Thursday, May 10, 2018

'I'm here to earn a guinea. Reckon I'll stay.'

One of H. Bedford-Jones's specialties was worm's-eye view accounts of history in the making. His "Hell For a Guinea" (Adventure, March 1937) makes the battle of Bunker Hill the backdrop for a petty wager between "tap-room yokel" Adam Ford and Ensign Sullivan of His Majesty's army. When Sullivan boasts that the Redcoats will march unimpeded from Boston to Philadelphia, there to arrest the Continental Congress, patriot Ford bets that guinea that the British won't be able to break out of Boston. To make the bet more sporting, Sullivan vows that his men will break out within three days of the wager. One thing I like about this story is the way HBJ avoids the temptation to make the bet itself some great turning point. While Sullivan's comrades warn him against announcing the British schedule too exactly, it turns out that the Americans were well aware of the Redcoat plans well before Ford crosses over to their side. He's been given a pass "to hell and back by way of Charlestown" by General Gage so he can get "the family guinea" to put up, and inevitably he's sent up Breed's Hill to fight the British. He has a harrowing experience as HBJ nicely emphasizes the terror of battle, which escalates as the colonials run out of ammunition and the British keep on coming. The tale turns pulpy only when Ford coincidentally encounters Sullivan at the climax of the fight, only to see his new buddy Martin, who's been hoping the whole time to kill a Redcoat, blow him away. Seeing the ensign mortally wounded, Ford suddenly doesn't want to claim his winnings, but Sullivan reminds him that "King's officer never - never welches." Knowing that the battle will discourage Gage from leaving Boston, Sullivan hands over his guinea as practically his last act, but by now Ford feels "It warn't wuth it -- there'd ought to be some other way." That there wasn't makes the tale a tragedy at both the macro and micro level, and something more than the patriotic pap one might expect from pulp, if one didn't know better.

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