest in upholding moral standards in the ranks. His sometimes-compatriot had confided in him, after all, in the matter of Prevost's wife. Hamilton would not wield that knowledge like a sword, though surely Burr would feel no compunction if their positions were reversed. Instead he just agreed with a quiet, "Yes, sir."
With a heavy sigh, Washington turned back toward camp and set off again. "Come. Let us be done with this quickly."
Burr was standing when they entered the tent, looking as if he'd been frozen in place exactly where Hamilton had left him. "Ah, General Washington," he said, "thank you for giving me a moment of your time." His smile seemed incredible, a thing so bright and dangerous that Hamilton could barely look at it. "I hope you appreciate the need for privacy while we discuss what must be discussed." His liquid eyes stroked over to Hamilton, and Hamilton felt his face heat with self-righteous anger.
"Colonel Hamilton is already privy to the matter, and so will remain here. I will have need of him at the conclusion of this meeting," Washington said in a tone that brokered no argument. He took a seat at his camp desk, which had been placed in the center of the tent, and took up a sheaf of papers that lay there. His eyes scanned over Burr's needle-like handwriting. "Where are Enslin and Monhart now?"
"I've had them shackled in a makeshift brig, sir, near the river," Burr said with patrician smoothness.
Washington nodded, but did not look up from Burr's report. "And there is no mistaking what you witnessed this morning, Colonel?"
"None whatsoever, sir. The perpetrators themselves cannot deny it." Burr caught Hamilton's gaze then, and Alexander had the distinct feeling of looking into the eye of some great, waiting reptile that suns itself on the rocks when it can and scurries below when rains come. Right now, the rocks were very warm.
"Very well." Washington tossed the pages back onto his desk. "Hamilton, draft my order as follows."
Hamilton moved quickly to another conclave of desks, these grouped together in a row so that Washington's aides might work close together, and he located the requisite paper and ink. He held his quill steady though his heart raced. "Ready, sir."
Washington spoke as Hamilton wrote: "Due to the breach of decorum discovered by Lieutenant Colonel Burr on the morning of—" He paused. "I've forgotten the date. Include it there, Hamilton."
"Of course, sir." He filled it in accordingly.
"Private Monhart shall be demoted one rank for no less than two weeks," Washington continued, "to be reinstated afterward only by order of his commanding officer. Colonel Enslin is to be discharged immediately and stripped of any effects now belonging to the Continental Army such as uniform clothing, his saber, et cetera. Do you have all that, Hamilton?"
Hamilton allowed himself to breathe once more. "Sir, I do." He signed Washington's name himself, as was usual with them these days.
"Sir!" Burr interjected. "Excuse my poor understanding of your wishes, but that seems a very light punishment indeed. Under the letter of the law, the guilty parties should be made to suffer some dire penalty, if not death."
"This war has dragged on longer than any of us had imagined," Washington said. He rapped his knuckle against the worn grain of his desk once. "Under most circumstances I will gladly uphold all good laws, but this one?" He shook his head with a sort of finality.
Burr, apparently, did not see that finality and again protested. "I had thought you of all people, sir, would relish the maintenance of certain standards in this Army! If we allow this sort of behavior to flourish with no consequences, then—"
Washington's voice rose and overlapped Burr's, a terrible rumble that silenced him completely. "No commander should bar his men from finding whatever solace they can." Burr could do nothing but gape, and so Washington continued, albeit in a softer voice. "The sins of this…liason," he said, gesturing to Burr's report, "must be reconciled with God, not I. I have only ordered punishment, small though you find it, because this Enslin is a colonel, and he should know better than to consort with an underling. If you stumble across any more of these cases, and it is a colonel with another colonel or a private and another private, I would have you say nothing to me or anyone else. Have I made myself clear, Burr?"
Hamilton was frozen, bent over his writing desk, in awe at this speech. Washington was not a man given to many words, but the ones he had just spoken were as music to Hamilton's soul.
Burr, for his part, stood at attention as if his whole being had not been battered by Washington's lecture. "Perfectly, sir."
Washington waved him away. "Take the orders and discharge them. See that Enslin is given civilian clothing and a small portion of money to send him on his way. Some food as well."
"Sir." Burr saluted and approached Hamilton to receive the paper he'd just written. As he took it, Hamilton could not stop himself from leaning close and whispering, "If you were seeking His Excellency's favor, I'd say you have failed."
Burr pretended not to hear him, for he left without the slightest acknowledgment, as if Hamilton were a shadow. That brought a smile to Hamilton's lips.
"Hamilton." Washington's tired voice snapped him back to a stern countenance.
"Yes, Your Excellency?"
"Make a list of possible replacements for Enslin. The candidates must be trustworthy, men of discretion worthy of the promotion." The General looked up at him with dark humor in his eyes. "You need not include Burr."
"Of course, sir." He paused a moment. "Thank you, sir," he said at last and, not wishing to explain why exactly he had thanked his commander, ducked from the tent to begin his task of interviewing ensigns.
Later that evening as they sat on their bedrolls around a flickering lamp in their cramped tent, Hamilton relayed the story of what had happened to Laurens and Lafayette, who crowed at his descriptions of Burr's crestfallen face. When their laughter finally died down to only a sporadic chuckle or two, Lafayette declared, "We are lucky to have a man such as the General leading us. His decision was a wise one."
"Perhaps," John said, suddenly very serious. His fine fingers picked nervously at a loose thread on his shirt cuff. "I wonder, though, if he might have just ignored Burr's report altogether. Now we are short one officer, and Lord knows we need all the men we can find to fight this war."
"If he'd been ignored, Burr would have done as he'd threatened; Congress would have intervened," Hamilton pointed out, "and they might not be as lenient as His Excellency in such matters."
"Perhaps," John repeated, and Hamilton wished for a way to cheer his friend. He poured out a measure of Lafayette's good brandy (the man had a way of producing luxurious items in the most farflung encampments) and pressed it into John's hands. John graced him with a quiet smile in return.
"So it is true what you say?" Lafayette prodded Hamilton's leg with the toe of his stockinged foot. "General Washington will allow these couplings as long as the men are of a rank?"
Hamilton shrugged and sipped his own drink. "He said as much. His Excellency believes in a certain kind of propriety." He said this with great unease, not wanting to broach the subject of his own low beginnings.
John seemed to perk up again, however, and slapped Hamilton on his knee. "It is not just that, of course. Our General is always mindful of how powerful men might turn cruel." At Hamilton's confused stare, he gestured expansively. "Don't you see? Washington fears an officer might force a soldier of a lower rank to— Well, to couple. As Lafayette says."
Lafayette raised his glass. "I do say."
Hamilton frowned. "But this case with Enslin and the private…. The two could have been of a mind, could they not?"
John shrugged. "How can one know? If a commanding officer gives an order, even if he says it is a mere suggestion, his subordinate cannot decline, I think." He nodded firmly. "Yes, I agree with the General's feelings on this. Indiscretions, if they must happen, should occur within the same rank." His dark eyes held Hamilton's for a moment longer before dropping to the glass in his hand.
"There is a sadness to this, though," Lafayette sighed.
Hamilton turned to him with a swallow. "And what is that?"
"The General. He shares his rank with no one."
They were all three quiet then, staring into the lamp's flame.
"A lonely existence, to be sure," John murmured at last.
"Not that His Excellency would ever—" Hamilton began.
"Ah, non, of course—"
"The very thought would be—" John shut his mouth with a click and they all finished their drinks.