It was one hundred and one years ago in this very month of June, that nine men of the old town of Windham—which lies near the northeast corner of Connecticut—met at the meeting-house door. There was no service that day; the doors were shut, and the bell in the steeple gave no sound.
While this tale of the American Revolution is not the greatest short story ever written, it does have its moments of humor and charm.
You will find others like it in Sarah J. Pritchard’s collection of patriotic stories in The Only Woman in Town and Other Tales of the American Revolution, hosted at Project Gutenberg.
The town of Windham had appointed the nine men a committee to ask the inhabitants to give from their flocks of sheep as many as they could for the hungry men and women of Boston. Each man of the committee was told at the meeting-house door the district in which he was to gather sheep.
On his stout grey pony sat Ebenezer Devotion. As soon as he heard the eastern portion of the town assigned to him, he gave the signal to his horse, and in five minutes was out of sight over the high hill. In ten minutes he was near the famous Frog pond. As he was passing it by, a voice from the marsh along its bank cried out:
“Where now, so fast, this fine morning, Mr. Devotion?”
“The same to you, Goodwife Elderkin. I know your voice, though I can’t see your face.”
Presently a hand parted the thicket and a woman’s face appeared.
“I’m getting flag-root. It gives a twang to root beer that nothing else will, and the flag hereabout is the twangiest I know of. Stop at the house as you go along and get some beer, won’t you? Mary Ann’s to home.”
“Thank you,” said Mr. Devotion, with a stiff bow. “It’s a little early for beer this morning. I’ll stop as I come this way again. How are your sheep and lambs this year?”
“First rate. Never better.”
“Have you any to part with?”
“Who wants to buy?” and Goodwife Elderkin came out from the thicket to the road-side, eager for gain.
“We don’t sell sheep in Windham this year,” said Mr. Devotion.
“Why, what’s the matter with the man?” thought Mrs. Elderkin, for Ebenezer Devotion liked to drive a good bargain as well as any one of his neighbors. Before she had time to give expression to her surprise, he said with a sharp inclination of his head toward the sun, “We’ve neighbors over yonder, good and true, who wouldn’t sell sheep if we were shut in by ships of war, and hungry, too.”
“What! Any news from Boston town?”
“It’s twenty-four days, to-day, since the port was shut up.”
Goodwife Elderkin laughed. Ebenezer Devotion looked grim enough to smother every bit of laughter in New England.
“‘Pears as if king and Parliament really believed that tea was cast away by the men of Boston, now don’t it? ‘stead of every man, woman and child in the country havin’ a hand in it,” said Mrs. Elderkin.
“About the sheep!” replied Mr. Devotion, jerking up his horse’s head from the sweet, pure grass, greening all the road-side.
“Let your pony feed while he can,” she replied. “What about the sheep?”
“How many will you give?”
“How many are you going to give yourself?”
“Twice as many as you will.”
“Do you mean it?”
“Then I’ll give every sheep I own.”
“And how many is that?”
“A couple of dozen or so.”
“Better keep some of them for another time.”
Mrs. Elderkin laughed again. “I’ll say half a dozen then, if a dozen is all you want to give yourself.”
Ebenezer Devotion drew from his wallet a slip of paper and headed his list of names with “Six sheep, from Goodwife Elderkin.”
“Thank you in the name of God Almighty and the country,” he said, solemnly, as he jerked his pony’s head from the grass and rode on.
Mrs. Elderkin watched him as he wound along the pond-side and was lost to sight; then she, chuckling forth the words, “I knew well enough my sheep were safe,” went back to the marsh after flag-root.
When every neighbor feels it a duty to carry intelligence from the last speaker he has met to the next hearer he may meet, news flies fast, so Goodwife Elderkin was prepared for the accost of Mr. Devotion. She did not linger long in the swamp, but, washing her hands free from mud in the water of the pond, walked swiftly home. By the time she reached her house, the gray pony and his rider were two miles away on the road to Canterbury. The cry of hunger and possible starvation in the town of Boston was spreading from village to village and from house to house.
Do you know how Boston is situated? It would be an island but for the narrow neck of land on the south side. On the east, west and north are the waters of Massachusetts Bay and Charles River. Just north from it, and divided only by the same river, is another almost island, with its neck stretched toward the north; and this latter place is Charlestown and contains Bunker’s Hill. Not far from the two towns, in the bay, are many islands. Noddle’s Island, Hog, Snake, Deer, Apple, Bird and Spectacle Islands are of the number. On these islands were many sheep and cattle, likewise hay and wood, all of which the inhabitants of Boston needed for daily use, but by the Boston port bill, which went into operation on the first day of June, no person was permitted to land anything at either Boston or Charlestown; and so the neck of Charlestown reached out to the north for food and help, and the neck of Boston pleaded with the south for sustenance, and it was in answer to this cry that our nine men of Windham went sheep-gathering.
The work went on for four days, and at the end of that time 257 sheep had been freely given. The owners drove them, on the evening of the 27th day of the month, to the appointed place, and, very early in the morning of the 28th, many of the inhabitants were come together to see the flock start on its long march. Two men and two boys went with the gift. Goodwife Elderkin was early on the highway. She wanted to make certain just how many sheep bore the mark of Ebenezer Devotion’s ownership; but the driven sheep went past too quickly for her, and she never had the satisfaction of finding out how many he gave. Following the flock up the hill, she saw in the distance a sight that made her heart beat fast. On the stone wall, under a great tree, sat Mary Robbins, a little girl. She was dressed in a pink calico frock, and she was holding in her arms a snow-white lamb, around whose neck she had tied a strip of the calico of which her own gown was fashioned.
