A New Species of Tyranny

 

          Chapter Fifteen

 

            “What do you think we should do?” Henry Abington asked as he knelt by Isak’s side.  They had found the boats still at  the river’s edge waiting for a favorable tide.  “Isak, have you any thoughts?”

“Oh, I have a lot of thoughts,” Isak admitted grudgingly.  “Just ain’t any of them going to do us any good.”

“I wish I had brought my canisters and wire.”

“That would have been nice.”  Isak could just imagine one good charge set in the middle of each of the large floating platforms.  Boom!  And they would all sink to the bottom of the Schuylkill River.  He shifted and glanced at the area surrounding them.  “Is there anything here, Henry?  In the woods?  Anything we can use as a weapon?”

Henry thought a moment.  He shook his head.  “Nightshade, perhaps.  Or wormwood.  But we would have to make a tincture and be certain every man ingested it, and then its effects vary according to weight and body type as well as natural – ”

Isak waved his hand. “I get it.  I get it.  So that’s what we can’t do.  What can we do?”

Henry scowled.  “I have the supplies I was bringing with me to take to Ephrata.  My medicines.  Bandages and salves.  As well as a wagon load of supplies for the wounded.”

“You have a wagon?”

“Hidden in the trees.  Yes.  But it is loaded with food.  Dried meat and fruits.  Nuts.  Several bags of sugar….”  Henry’s voice trailed off.  Isak turned toward him.  The apothecary had that look. 

“What?  What is it?”

“No.  No.  It is foolishness at best.”

What is foolishness?”

“It wouldn’t work outdoors anyway.  It would need an enclosed space.  Energy first and then a compression and an expansion of air.”

“Henry!” Isak almost shouted.  “What are you talking about?”

Henry looked as if he expected to be struck.  “Sugar.”

“Sugar?”

“Yes.  Most people don’t realize how volatile sugar dust can be.  If there is a cloud of it – created say by a large amount of it suddenly being dropped – and someone is foolish enough to strike a flint.  Well,” Henry’s eyes had that rapture, the one only known to a scientist, “the resulting explosion can be quite satisfactory.”

Isak took hold of his friend’s shoulder and shook it, drawing him back.  “Henry, could it blow a hole in the bottom of a flatboat?”

The apothecary shrugged.  “Theoretically.”

That was not the most encouraging answer Isak could have had.  He had been on the wrong end of Henry’s theories one too many times already.  “Could we build some kind of bomb?  Something that could be set and ignited?”

“Doubtful.  There is, however, a primary and secondary explosion.  If we could safely set off the primary explosion and then launch the projectile before the secondary explosion occurs.”  Henry was warming to the idea.  “It just might work.”

“How much time is there in-between?”

“What?  Oh, seconds.”

“Seconds.  Right.”  Isak saw himself going up in flames along with Naz’s precious guns.  Still, they would have to try.  They couldn’t let those rifles fall into the hands of Loyalists willing to kill anything and anyone.

“How long will it take you to rig up enough projectiles to stop all the boats?”

Henry peeked over the leaves.  “How many are there?”

Isak had counted four.  “Three.  So make four.”  Better to have back-up than to have a dud that allowed some of the supplies to escape.

“Four?  Well, I have several kegs and boxes on the wagon we can use.  I think I can come up with that.  The sugar will need to be nipped and broken into small pieces – about four times the diameter of a grain of salt.”

“Why?”

Henry grinned.  “Bigger pieces.  Bigger boom!  I also have a supply of wick and oil.  Providence was surely thinking of us.”

“If not of the brothers,” Isak muttered.  “All right.  We have the method of delivering the explosives and something that will explode.  Can you do it by yourself?”

Henry was already lost in thought.  “What?”

“Can you do it?  Alone?”

He shook his head.  “No.  I think not.  I will need help if we are to time it right.”

Isak rocked back on his heels.  “There’s too many of them.  We need to draw most of them off so there’s no hope they will be able to put out the fires before the boats sink.  We need some sort of a distraction….”

