A New Species of Tyranny

           

         Chapter One -  September 16th, 1777

 

            Five days.  It had only been five days.

Five since the Battle of Brandywine,

Four since the Yankee Doodle Society had joined forces with General Lafayette.

Three since his brother had died, and two since Robert had been buried.

Five days that had changed his world.

Jeremy Larkin sank into his father’s stuffed chair where it rested before the fire and dropped his head into his hands.  Four days since the battle, but the tidal wave it had unleashed was only just beginning to roll through what had once been the sleepy hamlet of Chester, Pennsylvania.  The official numbers were in.  The Americans recognized that somewhere between 800 and 1200 militia and army had been killed or wounded that horrible day.  The only consolation was that the British – in spite of their claims of 90 killed and 488 wounded – had probably lost nearly twice that number. 

And that didn’t include the wounded who were still dying – in Bethlehem, Ephrata, Allentown and Easton – many of typhus and malarial fevers.

Though a good number of the dead had been laid in shallow mass graves in the aftermath of the battle, it was left to Chester’s inhabitants to disinter and rebury many of them.  And then there were those who had never received a burial – the ones abandoned to the open air and wild beasts and fowls; their bloated corpses left to rot in the dismal pounding rain that would not cease and even now, continued to fall outside the window.

There was no escaping the stench.  It was everywhere.

Jeremy leaned back and extended his long booted legs toward the fire.  It was a bitter day in more ways than one.  The unholy cold permeated not only his skin, but his soul.  He had only recently returned from Ephrata where Henry was.  The apothecary had been pressed into service in the makeshift hospital there to help the Continental Army’s wounded.  Not that Henry balked at the idea.  He was eager to serve.  It was just that, true to type, he had thought himself under-skilled.

An entire day spent amongst the wounded and dying had changed Henry’s mind.  It took no skill to garrote a young lad’s arm to staunch the flow of blood, or to hold a man down while his leg was cut away – no skill at all to sit and hold a soldier’s hand until his spirit passed beyond this mortal realm.  That’s why he had remained as well.  Though he had no skill at doctoring, Jeremy had to do something – something more than sit in an empty house and lick his wounds.  Isak had been with them too, but they had soon lost track of him in the midst of so much broken humanity.  He had spotted the smithy once, talking with another man of his race, but by the time he had made it across the room, Isak had vanished.  He had not seen him since.

Perhaps they all needed some time alone.

In all it was said 30,000 soldiers had been engaged in the battle that day, stretched over ten miles.  Thirty thousand.  Given that, 1200 men lost was not too great a toll.  Not too great unless one of them happened to be your uncle or father.

Or brother.

Jeremy shivered and pulled his collar close.  No, the chill would not go away.

Rising to his feet he began to pace, thinking back over the day.  Unable to continue without rest, he had flopped down on a hospital bed.  One of the surgeons had roused him a few hours later and, informing him that they did not need another patient,  had ordered him home.  Sensing his strength was near its end, Jeremy had heeded his advice.  Mounting his horse, he headed back to Chester and his bed – only to find by the time he arrived that he was too tired to sleep.  Brandywine had been a dismal failure.  There was little that could be salvaged.  The British army had not been stopped.  By now they were in the capital.  The Congress had fled, and it was only a matter of time before Philadelphia fell.  The prospects of their nascent rebellion seemed, at this moment, as dismal as the mounting day outside.  Still, in the midst of so much darkness, there had been one bright unexpected ray of light found in the person of an unweaned, at least in battle, young major-general newly appointed by the expatriate Congress – the French Marquis, Gilbert de Lafayette.  A nobleman by birth Lafayette had come, unbidden, to their fledgling country and offered it his service at no cost.

No, that was unfair.  Offered it his life.  General Lafayette had made light of his wound, but the Frenchman had been baptized at Brandywine in blood.

Jeremy marveled at how the fates had thrown them together.  Who could have guessed?  He was still chagrinned by the fact that he had given a major-general orders, and then added insult to injury by suggesting the man was too young to be a general.  But Lafayette had been more than generous.  They had worked together after the battle, and Jeremy sensed in some ways they were kindred spirits. 

They might even become friends, if this war would allow such things.