“Now if I ever saw the beat of that!” cried Goodwife Elderkin, walking almost at a run up the hill, and so coming to the place where the child sat, before the sheep got there.
“Mary Robbins!” she cried, breathless from her haste. “What have you got that lamb for?”
Mary blushed under her little sun-bonnet, hugged the lamb, and said not a word. At the moment up came the flock, panting and warm. Down sprang Mary Robbins from the wall, the lamb in her arms. Johnny Manning, aged fifteen years, was one of the two lads in care of the sheep. To him Mary ran, saying:
“Johnny, Johnny, won’t you take my lamb, too?”
“Why, for some poor little girl in the town where there isn’t anything to eat,” urged Mary, her sun-bonnet falling unheeded into the dust, as she held up her offering to the cause of liberty.
“Why, it can’t walk to Boston,” said the boy, running back to recover a stray sheep.
“You can carry it in your arms,” she urged.
“Give it to me, then.”
She gave it, saying:
“Be good to it, Johnny, and give him some milk to drink to-night. It don’t eat much grass, yet.”
And so Johnny Manning marched away, over and down and out of sight, with Mary’s lamb in his arms. As for Mary herself, little woman that she was, having made her sacrifice, she would have dropped on the grass, after picking up her sun-bonnet, and had a good cry over her loss, had it not been for Goodwife Elderkin standing there in the road, waiting for her.
With a sharp look at the child, the woman left the highway to go to her own house, and Mary went home, hoping that no one would ask her about the lamb.
The flock of sheep marched until the noontide, when a halt was ordered. After that they went onward over hill and river, with rest at night and at noon, until the town of Roxbury was reached. At this place the sheep were left to be taken to Boston, when opportunity could be had.
With Mary’s lamb in his arms, Johnny Manning accompanied the messenger who went up Boston Neck to carry a letter to the “Selectmen of the Town.” That letter has been preserved and is carefully kept among the treasured documents of the Massachusetts Historical Society. It is too long to be given here, but, after begging Boston to suffer and be strong, remembering what had been done for the country by its founders, it closes in these words: “We know you suffer, and feel for you. As a testimony of our commiseration of your misfortunes, we have procured a small flock of sheep, which at this season are not so good as we could wish, but are the best we had. This small present, gentlemen, we beg you would accept and apply to the relief of those honest, industrious poor, who are most oppressed by the late oppressive acts.”
Then, after a promise of future help in case of need, the letter is signed by Samuel Grey, Ebenezer Devotion, and seven other names, ending with that of Hezekiah Manning.
“Give me the lamb, and I’ll feed three hungry little girls every day as long as Boston is shut up.”
A British officer, seeing the lamb in Johnny’s arms, offered to buy it, bribing him with a bit of gold; but Johnny said “there wasn’t any gold in the land that he would exchange it for,” and so the lamb reached Boston in safety before the sheep got there. As Johnny walked along the streets he was busy looking out for some poor little girl to give it to, according to Mary’s request.
“I must wait,” he thought, “until I find someone who is almost starved.”
On the Common side he met a little girl who cried “Oh! see! see! A lamb! A live lamb in Boston Town!”
The child’s eyes rested on the little white creature, which accosted her with a plaintive bleat. Johnny Manning’s eyes were riveted on the little girl. What he thought, he never said. “Do you want it?” he asked.
“O yes! yes! Where did you get it?”
“I’ve brought it from Roxbury in my arms. Mary Robbins gave it, in Windham, for some poor little girl who was hungry in Boston. Are you hungry?”
“No,” said the child, hesitatingly.
“Are you poor?”
“My father is”—a sudden thought stopped the words she was about to speak. “Give me the lamb,” she said, “and I’ll feed three hungry little girls every day as long as Boston is shut up. I will! I will! and Mary’s lamb shall live until I’m a hungry little girl myself, and I will keep it until I am starved clear almost to death.”
Johnny put Mary’s little lamb on the walk. “See if it will follow you,” he said.
“Come lamb! lamb! come with Catharine,” and it went bleating after her along the Common side.
“It’s used to a girl,” ejaculated the boy, “and it hasn’t been a bit happy with me. Give it grass and milk,” he called after Catharine, who turned and bowed her head.
“A pretty story I shall have to tell Mary Robbins,” thought Johnny. “Here I have given her lamb to be kept and coddled, and it’s likely never eaten at all—but I know that little girl will keep her word. She looks it—and she said she would feed three little girls as long as Boston is shut up, and that is more than the lamb could do. I must recollect the very words, to tell Mary.”
When the Boston Gazette of July 4th, 1774, reached the village of Windham, its inhabitants were surprised at the following announcement, more particularly as not one of them knew where the last sheep came from:
“Last week, were driven to the neighboring town of Roxbury two hundred and fifty-eight sheep, a generous contribution of our sympathizing brethren of the town of Windham, in the colony of Connecticut; to be distributed for the employment or relief of those who may be sufferers by means of the act of Parliament, called the Boston Port Bill.” Johnny Manning, when he returned to Windham, privately explained the matter to Mary Robbins, by telling her that when the sheep were numbered at Roxbury he counted in her lamb.