Two local Virginia boys, from a farm near the Potomac, had gone to war in the Revolution, joining up with General Washington's army in the fall of 1776, after they'd gotten in what crops they could. Nate at 19 was the older one, and he was given a musket though not much more. Benjamin became a drummer boy, because he was only 14 years old, but big for his age. They managed to stay together, through many a battle, and their luck had held for a year such that neither had been wounded, nor caught the pox or the typhus that killed more soldiers than the enemies' guns. As the winter of '77 approached, they were hungry and ragged, their summer clothes all they had. This was a bitter time in the war, when the British had just taken the capital city, which back then was Philadelphia.
On October 4, Nate and Benjamin were part of the army that counter-attacked the British at Germantown, just outside Philadelphia. It had been raining, and a heavy fog made it hard for the troops to find each other, or even to tell whether they were firing on the enemy, or on their own friends. The Americans were badly beaten, and the two boys were separated in the confusion. The older boy, Nate, had been hit by musketfire in his right arm, but he stumbled to a farmhouse just beyond Germantown where the kindly folks hid him in the barn. They bound his wound and tried to keep him alive and hidden, giving him warm clothes, shoes and blankets. Nate and the rest of the army fought their way through 18 miles of snow and freezing rain to their winter quarters - Valley Forge.
Imagine if you had to walk through snow and ice, in just your summer clothes, day and night! Many of the soldiers had no shoes, and they wrapped their feet in rags or went barefoot. Journals from the soldiers, and from Washington himself, tell that their trail would have been easy to follow, for it was marked with bloody footprints. Some nights they couldn't start a fire, for the snow and frozen rain never let up, and they had few tents. They had almost no food left, and their main meal was a little flour mixed with water, or raw meat.
Back at the farm, Nate was cared for and healing, hidden away in the straw, with three blankets and a fine pair of moccasins from the farmer. Benjamin was not so lucky, for halfway in that hard march, he woke one morning to find his shoes stolen. Hard times can make people do bad things, even to steal from a young boy. By the time they neared Valley Forge, exactly one week before Christmas, he was leaving his own trail of blood in the snow.
Valley Forge was just bare fields and woods - any shelter they would have to build themselves. The snow and wind continued, and the soldiers lay out on the bare ground, starving and exhausted.. It was Benjamin's turn to stand watch, for they treated him half-way as a soldier now, and he went to his post and stood on his hat, to protect his bare feet some from the snowy ground. At midnight, the snow stopped, and an eerie silence filled the campground. That was when he saw the strange light, deeper in the woods. "Who goes there," he half-whispered, thinking maybe he was seeing things, from the cold and hunger. The light stopped, and waited, and then moved deeper into the forest. And half-asleep and full-frozen, Benjamin followed, limping barefoot in the snow.
"Who goes there? Halt!" he called out. But the light went deeper in the forest, and he kept following, faster, never quite catching up to it, till he was far from camp. And suddenly he was on it, and the light flared up until he was almost blinded, and then was gone. Nothing was there, but the cold night and the harsh sound of his own breathing. He looked wildly around, crazed with fear and lost in the woods, and then he saw them, resting against a tree trunk, waiting for him.
Two moccasins - almost brand new, and when he touched them he would have sworn that they were still warm, as if someone had just taken them off a moment before. And he forgot his hunger, and his cold, and any fear at all, put them on his feet, and they fit as if they'd been made by his own mother. He stood there a moment, thinking that if it was a dream, it was a good one, and if it was real, then it was better than a dream. And then he followed his own trail he'd left, of footprints red in the snow, back to camp, where the men slept as best they could, and took up his watch again in the night.
Now Nate and the farmer's family looked over the whole barn for the moccasins he'd been given, because somehow they'd just disappeared one night, right off his feet. They knew he hadn't stolen them - for who can steal what is freely given? - and they were fine shoes, and a great loss. It stayed a mystery, but the farmer gave him a piece of leather, and Nate made two more pairs of shoes as he finished healing - one pair for himself, and one for the farmer.
Months later, when the brothers were reunited, Nate saw the moccasins again - worn-down now, and on his brother Benjamin's feet. They wondered at it, but kept it as a secret between them, until later when they told it as a Christmas story for their children, and their grandchildren, who thought perhaps their granddaddies had just made it up, and only half-believed it.