Major-general Lafayette had been briefly in hospital.  The ball that struck him had luckily passed through his thigh, missing the bone.  The surgeons told Jeremy that once the bandage was in place, the Frenchman had refused to stay in bed.  He had no need of their information –  he had seen the proof of it with his own eyes.  Jeremy wondered how the man had done it; how wounded, he had managed to stay on his feet and work with them.  Lafayette was in his camp now.  He, Henry, and Isak had been called to see him on the morrow.  It seemed the young major-general thought their collaboration worthwhile.  In the brief moment they had spent talking together after Robert’s funeral, he had indicated he would be glad to make use of their services again.

Tonight such a thing was more than Jeremy could contemplate.  He ran a shaking hand over his forehead.  Things would look brighter tomorrow.

“That is,” he sighed, glancing out at the day which was dawning a bleak gray, “if we ever once again see the sun.”

Before coming home he had stopped to see Elizabeth at the farm.  Her uncle was away and one of the ladies from the town was keeping company as her chaperone.  The thought of Goodwife Camden’s chubby face with its apple-red cheeks and nose managed to coax a weary smile from him.  What John Coates didn’t know was that the lady was a tippler.  Elizabeth had told him to wait until after sundown to come.  By then the good lady would be snoring so loudly they could bang pans and shout to the heavens without rousing her.

For once, she said, they would have all the time in the world. 

He had waited in the barn for her.  Elizabeth started with fear when she saw him.  He had forgotten that he was covered with blood.  She rushed to him, her hands searching his frame for a wound.  Finding none, she had wept when she realized he was unharmed.

He had wept too.  In her arms, seated on a molding stack of hay.

He had wept.

Wisely – knowing him too well – Elizabeth had convinced him to keep an extra set of clothes in the barn.  They were buried in a box in one of the stalls.  Out of her sight he had changed and then returned home, knowing his late arrival would only serve to reinforce the image his father had of him as wastrel and ne’er-do-well.  It was a charade he hated, but one which –  as Captain Yankee Doodle – he was forced to maintain.

He had been startled to find his father was not abed.

Of course, Robert’s death had struck the older man a heavy blow – one he could not even begin to understand since he had no children.  Robert and his father had disagreed, cordially for the most part, though at times with the vehemence of their separate passions.  Still, their love had never wavered for one another.  Jeremy guessed, if nearly one out of ten had died on the Continental side, he should not be surprised that his soldier brother numbered among them.  But you never think it will be someone you love.

You never think it might be you.   

Perhaps, like him, his father had simply been unable to stop thinking.      

            Jeremy halted near the doorway that led to the attached kitchen.  He had not eaten since that morning.  Though he had no appetite, he had learned not to pay heed to his stomach or let his moods dictate his choices.  Life often dealt difficult hands, leaving no time to prepare.  He had best get some bread and jam at least, and perhaps a cup of tea.  They kept the kind his mother liked, though it had been years since she had walked the earth to drink it.  It was a sweet brew of lemon balm, lavender, rosemary and valerian.  She had always said it helped her sleep.  As he moved into the larder and reached for the jam, a window shutter slammed against the house’s clapboard side, startling him.  Jeremy jumped and then laughed, wondering what Captain Yankee Doodle’s men would think if they saw him frightened like an unweaned schoolboy by a breath of air.  Then he realized it wasn’t the shutter.  

Someone was pounding frantically at the door.

Jam in hand, Jeremy went to answer it.  It was near four in the morning, and so late a visitation did not bode well.  He paused at the door and called out.  “Who goes there?  State your purpose.”

“Jeremy, it’s Isak.  Open the door.”

“Isak?”  Flustered, Jeremy looked around for a harbor for the jam pot.  Finding none close by, he set it on the floor and then turned the key in the latch and opened the door.  Outside the wind was howling.  It had risen in strength since he had come in.  When he looked, he was surprised to find that Isak was not alone.  Another black man waited with him.  One who was unfamiliar.

“Can we come in?” Isak asked.

Jeremy stepped back.  “Forgive me, my friend.  It is only that you take me by surprise.  What brings you here so late?  And who, may I ask, is this with you?”

Isak was looking at him strangely.  Almost as if afraid to speak.  When he asked about the other man, his friend shook himself, and – as if grateful for the opportunity to avoid whatever subject he dreaded – announced, “This is Nazarus Tome.  Come to serve with General Lafayette.  Naz and me, we worked for the same master once upon a time.  Before I bought my freedom.”

Long before,” the other man added quietly.

