A New Species of Tyranny

 

Chapter Eight

 

He had never felt so helpless except, perhaps, for the moment when he held his brother Robert’s dead form in his arms. 

Jeremy shuddered with the chill wind that blew off Chester harbor.  He drew the collar of his dark blue coat close about his throat.  Late afternoon storm clouds had moved in blackening a pewter sky to steel.  There was a fitful mist in the air.  As he waited, moored in a pool of darkness and staring at the privateer ship the Hawkstrike, the breeze caught her banner and snapped it, sounding like a shot.  Without realizing it he must have jerked, for Israel Spencer turned and looked at him over his shoulder; one pale eyebrow cocked, a slight sneer quirking the corner of his upper lip.  The packet ship’s lieutenant was deep in conversation, planning the attack with Henry and Isak and a seaman named Barker.  Barker, Israel claimed, supported the rebel cause.  It was a lie, of course.  It was all a lie.

He was a lie.

Jeremy shifted his feet and stamped them, seeking to bring some feeling back into his nearly frozen toes.  His reluctance to lead the attack had surprised Henry, though Isak – standing now beside his old friend Naz – seemed not to notice the change in his normal behavior.  It was ironic.  Though Israel Spencer had been assigned by Nysell Hawksworth to cling to him like a second shadow, at the moment he was practically a free man.  Spencer was doing little more than keeping an eye on him, glancing at him now and then as if he was an errant little brother whom he suspected might wander unwittingly into trouble.  In fact, the Hawkstrike’s lieutenant had handed him a pistol and told him to keep an eye out for trouble.  It only went to prove how completely the villains thought they had him ensnared.  The captain of the Hawkstrike and the men who worked for him assumed the battle was over.  That he was defeated. 

And they were right. 

If it had just been his friends and family at risk, he might have tried something.  At least now they were forewarned.  Sergeant Boggs had sent soldiers to protect Elizabeth.  His father was guarded as well, and recovering.  Henry and Isak were here where he could keep an eye on them.  But there was someone who was missing – someone vital to the Cause.

The linchpin of Nysell Hawksworth’s power over him was General Lafayette.  Jeremy knew from speaking with Sergeant Boggs that it was true – the Frenchman was gone.  He couldn’t chance taking action, not when it would put Lafayette’s life in danger.  On the other hand, his inaction might endanger the Cause the foreign nobleman loved so well.  As Jeremy’s knuckles grew white on the grip of the pistol he held, he growled.  There was nothing he could do for the moment.  Nothing but play along and pray Providence would show him a path to success.  Once the supplies were off the Hawkstrike and on their way out of Chester he would find some way to alert Henry or Isak to what was really happening. 

  He had to.

  As the parlay in his home drew to a close Nysell Hawksworth and his daughter had made their appearance, announcing they had come to spend the night.  This was the cue that set the privateer’s plan in motion.  The hours crawled by after that until Henry arrived close to nine.  Then, at a signal from Spencer, it all began.  As had been prearranged, Jeremy approached his friend and expressed his desire for a glass of ale.  Spencer quickly seconded the idea and suggested the three of them head for the Boar Head Inn so they could talk ‘freely’.  Hawksworth was, of course, party to all they did, but that was not for Henry to know.  At the inn they met up with the others and then, together, proceeded to the harbor.  Once there they spent several hours surveying the boat yard and the British patrols that marched before it, seeking to determine the best time to strike. 

It had been decided only moments before that it would be soon. 

It was already half-past two in the morning.  The redcoats were at the end of their watch.  At the moment the ones assigned to guard the gangboard of the Hawkstrike were leaning on the wooden piles near it, talking.  In the aftermath of Cornwallis’ march, Chester was mostly deserted.  There was really little for the soldiers to do.  They were no doubt exhausted and more than ready for their bed and board.  Their fellows who patrolled the wharf had just passed him, headed east.  Israel Spencer had given him orders to alert him the moment they moved into the mist that rose from the surface of the water to overtake the pier.

 As they walked to the tavern Henry had filled him in on what had transpired during their conference with Spencer.  It had been decided that the distraction they created must be large enough – and serious enough – to draw the attention of any and all Redcoats in the area.  While the British soldiers were busy elsewhere, Nazarus and his men would move in with several small boats and, using the Hawkstrike itself to hide their movements, board the packet ship and begin to remove the guns and ammunition.  From there the supplies would be transferred to the smaller boats and taken downstream where several large wagons waited before being transferred to the water again.  But all of this would take time.  In order to make certain they had enough, Chester’s town hall had been chosen as their target.  To that end Henry had brought along his canisters and wire.  Since the Redcoats had taken over the hall and made it the heart of their operations, Spencer was certain the soldiers – who were the army’s arms and legs – would rush to defend it.  Henry said Israel believed that no more than a half dozen Redcoats would be left to guard the Hawkstrike, and that Nazarus’ men – and those on the ship loyal to the American Cause – could take care of them.  Jeremy glanced at the man with the pale kinky hair and coffee and cream skin.  Israel Spencer stood several yards away, giving orders.

