supplies they have taken intact and bring them back,” Tench interjected.
Wayne sighed and shook his head.
“Cattle, sheep, and swine on foot, yes, we might be able to drive them here. But the rest? We’ll then be the hunted with that many wagons, especially if the weather turns and the roads thaw into mud. Their light infantry will then have us by the throat.
“At best we can spoil their fun and take some of the food for ourselves.”
“And Howe?” Washington asked.
“He’ll be too well guarded and they will make sure he gets out. He is simply using himself as bait, sir, to try and lure our entire army out. That would be the most intemperate of moves this day. I can mount a flying column to be ready at dawn, sir, but I beg you, leave the rest of the army here. Find food for these men, find tools for them to build huts so they can survive through this winter.
“General, this army is here, at Valley Forge, for the winter. To ask anything more of them will be the death of most of them and probably the death of our independence.”
Washington took it in, thoughts turning back to his elaborate plan for the seizing of Philadelphia on Christmas night…and at that moment, cold icewater dripping down through the burst seams of his tent, he finally realized the reality he must face.
There would be no attack this Christmas night…though a gesture would be made by Wayne tomorrow. The Continental Army was finished as an offensive force for this winter. There would be no second Trenton, and at that moment he wondered: If, before the winter was out, Howe decided to bestir himself, could he even mount a defense?
Valley Forge must be a place of survival to keep some nucleus of his army intact and, from that nucleus, to rebuild with hopes for a spring to come, if they should live that long.
“Do as you suggested, General Wayne,” he whispered. “Do as you suggested. Report to me before you leave at dawn.”
Wayne saluted, Greene as well, and the two left. Through the thin canvas wall of the tent he could hear their whispers in spite of the rising storm, which now was buffeting the tent, Greene thanking Wayne for convincing the general not to commit double suicide, for himself and for the American cause.
Tench stood silent as if awaiting orders.
“Some time alone, Tench,” he said softly.
His aide nodded and withdrew.
Alone, he stared around at his command tent, water pouring in now from half a dozen leaks, men outside cursing and then laboring as one of the tent lines uprooted, fighting to drive it back in place into the frozen ground.
He was hungry, but then again he knew his hunger was not that which the common infantry of the line were suffering out in the open in this storm. At least there had been a bit of bacon and coffee at dawn, and Billy Lee would surely find something later and most likely lie if he pressed too closely as to where it came from.
He had boots, though his feet were cold and wet, and a uniform that decorum demanded be well fitted and relatively clean. The general in command must set some sort of example. No one would dare to steal his horse tonight to butcher as food.
And only twenty miles away, his foes paraded through the rich countryside, looting as they went, stocking up their larders for the Christmas feasting to come.
In York, the congressmen he must, as duty demanded, answer to, sent him letters, chastising letters about drunken soldiers stealing a pig, demanding he send his army hither and yon on mad, insane orders, and then openlyaccuse him that the debacle they had created here at Valley Forge was now his fault. Soon he would, without doubt, face their inquiries, with Gates, as head of the Board of War, standing behind them, ready to seize command.
There was nothing he could possibly do now at this moment other than what his inner spirit told him to do.
Lowering his head, he clasped his hands tight and silently began to pray.