“Will I do?” a stranger’s voice asked from close by.

Isak jumped.  He had been so intent on Henry’s idea, he had let his guard down.  Isak looked up to find a young man in every day garb standing just behind his friend.  He appeared to be in his twenties and had flaxen hair, gray eyes and a pale freckled face. 

The blacksmith rose to his feet, his hand lingering near his hip where his knife hung.  “Who are you?” he demanded.

The young man smiled.  “A friend.  My name is Joshua Spencer, and I’ll be happy to do anything I can to sink both the supplies and the villains transporting them.” 

###

             Scipio and Lafayette pressed on at a breakneck pace as the dawn gave way to morning and the sunlight rose, warming the land.  It took them no more than two hours to find the place where the boats laden with weapons had landed and the supplies been transferred into wagons for overland transport.  Scipio, it turned out, had been a hunter in his native land.  He had no trouble spotting the trail and was able to discern how many men were in each party.  One, he said, wore soft leather moccasins.  Lafayette found that puzzling - for a moment.  Then he remembered moccasin boots were often Isak Poole’s preferred choice of footwear.

            The discovery left him weak.

            “Sir, are you all right?”

            He nodded.  Oui.  Hope, it seems, may take a man’s strength as much as grief.  If Isak is on the trail, then Jeremy may yet be saved.”

            “It seems to me, sir, that the moccasins are traveling with Captain Nazarus.  Not trailing after him.”

            “That may be so, but it is a sign.  If Isak Poole is here, Henry Abington cannot be far behind.  And where the Yankee Doodle Society walks, those who oppose them had best tread with care.”

            “Who are they, sir?  Are they not three young men like any others?”

            Lafayette turned to the mulatto.  Non.  I have not known them long, Scipio, but this I do know – they are unlike any others.  Would that I had ten thousand such men!  The war would be over in a day.” 

###             

            “Will it work?” Isak asked.

            Henry didn’t look up.  “It should.”

            Isak glanced at Joshua Spencer.  The young man was chewing his lip.  Joshua shrugged as if to say ‘that’s about as good as it gets.’  Isak knew that, but it didn’t mean he had to like it. 

“Henry, I need to know that it will work.  Tell me it will.”

            The apothecary used one pudgy finger to press back his spectacles which had fallen to the end of his nose.  Then he sighed.  “Ask God if you want assurances.  You won’t get any from me.”

            “Henry….”

            “Isak, this is completely untested science.  I have no idea of the variables.  The sugar dust, once disturbed, should combust when it comes in contact with a spark delivered by the oil lamps.  Once ignited, a primary explosion should occur which will then cause a secondary explosion on contact that should be big enough to blow a hole in the bottom of the flatboat and sink it.”  He paused to draw a breath.  Theoretically speaking, of course.”

            “Of course.”  Isak turned once again to the young man who had joined them.  He had agreed to show himself in order to draw off as many of the soldiers as he could.  It was a dangerous mission.  One that could well cost his life.  “Are you sure about this Joshua?”

            The newcomer nodded.  “It is the least I can do – after what I did.”

            Joshua blamed himself for everything that had happened – for the shootings, for Jeremy’s disappearance and the danger General Lafayette had been placed in, even for the weapons falling into the enemy’s hands in the first place. 

            “It’s not all your fault, you know,” Henry said quietly as he completed work on the final keg.

            “Maybe not all, but a good portion of it is.”  Joshua’s face grew sober.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of parchment.  “If…if something happens to me, will you see that Miranda gets this?”

            Isak took it reluctantly.  “Nothing will happen….”

            Joshua pursed his lips and nodded.  “Still, keep it for me.  All right?”

            Isak took the parchment and tucked it in the pouch at his waist.  “Are we ready then?”

            Henry patted the side of the keg.  “As we ever will be.” 

###           

            Lafayette leaned against a tree while Scipio scoured the ground for clues.  They needed to ascertain the direction Jeremy had taken.  Close by the place where the weapons and supplies had been transferred, they had found additional prints.  Several horses, well-shod, had stood a bit apart as if their riders were watching, or held a supervisory position.  These prints headed in a different direction from the others. 