Given half a chance, he’d take care of Spencer.

As he watched, Isak and Nazarus nodded and then turned away, heading for the black captain’s men where they waited in the shadows.  Jeremy scowled.  He didn’t know just what to make of Nazarus Tome.  The man was, after all, a member of the Hawkstrike’s crew.  Isak had vouched for him and Nazarus claimed to serve the American Cause, but then so did Israel Spencer – and convincingly.  If Jeremy had not been privy to inside knowledge, there would have been nothing to make him doubt the captain’s story.  But he was, and it bothered him that it had been Nazarus’ company that was with Lafayette when the Frenchman went missing.  He had to ask himself – were they there to guard the general, or to take him?

Was Isak’s boyhood companion a friend – or a very dangerous foe?

At that moment, the Redcoats he had been watching disappeared into the mist.  Before he could call him, Spencer appeared at his side, rising like a wraith from the thick gray fog.  He held his hand out and demanded the pistol. 

“Is it time?” Jeremy asked as he surrendered it.

Spencer nodded.  “When the clock strikes three Henry will set off the charges.   Captain Tome will be in charge of removing the stores from the Hawkstrike and loading them into the boats.  You and I will assist him, as well as the other members of the ship’s crew.”

“Those, you mean, who are not bound by the pretense that they are not a part of the crime?”

Israel sneered.  “Precisely.”

“Once you have the weapons, what then?” Jeremy asked.

“We celebrate.  And move on.”

“To what end?”

 Spencer shook his pale head.  “Don’t worry, Captain Yankee Doodle.  You’ll be informed as necessary.  But this I promise you – you will have a front row seat as it plays out.”

As Israel spoke the clock on the town hall struck three.

And Hell broke loose.

 

###

           

Lafayette awoke to what sounded like a muffled salute of honor, and then the ship rocked from side to side.  Above his head rough burlap sacks full of potatoes and onions swayed.  A basket overturned near his feet, releasing an army of red-coated apples that ran along the fetid boards and banged against his thigh.  There was a moment of silence and then it happened again – a series of sharp ‘pops’ and then the ship’s response.  This time he recognized it for what it was.

A battery of explosions.

He had been placed in the ship’s larder, bound and gagged; his chains wrapped around one of the supporting poles and fastened to the floor.  Above his head was a small round opening.  The porthole was above the water line and it let in a steady stream of moonlight, but it was far too small to offer an avenue of escape.  The cabin’s door had a window in it, but it was shut and most likely locked from the outside.

He was veritably entombed.

The wound he had suffered on Brandywine field, as well as the new one in his shoulder, pounded with infection.  For the last twelve hours or so he had been waging war with it; his will battling a weakening body.  The worst thing was he could not seem to keep awake!  He was grateful for whatever was happening outside as it had served to rouse him.  As the explosions quieted, they were punctuated with martial shouts.  Weary but determined, Lafayette worked his way to his feet.  His chains went with him, but drew him to an abrupt halt before he could straighten up to his full height.  Unable to stand upright he sighed, defeated, and sank back into a seated position.  If he had thought it would have done him any good, he would have worked his bindings up and down the pole until his wrists were bloody, but steel – unlike rope – would not break and gave no quarter, no matter how strong or determined the man.   No, if he was to be freed someone else would have to do it.

A sudden shout outside his makeshift prison caused Lafayette to start and glance toward the door.  A voice was raised in challenge and then, suddenly, there was a shot.  Someone shouted again and seconds later, he smelled gun-smoke.  A pale light shone above and below the door, creeping in beside its hinges.  He heard two men speaking as clearly as if they had been inside instead of outside the cabin.  Two men.  One whose voice seemed impossibly familiar.

Lafayette closed his eyes and listened intently.  The men were arguing.  Both were young.  The first had an English accent, not London… Devon, perhaps.  The other spoke with the cultured accent of a New Englander who had attended the best of schools, and was obviously a person of some wealth and means.

His eyes flew open.

Jeremy.

 ###

“You shot one of your own men?  Good God, man, have you no conscience?” 

Jeremy was horrified.  As ordered he had followed in Israel Spencer’s wake as they took the Hawkstrike, noting the very real alarm on a few of the English faces as they boarded her.  There were seamen here who were not a party to their captain’s plot to pirate the supplies the packet ship carried – men who worked for the King and had pledged their lives to making certain the rifles and ammunition were delivered into Lord Howe’s hands.  One by one they had been taken and bound by Nazarus’ Tome’s men.  Leaving the black captain to his work, he and Israel and a half dozen men had descended to the midsection of the ship and headed for the ladder that led to the lower hold.  As they approached a cabin door near the end of the corridor, a young seaman keeping watch had stepped out and challenged them.

