The snow was falling, flake by lonely flake, on the frozen, muddy stable yards of the Independence Inn in Concord, Massachusetts. It was a cheery sight, that inn, on a warm summer night, when the stars and moon were out, and when the fields were burgeoning with waving wheat. It was winter now, though, and the wheat had not waved in the fields that summer, or in the summer before. The inn had melded into the grey, grimy, depressed landscape. The whitewashed walls were smeared with mud, the stables were draughty, and the pump had frozen over.
Insides the inn, dirty rushes covered the hearth, and the smoky fire spat and grumbled under a pot of burnt stew. The dark shadows of the main room half-hid thickly-bundled farm boys and tired men.
The proprietor of this place, a man named Heathery, corresponded to his dreary property perfectly. A small, scrubby man, unshaven with a queer red cap that looked like a fez perched on his head, he had the habit of peering sideways out of the corner of his eye at the people around him. He wasn’t a dishonest man, but his face looked shifty and stubborn. He sat behind the scarred wooden counter, rubbing the earthenware cups with a bit of tallow.
The wind increased and sent the rushes shuddering on the floor. The door gusted open and closed again, and in between the wind ushered in a large bundle of fur and velvet on stocky legs and leather boots. Heathery surreptitiously removed a carved squirrel from the main counter and nervously fingered his rubbing cloth.
“Ho, Heathery!” cried the thick-legged bundle heartily. “A blast of your best for this wretched night!”
“Not much left,” grumbled the man. He sloshed whisky into a cup.
“Business slow tonight?” inquired the velvet bundle, a hefty, well-fed man with a cheery smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Not so ee’d care to notice.”
“Come now, man, it’s out of concern that I ask. I don’t want this place to run down to the ground before you leave it.”
“It won’t be running to failure and I won’t be leaving it, thankee.”
The man shrugged and sipped his drink lingeringly. “My offer still stands, and if you accept within the next week, I’ll double it. Come, you know you’d get more than it’s worth.”
Heathery fidgeted with the cork, his tasseled fez wobbling. “I told ‘ee no. This inn’s all I’ve got and I won’t be giving it up.”
“Not even to save your family? They starve. Most of your clients and boarders don’t even pay. Every time that rag-patch rebel army so near your heart passes through, you open your gates and cellars. The larders don’t fill themselves and your family can’t live on goodwill.”
“I’m not selling anything but drink to the blasted English and whatever of their honey-poison spies that come around. On any luck, they’ll drink themselves to death.”
“That’s not cordial.”
“No, nor is traitorin’ and playing on a man’s misfortune.”
“I’m offering you a way out of your misfortune, Heathery.”
“It’s no bad luck to have a life of one’s own. I built this inn, and I’ll work it. It serves my purposes and my beliefs, and I’ll thankee not to interfere with either, Alexander Sindle.”
Sindle leaned forward. “It’s no crime to improve your life. You wouldn’t be a traitor.”
The little man’s chin jutted out and he jammed the cork onto the bottle. “Improvement of my life at the expense of other lives don’t go well with any Massachusetts man. As my name’s Ebenezer Heathery, I’ll play a part of this American independence, and this here inn won’t be turned into a redcoat barracks. I’d see it burn first!”
Sindle gazed into the bottom of his glass. “His Majesty’s soldiers lack sufficient amusement for these long, winter nights. They need an unfrozen ground for their rebel burying. Fire unfreezes ground mighty well.”
Heathery glared at him through the threat. In the corners of room, near the hearth, there was a quiet shifting, and sort of cough from the bundles of clothing and pipes. One man poked the fire, and others rubbed their scruffy chins. If there had been any more light in the room, more than one man might have felt the urge to absently polish the dull metal of his pistol.
Sindle sensed this. He slapped a shilling on the counter and left with a ominous glare at Heathery. The sound of the spy’s horse’s hooves faded down the rutted road.
Heathery replaced the carved squirrel. One by one, the rough bundles of clothing drifted out of the inn, some depositing a few coins of the counter.
“Good night, Heathery.”
“Keep warm, Ardel.”
“Til later or death, Heathery.”
“Godspeed, Marsh. Ride well to Washington.”
The wind blew out most of the fire as the stubby man banked it for the night. He bolted the door, gathered in the cups, and left a lantern glowing in the window.
Heathery moved slowly to the back of the inn, where his family’s apartments were. On a table in the large kitchen was a plate with a small potato and a bit of bread on it. The scrawny dog snuffled and growled in her sleep before the hearth. It was a homely room, with old tin pans on the shelves, and precious few onions hanging from the rafters.
Heathery sank onto the stool to eat his supper. He knew how little was left in the cellar, and how few copper coins in the moneybag under his pillow. Sindle’s lucrative offer was inviting. Enough food for a cupboard, enough covers for a bed, enough education for the children. He rested his head in his arms in despair. There was a hard price to pay for independence.
Outside, through the wind and the few floating flakes, a dark figure stole across the courtyard, around the chipped walls of the inn, and to the Heatherys’ back door. Under his arm was a basket, which he hung carefully on the harness-hook beside the doorway. With the cold night, the joint of precious venison and the cornmeal would keep. The figure stole away into the night again. The flakes fell slowly into the hollows of the frozen mud, and the dark night passed imperceptibly. The morning dawned, bright and new, and life stirred across the country, one day closer to independence.