            Toward Swede’s Ford and General Washington’s camp.

            The Frenchman frowned as he thought it through.  Everything concerning Nysell Hawksworth showed the peacock.  So, if the horses were well-shod, he felt it was safe to assume that the men riding them were of a higher station – which meant they could belong to either Israel Spencer or Captain Tome.  If Jeremy was with them and he was being used somehow – as the ride toward the Continental camp made it appear –  then it became imperative that they abandon the course they were following and turn west instead of east. 

            If.  Appears.  Might.

            “General?” Scipio asked as he returned to his side.

            Oui?”

            “Is something wrong?”

            He grinned.  “It appears as if we might have to rely on this Frenchman’s instincts.  A choice must be made.  To follow the weapons or, what I believe to be Jeremy’s trail.”

            The mulatto shrugged.  “I’d say that’s a pretty clear choice.  Your instincts brought you to America.  They won you a commission of major-general at nineteen and they’ve brought us safe this far.  If my vote counts,” he added softly, “I’d say we follow the men on the horses.  Even if we stop this shipment of guns from reaching Tome’s men, there will be more.  The snake needs its head cut off.”

            “You are wise, my friend,” Lafayette answered.  “And Scipio, your vote will always count with me.”

            His companion indicated the path struck by hooves leading into the trees.  “Shall we then?”

            Oui.  I only pray we shall not arrive too late to prevent whatever new mischief Nysell Hawksworth’s presence in this country has set into motion.” 

###

             Joshua Spencer signaled from his place of concealment that he was ready.  They had agreed he would fire off a few shots and show himself, and then run like hell.  Henry’s look said it all.  Even though Isak had assured the young man that ‘nothing would happen’, the odds were against the young soldier.  The odds were, that before the day was out, Joshua’s name would be added to the growing list of those who had died in the Glorious Cause.

            The blacksmith and his apothecary friend had taken up a position on high ground above the flatboats that listed close to the shore awaiting orders to depart.  Nazarus Tome was there, directing  the operation.  Isak struggled with his feelings.  In many ways, Naz was right.  When war had been declared, he had thought long and hard about fighting for white men who thought less of him than the dirt they scraped off of their boots every night.  But then he met Jeremy and Henry, and others like them, and realized that not all white men were the same.  Isak glanced at Naz again.  Just as not all black men were the same.  The only real chance for their people would be in this new country.  They needed to start fresh.  If the ideals of liberty held fast, it shouldn’t be long before all men and women in American were equal and free.

            If wishes were horses, beggars would ride, he thought….

            “There.  It’s ready.  Return Joshua’s signal.”

            Isak glanced at Henry who held a lit taper over the first fuse.  “You sure?”

            The apothecary nodded.  “Yes.”

            They had nipped the sugar and ground some of it to a fine powder, and then bored holes into the kegs so that, as they fell, they would fill with the fine dust and spew it out.  Since they were not in a confined space, they would have to pray that the dust in the kegs, coming in contact with the sparks, would ignite and cause the primary explosion which would then set off a secondary occasioned by the dust flying in the air.  Of course, there was also the chance that the initial explosion – or even the lit fuse itself – would come into contact with the gun powder and weapons on the flatboats and bring about their destruction that way.

            It never hurt to have a back-up.

            Isak returned Henry’s nod.  He raised his hand, ready to give Joshua the signal.  The young soldier’s pale white face shone out of the dark green foliage.  As if sensing his hesitation, Joshua nodded.

            And Isak’s hand fell. 

###           

            “What was that?” Scipio’s head swung toward the north.  “Did you hear that?”

            Lafayette nodded.  He had.  “Guns?” he suggested.

            “Cannon more like.  Wait.  There it is again.”

            They checked their mounts and waited, listening.  The horses stamped nervously, snorting white clouds into the chilly air.  After the third ‘boom’, which scattered bird and beast alike, the forested world they occupied fell silent.   