Israel Spencer had shot the man dead.

“It would hardly seem a hostile takeover if there were no bodies, now would it?” Spencer snarled as he brandished the smoking weapon.     

Jeremy glanced at the young man sprawled in an ever increasing pool of blood.  A cudgel lay near his fingers.  “But he was armed with little more than a stick!”

“He was in my way, nonetheless.  Now, get moving, captain, unless you’d like a hole in your gut as big as the one this pistol made in his.”

“I know that to be an empty threat,” Jeremy said, giving no ground.  “You need me for whatever nefarious plot you are hatching.”

Spencer shrugged.  “There are others who could take your place in spite of what Nysell thinks.  You are to be preferred, but Abington would do.  Even your lovely Elizabeth.  All we need is someone to get us through the lines and into Washington’s camp.  To tell the truth, it matters little to me if Yankee Doodle dies here or there.”  The Hawkstrike’s lieutenant aimed the pistol between Jeremy’s eyes.  “Either way he’s dead.  And when your body is found on this ship, and it is discovered that you aided our men in stealing the weapons that will be used by the Loyalists to end this upstart rebellion, I think that will be disgrace enough,” he smirked.

Jeremy held very still.  The weapon was primed.  He had watched Spencer load it.  “I doubt if Captain Hawksworth would agree.”

A curious light entered the mulatto’s eyes.  In it were the sparks of unfulfilled ambition.  “Just try me,” Israel snarled, pulling back on the trigger.  “See how much I care what Captain Hawksworth thinks.”

Jeremy’s eyes returned to the dead man laying on the boards.  Spencer meant it.  He nodded, once.  “Point taken.”

“Good.”  The mulatto released the trigger and turned toward the ladder at the end of the corridor.  “Now we go below.  You will help the men carry the crates to the deck.  We needs must make haste.”

As the Hawkstrike’s lieutenant spoke, Nazarus Tome arrived.  He must have finished on the main deck where he had been employed making certain the Redcoats who had been taken on the wharf were secure.  He nodded to Israel as he came to their side. 

“There were six of them,” Nazarus said.  “All taken without a shot.  We have them bound and gagged and locked in one of the cabins above.”

“Good.  And the boats?”

“One is full of supplies taken from the upper decks.”

For a moment that surprised Jeremy, then he realized that if only the weapons were taken it might appear suspicious.  This way, the motive seemed simple robbery.

“Better,” Spencer grinned.  “The captain here and I are headed below.  Have you a weapon?”

The black man raised his pistol.

“Good.  Use it to keep watch.”

Nazarus Tome nodded again.  His eyes flicked to Jeremy as he reached for his kit to prime it.

“I will let nothing escape.”

 ###

 Could it be Jeremy?  And if so, what in the world was he doing on the Hawkstrike?  And yet, he was certain it was him.  Lafayette struggled vainly against his chains, seeking by sheer will to draw them through the foot thick poll, but it was no use.  No matter how hard he fought they would not budge.

He was trapped.

After giving up, he fell silent and listened again.  The voices had ceased.  Outside the cabin door he could hear little other than grunts and the sounds of something hard and heavy being dragged along the wooden floorboards.  Someone was stealing the weapons!  The problem was, he didn’t know who – or which side they were on.  And yet, with Jeremy’s presence it gave him hope.  Perhaps the Yankee Doodle society – or his own men – were making the bold attempt. 

And if they were, he had to find some way to let them know that they needed to steal him away from Nysell Hawksworth as well!

Since there was no way he could free himself, Lafayette turned his attention to the gag that silenced him.  Using his teeth, he began to worry it and to work it up and down in the hope that he could free his mouth.  The knot that held it in place had slipped some and it was a little loose.  As someone shouted outside the door and he heard another load of boxes sliding past, he succeeded in moving the ragged edge of the gag just above his lip.

Patience, he told himself, patience.  It would take some time to remove all of the weapons he had seen in the hold.  Patience…just a little longer….

 As the gag shifted up toward his nose, Lafayette was startled by the sound of a key entering the lock of his cell door.  He froze and waited, breath held, to see who it was.  When the light from the corridor spilled in, revealing a figure in a blue and buff uniform, he let the breath out in a heartfelt sigh. 

Nazarus Tome walked straight over to him and stood, looking down at him for a moment.  Then he knelt and removed his gag.

“Captain Tome, it is a pleasure to see you.”  Lafayette wet his lips and then added with a weary smile.  “I see I was right in thinking that the raid tonight was made by patriots.”

