A New Species of Tyranny
Lafayette awoke to the sound of someone moving about. He licked cracked lips, moaning as he did. Miranda had not returned as promised to tend to his wound and he could feel it pulsing with nascent infection – occasioned, no doubt, by the damp, fetid quarters he found himself confined in. He had fallen asleep sitting up and was lying at an odd angle against one of the larger wooden crates lining the Hawkstrike’s hold. With a groan, he pushed himself up and leaned his head back against the box.
“Hello,” he called. “Who is there?”
The sound momentarily stopped, as if his visitor was startled to find him awake.
“I could use some water,” he said, adding wryly, “that is, if you wish to keep your prize captive alive.”
Another moment of silence. Then whoever it was moved. He heard the sound of metal striking metal, then water splashing, and then a pale coffee-colored hand appeared from behind him and placed a tin cup just within his reach.
Then the man backed away.
Lifting his shackled hands, Lafayette caught the cup between them and raised it to his lips. Some of the cool liquid slipped over the cup’s edge as he drank, soaking his shirt and chilling him. He shuddered, spilling even more as he awkwardly placed it on the noisome boards of the deck. Then, leaning his head back again, he closed his eyes and sighed.
“As you can see, mon ami, I am of little threat to you.” He thought a moment, and a rueful smile lifted the corners of his lips. “Given this wound – and time – I fear I will soon be fit only to feed the codfishes.”
“No one’s seen to that yet?” a male voice asked, its tone hushed.
“Non. And I do not believe anyone will. Master Hawksworth apparently does not hold with the maxim that a wounded man is a dangerous one.”
“If I take a look at it, you promise you won’t try anything?”
The voice was vaguely familiar, but through the haze of fatigue and the growing malaise of illness he couldn’t place it. “You have my word as a gentleman.” When the man failed to respond, he demanded, surprised, “Is that not enough?”
“I know an awful lot of gentlemen who put no store by the word they give – if it’s to a black man.”
Lafayette frowned. He had figured it out. “Scipio?”
After a moment’s hesitation the young mulatto rounded the crate and came to stand before him. In the dim light of the hold it was hard to tell, but he thought Scipio had exchanged the simple blue suit he had given him for an elegant one cut of verdant green velvet. With a fine cravat and stock and a satin waistcoat, he looked every inch the English manservant. Scipio met his eyes briefly, and then the young man’s gaze dropped to the shackles that bound him. After a moment he looked away, almost as if he were ashamed.
“This is not your fault, Scipio.”
He shook his head. “But it was my choice, master.”
call me that. I am no man’s
”But you own me,” Scipio insisted.
Lafayette wet his lips, then he sighed. “To my everlasting regret.”
That made him angry. “What would you have done? I ask you! With freedom staring you in the face on one hand, and wiping out some white man’s piss pot on the other? What would you have done?”
“Scipio, no. That is not what I meant. Even if I cannot condone it, I understand the choice you made. Who would not choose freedom over servitude? What I meant to say is that I regret accepting you as a gift.” He drew a deep breath as fatigue washed over him. “You must pardon my ignorance, I am new to this country and all it espouses. My General….” He paused. What could he say? “It seemed to me that General Washington…he is a good man. And yet he has slaves.”
“He’s a man of Virginia. His bread is baked and buttered by slaves.” Scipio’s voice was cold. “His boots blacked and his backside wiped by them. They dress him and wash him and – ”
“And walk at his side. I have met Will Lee. He seems content.”
Scipio’s fingers were clenched in fists. “Will loves that old man. But he hates him too.”
Into the silence that followed, Lafayette spoke, “Do you hate me, Scipio?”
The mulatto turned and looked at him. He shook his head. “I don’t rightly know what to do about you.”
“I deserve that,” Lafayette said with a nod, and then added, “But you like Master Hawksworth?”
“He gave me these fine clothes.” Scipio shook his coat. It jingled. “And my own money in my pocket. He says I’ll be free when we get back to England.”