            For a moment neither man stirred.  Then the mulatto turned to him and asked, “Should we go see what is happening?”

            He wanted to.  But that was not his mission for this day.  If he ran to the aid of some small band of soldiers fighting for the Cause it might salve his bruised ego and his desire for action, but it would do nothing to save Jeremy.  And if he allowed Captain Yankee Doodle to be captured, and perhaps tortured for information, it might ultimately prove devastating to the rebellion.

            Non.  We have our mission.”  Lafayette pressed his heels into his mount’s side, commanding it to move.  “We must leave whoever it is in the hands of Providence.” 

###

             Henry turned to him and grinned.  Then he held out his hand.  Isak shook it and nodded, and then they both ran as if the Devil himself and his thousand minions were on their tail.  In the enemy camp below chaos reigned.  They had scored hits on two of the boats.  They, along with their cargo and most of the soldiers manning them, had sunk to the bottom of the river.  Those two must have held the majority of the powder, for after Henry’s makeshift devices had gone off blowing a hole in the wooden boards, both flatboats had exploded in a fiery display.  The third boat had survived, but it had rocked so violently that the majority of the crates and barrels it held had been tossed into the water.

            For all intents and purposes, the weapons were gone.

            Breathless and excited, high on adrenaline, they stopped running some half mile into the woods.  It was doubtful there would be any pursuit of them since the attention of Nazarus Tome’s men would be on Joshua Spencer.  They had agreed on a rendezvous point where they were to rejoin the young man and were headed for it now.

            Isak stood with his hands on his knees, sucking in air. Henry had plopped down onto the ground and was taking a swig from a flask.  The apothecary looked up at him. 

            “Altogether, a successful mission, I would say.”

            “Aye,” Isak agreed.  “No innocent lives will be taken by those weapons.”

            “Did you see if the ringleaders escaped?” Henry asked as he rose to his feet.

            Yes, he had, and Isak wasn’t sure what he felt about it.  Nazarus Tome had been on the shore when the explosives went off.  He had seen his old friend blown from his feet.  After that, in the smoke and confusion, he had disappeared. 

            “Naz was alive the last time I saw him.”

            Henry paled.  “I’m sorry, Isak.  I forget he is your friend.”

            “Was,” Isak corrected.  Was.  Any man who can, in clear conscience, order the deaths of innocent women and old men is no friend of mine.”  He paused and then asked, “How is Elizabeth?”

            “Mending.”  Henry had told him he had gone to see her before leaving on his second attempt to reach Ephrata.  “Goodwife Camden’s ministrations have served her well.  She is out of danger.”

            “Does she know Jeremy is missing?”

            Henry shook his head.  “I told her he was on a mission and would return soon.”

            “No use worrying her about something she can’t do anything about,” Isak agreed.

            “Exactly.”  Henry offered him the flask.  When he shook his head, the apothecary pocketed it.  “Onward and upward then?” he asked.  ‘Joshua should be there by now.”

            Isak heard it in Henry’s voice.  His own fear, echoed.

            Twenty minutes later that fear became a reality.

            Joshua wasn’t dead when they found him, but he was mighty close.  They arrived at the rendezvous point to find a trail of blood.  It was so obvious they knew whoever had left it had no energy remaining to conceal his presence.  The soldier had been shot twice.  Once in the thigh – a flesh wound, not life-threatening, and once in the back.  The second wound bled profusely.  Upon first examination Henry could neither declare the path it had taken, nor tell if the shot would prove fatal.  He did what he could and then, out of earshot of the patient, told Isak they must see the young man to hospital as quickly as possible.  The  ball was lodged deep and beyond his skill to remove.

            Ephrata lay some fifty miles to the north – a day and night’s ride at a quick pace.  With a wounded man, even using Henry’s wagon, it would take days to reach.

            Isak glanced at Joshua Spencer.  The young man was pale as milk and covered with sweat; his breath coming hard.  He had given everything to help them.  They could not abandon him.

            Wherever Jeremy was, he was on his own.