Jeremy held out his hand.  “Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.”

Nazarus hesitated only a moment before accepting it.  He was smaller than Isak.  Thin, and on the wiry side with a barely contained type of dynamic energy that kept his body moving even when he stood still.  He was blacker than the smithy, his skin near ebony, and his features were refined – patrician even.  Nazarus Tome looked like an African prince who had been carried off from his people.  He wore a fine suit of deep blue cloth, nearly as midnight as his eyes. 

As they shook hands, Nazarus bowed slightly.  “Jeremy Larkin, I am both pleased and proud to meet you.”

Before he had time to react to that, Isak said, “Jeremy, there is something I must tell you.”

Jeremy had been about to offer them some of his mother’s tea to warm them.  The cold north wind whistling through the open door was bone-chilling.  Isak’s tone made him grow even colder.

“What?  What is it?”

“Jeremy,” his friend said, taking him by the shoulder.  “Your father has been shot.

###

 An hour later Jeremy sat, disbelieving, at his father’s side.  The older man’s breathing was shallow and drawn in ragged breaths.  They were in General Lafayette’s camp.  At first the fact that Isak led him there had confounded him, but later the camp’s surgeon told him that his father had been found a few hundred yards from Robert’s grave by one of Lafayette’s men.  The young major-general had placed a  patrol around the perimeter of the cemetery to keep watch, just in case a Tory or Loyalist sympathizer felt compelled to attempt some kind of desecration.  The surgeon also told him that his father had lain no more than half an hour, but even that length of time might prove perilous to someone his age.  With the cold and the rain, he said, there was a good chance mortification would set it.  The wound itself was serious enough, having passed through his side.  Though, God be thanked, it seemed the ball had hit nothing vital.

Jeremy had been sitting quite still, trapped with his thoughts, when a sound coming from behind him caused him to turn.  He had expected Isak, but found instead a tall lean figure dressed in a linen shirt, breeches and military boots.  General Lafayette stood in the tent’s opening, speaking quietly to someone he could not see.  Then his commander turned and looked at him. 

“General,” he said, rising.

“Sit down, Captain Larkin.  Jeremy.  Sit down.”  Lafayette’s face lit with a half-smile.  “If you must, consider that an order.”

“Yes, sir,” Jeremy answered, and happily did as he was told.

“How is your father?” the general asked, looking down at the older man.

“His condition is…serious.  Your surgeon is not certain he will survive.”

“So soon…” the Frenchman murmured with a shake of his head.

“Soon?”

Lafayette started, as if he realized only then that he had spoken aloud.  “So soon after your brother’s untimely death.  One cannot help but wonder if, somehow, the two are linked.”

“I don’t know how they could be.  If you remember, sir, my father is not involved in the Cause.”

Oui.  I remember.”

            A silence fell between them then.  One Jeremy was not entirely comfortable with.  After a moment, he broke it by saying, “It is kind of you to come, General.”

“How could I not?” Lafayette asked, drawing closer.  “Your brother Robert was one of my finest officers.  And you, well,” he shrugged again, “you know what you are.”

Even though his father was unconscious, Jeremy appreciated the Frenchman’s prudence. 

“Well, I should be going.  Many things are afoot tonight.”  The Frenchman said it, but he didn’t act upon his word.  Instead he lingered, almost as if he were unable to go.

“General, is there something I can do for you?”

Again, he started guiltily.  Non.  You must forgive my intrusion.”

“You are not – ”

Oui, I am.  Intruding with my own loss.  I have no memory of my father.  He died in battle when I was an infant.”  Lafayette’s eyes reflected a pain near two decades old. “I envy you, my friend.”

“Envy, General?”

“All the years you have had with this man.  And I will pray tonight, that you have many more.”  With that, the young general seemed to take command of his grief.  His voice grew in strength as he turned to business.  “We do not know who did this.  There were no witnesses.  The sentry was on the opposite side of the cemetery when he heard the shot.  It took him some minutes in the dark to locate your father who had left your brother’s grave and was headed back to town.  Private Rennie did not see him come in, so thirty minutes at most passed between the time of your father’s arrival and the time he was found.”

“What was he doing there, so late in the night, I wonder?”

“You have no idea?”

Jeremy turned toward his father.  “None.  I am at a loss, unless he simply could not sleep and felt a need to go to Robert’s grave.”

