“I’ve never known cold like this,” thought Hand.
The temperature had dropped to something beyond freezing, driving sheets of iron sleet, thousands upon thousands of icy pinpricks that stung the skin and cut through clothing. The river itself appeared tormented by the cold of the night, thrashing willfully, protesting against the ice forming by throwing chunks of it into the air. There were thirty or so men and half a dozen horses on the flat-bottomed Durham boat, still filthy from its usual job of moving pig iron from the works up in Philadelphia. In silence, the old boat inched slowly across the raging Delaware, propelled by oarsmen cursing under their breath. The only sounds, the thwack of huge lumps of ice buffeting the sides of the boat and the occasional moan of a horse driven to distraction by the pain of the weather and the rocking of the boat.
“This cold is total, yet he stands there, aloof, proud, leading the way. And there she is with him, as insensible of the conditions, as if she were taking a pleasure punt down the Charles River.” Hand marveled to himself at the sight at the prow of the boat.
Washington, stood tall at the front, jaw jutting into the abyss. A single lantern on the prow, lighting him, guiding the boat. Just behind, Reitsch as firm as any sentinel, eyes fixed on the darkness ahead. The General had asked for her to be kept close to him throughout the expedition. If the plan was proved a trick, he would seek immediate redress. But to Hand’s eye, there was already something else there, some form of bond between the two of them. An intangible trust.
It was clear that the crossing was taking far longer than anticipated. They had arrived late at the McKonkey’s, the first embarkation not starting until well after six. Each crossing took thirty minutes, without the loading and unloading of men, horses and artillery. And the conditions were steadily deteriorating, so that each trip was harder, more risky and slower than the last as the storm grew wilder, more dangerous with each beat.
Their late departure was partly explained by the failure of Gates to attend at the head of his men. He had sent message that he was suddenly taken ill. Few believed that. They preferred the rumour that Gates had left camp for Baltimore, where Congress was sitting. The suspicion was if the Colonists were defeated, he would be ready to make the most of it to his own benefit. Washington had heard the messenger out and simply turned to Tilghman and barked “Put his men under Mercer”. There would be a reckoning with Gates, but that reckoning would be determined by the success or failure of what was to shortly unfold. And if it was failure, well, he would have bigger concerns than Horatio Gates to consider.
In the darkness, the Durham inched forward, jolted by the chunks of ice still throwing themselves at the boat, unsteadying the oarsmen battling to keep their oars to a steady rhythm. They were half way over, Hand could see the dim light of Knox’s landing point on the other bank, when a giant slab of ice hit them.
It came with no warning, struck the left hand side of the boat, wedged itself under and stubbornly stayed put, lifting one entire side of the Durham up and out of the air. Horses neighed, oars crashed into each other, men fell about the deck amidst muttered gasps and moans. Then the unmistakable splash. Man overboard.
From the spluttering “Help!” Hand immediately knew it was Pat O’Leary, but he had no way of helping. He was half buried under a pile of bodies, all frantically trying to right themselves. The lantern was out. He had no sure way of even knowing where the edge of the boat was. He struggled to free himself, but he knew he was too late to help his friend.
O’Leary had been standing behind Reitsch and the lifting of the boat had been so unexpected and so great, that he found himself thrown over the lip of its edge and into the darkness with no warning. He hit the Delaware, a peculiar mix of free flowing water and hard ice of all shapes and sizes, the cold immediately terrifying. He went down, but came up quickly. Thrashing around, he seized on the stern heft of an oar and tried to hold to it fast, screaming out the “Help!” Hand had heard.
But O’Leary’s weight only pushed the oar back down into the water and him with it. He freed himself and broke the water again, but already he knew that if he went down for a third time, it would be his last. He struggled, his fingers failing to stick to the edge of the Durham, his coat acting as a murderous weight, he started the descent into the depths, the cold water sucking all sense from him.
At that moment, when he had given up home, he felt the pull.
Someone had got hold of his collar and was pulling him up and over. Vaguely he could feel more hands grabbing him now, at his midriff, at his legs, pulling him up and out of the water, until he was over the boat’s edge and being thrown to the floor, so that the only hands that remained were those on his collar, those that had saved him. He looked up to see Ed Hand’s face, but it wasn’t Ed Hand. Even in this inky darkness, he knew he had been saved by Hannah Reitsch.