“Those weapons will mean a lot to our people,” the black man agreed.

Lafayette shifted, jingling the chains that bound him.  “You will have to find a key to open these.”

Captain Tomes hesitated.  Then he reached inside his coat and produced a shining ring, filled with keys.  “I have them here, sir,” he said.

The Frenchman beamed.  Magnifique!  Lafayette shifted so his bound wrists were exposed.  When Nazarus did not move, he looked up at him.  The black man’s face was a mask.  “Is something wrong, Captain?” he asked.

Nazarus Tome stared at him hard for several heartbeats.  “Yes, sir,” he said at last.  You are.”

Pardon moi?

The black man deliberately returned the keys to his pocket.  Then he bent and retrieved the gag from where it had fallen to the floor.  Nazarus held it gingerly between his fingers, almost as if it was diseased. 

“There is no pardon for your kind,” the black man declared as he knelt and unexpectedly thrust the rag between his teeth again, tying it so tightly this time that the filthy cloth cut into his flesh.

“You see, sir, I’m not here to free you, but to make certain you don’t escape.”    

###

Jeremy halted in the corridor.  He watched as Nazarus Tome exited the cabin outside of which Israel Spencer had shot the seaman.  The sailor’s body was gone now but the blood was still there, spread like thin jam on bread by the constant passage of the men moving the crates.  They were nearly done now.  Soon they would board the smaller boats and set sail up the Delaware, making for the landing where the wagons waited.  It was then he would find out what else Nysell Hawksworth had in store for him.  From what he had overheard, Jeremy had a sinking feeling that it had something to do with General Washington himself.  Though it might cost him his life – and most probably would destroy his reputation – in a way he was grateful for the Englishmen’s’ interest in him and the fact that they had forced him to accompany them.  Otherwise the plot might never have been made known.  Working on the inside he had a chance of stopping it – whenever he figured out what it was.

Jeremy just hoped that in saving General Washington, his actions would not cost the young major-general his life.

As he continued to watch, the man closed the door behind him and locked it.  Then, opening the small window cut into the thick wood, Nazarus looked back inside.  Jeremy watched as a myriad of emotions played across the black man’s face.  Rage.  Regret.  Fear and disgust.   Nazarus Tome looked like someone at war with himself.  Finally, Isak’s friend slammed the hatch closed and walked off toward the ladder at the far end of the corridor that led to the upper deck.  Jeremy waited until he had disappeared and then glanced behind.  Israel Spencer was still occupied.  The mulatto had been tailing him closely, but had been delayed by one of the men working with the crates who had stopped him to ask a question.  Spencer was, perhaps, fifteen yards away.  Jeremy waited until the Hawkstrike’s lieutenant – who did not look pleased – struck off into the shadows at the aft of the ship where several of the men sat on top of one of the heavy crates refusing to move.  Then, taking advantage of the what time he unexpectedly had, Jeremy bolted forward and opened the wooden hatch and looked inside.

At first he could see nothing.  A single beam of moonlight streamed through a small porthole set high in the wall.  In time it illuminated a plain board floor decorated with apples and other items shaken free by the explosions of the hour before.  Then, as his eyes adjusted, he realized there was someone in the room.  He saw them shift, heard a sigh, and then a muffled cry.  Just as he began to discern size and shape and hair color, the hatch was unexpectedly slammed shut and he was suddenly and violently pinned to the wall.

“And just what do you think you are doing?” Israel Spencer demanded even as the barrel of his pistol worked its way into the flesh above Jeremy’s belt.  

“Who is it?” he asked.  “Who is in there”?

Spencer’s pale eyes flicked to the cabin and quickly away.  “A common criminal.  Why should you care?”

Jeremy shifted as the hard metal cut into his ribs.  “I saw Captain Tome come out of – ”

“I ordered him to make certain the man was secure before we departed.”  The mulatto’s lip curled in a now familiar sneer.  “Perhaps later, after we have accomplished our mission, you would like to join him?  The trip to England will be most pleasant, I assure you. And  I am certain the King would enjoy meeting Captain Yankee Doodle – before he places his head on a pike outside the palace, that is.”

That startled him.  “Is that what you intend for me?” he asked.  “To take me to England to stand trial?”

Spencer pursed his lips and shook his head.  “That’s up to Nysell, isn’t it?  Lucky for you.  If it was up to me when this is all over, you’d both be dead.  Now come on!”  The mulatto shoved him toward the light that spilled down the Hawkstrike’s forward ladder.  “Time to go!”

Jeremy did as he was told, but as he placed his hand on the rung of the ladder, he glanced back toward the locked door.  ‘You’d both be dead’, Spencer had said.  Him and the other man.  That cinched it.  The common criminal behind the door was no commoner at all, but nobility –

It had to be Lafayette.