Lafayette shrugged. “If you are not hanged first as a traitor. Scipio, know this, Nysell Hawksworth is a privateer. These crates, they are filled with rifles and muskets, and the kegs, with ammunition. If they were truly meant for the army, to be used honorably in battle, he would not be sneaking them into Chester. There can be only one reason for them being here – they are to be used to kill innocent Americans, white and black.”
“No. These are supplies for Lord Howe’s army – blankets and the like.”
“Blankets do not come in kegs, or in boxes forty by twenty.”
Scipio hesitated. “So what if they are,” he said defiantly. “Look at the cannons you stole back from the British. You gotta have guns to fight a war.”
“Oui. But these guns are on American soil now, and if you aid the enemy in obtaining them, then you are as guilty as the men who brought them here. Do you wish to profit by other men’s blood?”
“You’re just trying to put fear into me,” the young man scoffed.
Lafayette leaned his head back again and closed his eyes. “Oui,” he said wearily. “Fear that may keep you alive.
Scipio walked away – a few steps, then he turned back toward him. “Why should you care? Why do you care whether I live or die? I betrayed you.”
“Non, you did not betray me,” he said with a shake of his head. “You betrayed yourself.”
Silence followed that, and a few seconds later the slamming and locking of his cell door.
Lafayette opened his eyes and sighed.
He should have let Scipio treat the wound first before insulting him.
Chester looked like a town of ghosts; its streets all but deserted.
Isak dismounted and hitched his horse to the post near Jeremy’s house, tying it off so the animal wouldn’t stray. The ride from General Lafayette’s camp had been a hard one. Not only did he have Sergeant Boggs’ words ringing in his ears – that someone was stalking those directly connected to Jeremy – but there were British patrols everywhere. On top of that, his friend Nazarus was in a strange mood. Naz had said little in the two or three hours it had taken them to make the journey to Chester. Then again, if some of the men under his command had gone missing – not to mention the fact that General Lafayette seemed to have disappeared with them – he might have a hard time making small talk too. Isak patted his horse on the neck and turned toward the Larkins’ door. It was crazy. They had only just met the French nobleman and now, he might be dead. He glanced at Naz. His old friend always took everything to heart.
He probably felt guilty.
They had ridden to the harbor on the way to Jeremy’s and found the English packet ship, the Hawkstrike, moored there. It had come in apparently under cover of darkness. Naz paused briefly to introduce him to the seaman named Barker who was guarding the walkway, telling the man as they left to inform Captain Hawksworth that he would return as soon as possible. Isak he had introduced as a dear and old friend.
Which was the truth.
What they needed to do now was confer with Jeremy. The aborted battle between the Redcoats and Washington’s army that was quickly coming to be known as the Battle of the Clouds, had gravely depleted the Continental Army’s stores. It had been as if God himself frowned on warfare. The soldiers he talked to said the rain had come down in buckets, obscuring the hilltop and the combatants from each other. Powder got soaked and their muskets were left useless. Thousands of paper cartridges were ruined. The stores on the Hawkstrike were vital if they were to continue fighting. Still, it wouldn’t be easy to take the ship. Even though the city was deserted, there were plenty of British soldiers left patrolling Chester harbor.
He had sent word to Henry at the Coates’ farm to join them. It would take the entire Yankee Doodle Society to come up with a plan that would work.
Arriving at the door, Isak raised a hand and rapped on it. When no one answered, he knocked again. As Naz came up behind him, a questioning look on his face, he tried a third time and hollered, “Jeremy, it’s Isak. Are you there?”
He was finally rewarded by the sound of footsteps. They approached the door slowly and then the latch was lifted. As he watched it opened and Jeremy appeared, followed closely by a slender young man with downy blond hair who looked to be of mixed race. Isak turned with a frown to Naz.
And found him grinning.
“Israel!” Naz proclaimed as he took the man’s hand and pumped it. “I wondered if you had made your way here.” Turning back, he said, “Isak Poole, this is Israel Spencer. He’s kin to Joshua.”
“Joshua? Oh, you mean Joshua Spencer of Lafayette’s guard?” Isak asked.
“Joshua is my cousin,” Israel answered as he offered his hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Isak. Nazarus has told me much about you.”
“All of it good, I hope?” he asked with a grin.