“I have done such a thing before.  Last night, for instance, I returned to the Brandywine battlefield.”

“Sir!  Such an action is not reasonable.”  Jeremy hesitated to use the word  ‘responsible’.  He had chided this particular commanding officer one too many times already.  “Especially for you.”

The Frenchman’s smile was rueful.  “Since when does the heart listen to reason?  So many brave men.  So much loss.”

“General?” a soft voice called from outside the tent.

Lafayette removed his hand from Jeremy’s shoulder and turned toward the tent’s opening.  “Scipio, is that you?”

A mulatto youth with skin that tended to the color of coffee with milk stepped inside.  He was a good hand shorter than the general, and had a thick head of curly black hair.  He wasn’t dressed as a soldier, but was well attired in a fine woolen suit of blue with dun colored breeches.  “Yes, sir.  There’s a post rider come in.”

“Is there anything from General Washington?”

Scipio grinned.  “Aye, sir.  It’s waiting in your tent.”

“Good man.  Tell the men I will read it first, and then join them.”

“Yes, sir!” the youth said with a salute.

When Jeremy had first heard of Lafayette, the Frenchman’s ebullient nature had been emphasized.  His penchant for excitability, his desire for glory; his joie de vivre.  The man he was coming to know was all of those things, but there was something more – a sadness that lingered, a sense of longing and loss.

His commanding officer seemed to sense his scrutiny.  When he turned back, any sign of weakness or uncertainty was gone.  “I would say bonne nuít, Jeremy Larkin, but the sun is nearly up and there is the business of the new day to attend to.  If I receive other intelligence concerning the attack on your father, I will send Scipio with it.  You look as if you could use some sleep.  Consider that another order,” he added with a dimpled grin.

Jeremy rose to his feet and saluted.  “Sir.”

The Frenchman looked as if he might say something else, but he shook his head and dismissed it.  Then he ducked through the opening and disappeared into the camp.

Jeremy took his seat again and reached out to his father.  Taking his hand in his, he found it slightly feverish.  It was the first sign of the infection – and of the fight yet to come.  As he pressed the wrinkled fingers between his own, his father stirred and licked his lips.  Then he groaned.  “Water…give me water….”

Rising, Jeremy went to get some.  On his return he gently lifted the older man’s head and pressed the cup to his lips.  A moment later he said, “There, Father.  Is that better?”

Samuel Larkin nodded.  Then he frowned.  “Jeremy?  Is that you, boy?”

“Aye, Father.  I am here.”

His father’s pale blue eyes traveled the walls of the tent to the open flap and back again.  “Where are we?” he asked.

“In Lafayette’s camp.  One of his men found you lying not far from Robert’s grave.”  He paused.  “You’ve been shot.”

“I remember.  I remember….”

“What, Father?  What do you remember?”

 His father had been about to speak, but suddenly grew silent.  For a moment he said nothing, and then only, “It is a blur.  I don’t recall anything.”

In his present condition some confusion was to be expected.  Jeremy placed his hand atop the older man’s and said, “Rest, sir.  Do not distress yourself.”

“Is the…general here?  Could I…talk to him?”

Jeremy frowned.  “About what?”

“Oh, just…to thank him.”

“General Lafayette was here a moment ago.  I believe he has gone to his tent to confer with his men.  Later, I will ask one of them to see if he has time to return.”

His father’s hand trembled as it clasped his arm.  “You…you will stay with me until then…will you not, son?”

“Aye.”

“Promise me.”

“Sir, you know I would not leave you – ”

“You must promise, Jeremy.”

His father’s distress frightened him.  “I promise.  Now, rest.”

            The older man nodded weakly, seemingly assuaged.  “You’re a good boy, Jeremy.  You know…I love you, in spite of everything….  Don’t you?”

Tears welled in his eyes as he gripped his father’s hand.  “I know.”

Another nod, even weaker, and then his father fell unconscious once more.

Jeremy waited by his side some time, to see if he would rouse again.  When he did not, he rose to his feet intending to find out what news the post rider had brought.  As he reached the door, he was stopped by the promise he had just made his father.  It was foolish.  Here, in the general’s camp, they were safe.  Still, a promise was a promise, and so Jeremy turned back and headed for his seat.  Taking it, he leaned back in the chair and willed himself to go to sleep.

When Isak roused him some hours later, Jeremy was stiff and sore.

And his father was delirious.