“Nothing but praise,” the young man replied.
“Israel is Nysell Hawksworth’s first lieutenant on the Hawkstrike. But he is on our side,” Naz assured him. “He brings us information concerning the captain and the crew’s movements. Is that not right?”
Israel pulled a rolled piece of parchment from a leather canister he carried fastened to his belt. “And a map of the layout of the ship.”
Isak whistled. “It’s a good thing ol’ Naz showed up when he did, isn’t it, Jeremy? Jeremy?” His friend stood to Israel Spencer’s right, but so far had remained silent. Isak thought he looked distracted. But then, he had to admit, Jeremy had every right to.
As if waking from a dream, Jeremy looked from him to Naz. After a moment, he nodded. “Yes. Yes, it is.”
“So have you two cooked up a scheme to get the weapons?” Isak asked.
“We will have to move quickly. Tonight, after dark,” Israel answered. “Tomorrow, two dozen of the British soldiers remaining in Chester will be formed into an armed escort. They are to take the weapons to the British line. We must snatch the boxes before they can unload them from the ship. It will be near impossible to take them after.”
“Luck is with us since the town’s mostly deserted,” Isak said. “And if we strike in the early hours of the morning when the patrols are light, we shouldn’t be in for too much of a fight.”
“Since many remaining in the town are Loyalists, it would be wise not to make any noise or we risk their involvement,” Naz interjected. “We will have to create a diversion, something to draw the soldiers away without drawing attention to ourselves. Any ideas?”
“How many will be on the ship tonight?” Isak asked.
“A half dozen at most.”
“And Hawksworth, where will he be?”
“He will be here,” Jeremy said, “in bed.”
Jeremy’s voice was ragged. He looked as if he had not known sleep for days. His brother, Robert’s, death had taken a heavy toll on him, and it looked like this business with the sniper might be enough to finish him off. And then, there was the general’s disappearance.
“Are you all right?” Isak asked him.
“I’m fine. Just tired, that’s all,” he answered.
“You look like you could use a month of sleep.”
“I’m fine!” Jeremy snapped.
Israel Spencer placed a hand on Jeremy’s arm. “Why don’t you take a seat by the fire and rest, my friend? I can fill Isak in on the details.”
Jeremy hesitated. For a brief moment Isak thought he meant to make a reply, but then he lowered his head and turned away. Wearily he went to sit down.
Israel crossed to the Larkins’ table and spread out the map. He pointed to it with one lightly tanned finger. “The crates are here, in the hold….”
Even as Isak leaned in to look, his eyes sought out his friend. He wasn’t surprised to find Jeremy seated before the fire in his father’s chair, but he was surprised to find him with his head in his hands –
Looking like the weight of the world was set squarely on his shoulders.
“Get up!” a strident voice ordered even as a booted foot struck Lafayette’s wounded thigh hard, jolting him awake.
He groaned and looked up. It was not Scipio but a man he had never seen before. He was short and burly, with a scrub of a beard, and was dressed as a seaman. His accent was English and placed him as coming from one of London’s seamier sections.
“I said, ‘Get up, frog!’” The insult was accompanied by another vicious kick.
Lafayette lifted his shackled hands. The chain binding them to the floor chinked as he reached the end of its length. “I would if I could,” he sighed.
“Bloody Hell!” The seaman turned and shouted at someone waiting in the ill-lit corridor. “Barker! Where’s the goddam key!”
“Turner has them. Back in a tick, Marlowe!” The unseen man’s reply was followed by the sound of footsteps receding quickly.
Marlowe turned back to him. “Well, I guess you and me will just have to wait then, your bloody Lordship.”
“If you need a key, you must be taking me somewhere. Where would that be?” Lafayette asked.
“And why should I tell you?”
The Frenchman shrugged. “Because I asked?”
“And nicely too.” Marlowe scowled. Then he leaned down and, placing his palm flat against Lafayette’s injured shoulder, shoved hard. “Shut up!”
The pain left him gasping.
A moment later Barker returned. His face was flushed and he was out of breath. “Here you go, Marlowe.”
The seaman growled as he flipped through the keys on the ring. “The ruddy light’s so bad down here, I can’t tell which one it is.”
“If you mean to open the padlock that holds the chain to the floor, then you want the brass one near the end.”
“What do you think I’m gonna do, Barker? Take off his cuffs and let the bleedin’ frog go free?” Marlowe knelt and jammed the key into the padlock where it was fixed it to a metal loop in the floor. He struggled with it for a moment, and then there was a ‘click’ and the lock popped open.
“Where we taking him?” Barker asked.
“To sleep with the fishes,” Marlowe snarled as he pulled on the chain, hauling Lafayette to his feet.
“Hawksworth’s going to kill him?” The other man blanched.
“Don’t I wish. You see this, frog?” the burly seaman snarled, pointing to a sunken place in his beard. With a start, Lafayette realized part of his jaw was missing. “Shrapnel fired from a French gun done that during the last war. Blasted a hole through one of my mates, and took the legs off another. I was the lucky one.” He glanced over his shoulder at Barker who was trembling. “Don’t piss yourself, Ben. Captain Hawksworth ain’t gonna kill him, he’s just gonna throw him in the with the moldy biscuits and rotten meat until after the action goes down tonight.” Marlowe looked at him then. He took hold of his uniform coat and pretended to dust it off. “Then his majesty’ll get to come back to his nice cozy stinkin’ hole.”
Lafayette struggled to remain upright, but his body betrayed him and his knees began to buckle. Though it was the last thing on the earth he would have chosen to do, he found himself leaning into Marlowe’s strength to keep his feet.
“What’s the matter, frog? Too weak to stand on your own?” Marlowe stepped back and chortled. “I heard you was one of King Louis’s musketeers. The old molly’s backside best be made of lead for all the good you’d do him. Catch his other arm, Barker. We’re gonna haf’ta carry the john-and-john to the next deck.”
Lafayette waited. For a moment, he dangled helpless in their arms, completing the deception. Then, as both men lifted him up – at the moment when they were the most off-balance – he broke free. He cried out in spite of himself as he slammed his wounded shoulder into Barker, and then swung his chain in a wide arc, taking Marlowe full in the face. As the burly man struck the wall with a sickening thud, his companion stumbled to his feet. Lafayette kicked Barker in the stomach, knocking him backward over one of the rifle crates. Crossing to where Marlowe lay groaning, he palmed the ring of keys and made a mad dash for the door. Once in the poorly lit corridor he looked around. Finding no one about, he took the time to close the door and lock it. Then, stuffing the keys behind his waist belt, he headed for the ladder.
Just as Marlowe began to bellow.
The Hawkstrike was a small ship, not all that different in layout from the Victory that he had purchased and used to sail to America. On the long voyage over he had become familiar with her. Applying what he had learned there to this unknown vessel, Lafayette wended his way up. The chains he wore deterred but did not defeat him. Using his hands in tandem, he pulled himself up one ladder after another until he burst through the top hatch and fell, panting on the main deck. The air was crisp and cold with a bitter northern wind, but it was clean and bracing and he gasped it in. As someone shouted, he remembered he was escaping and scrambled to his feet. The gangboard had to be close at hand. Down it, only a little ways away was Jeremy’s home. As was Isak’s smithery and Henry’s Apothecary shop. If he could just make it down the wooden ramp, he could disappear into the shadows lining Chester’s streets. Crouching by the rail, Lafayette waited until the seaman guarding the ramp began his patrol. Then, drawing a deep breath, he prepared to charge.
As he rose up a calm voice spoke from close behind him. “Go ahead, Marquis. Run. I will do nothing to stop you. Of course, I can’t promise that General Howe’s soldiers patrolling the dock will do the same thing – especially once they realize who you are.”
Lafayette looked over the side of the ship. The man was right. The crimson coats of the British soldiers dotting the wharf shown like ripe summer cherries thick on a brown branch. He had heard them marching through town the day before. It seemed Howe must have plenty to spare. He had left a sizeable force in Chester.
“If I was you, I would step slowly away from the gangboard.”
Lafayette recognized the voice. It belonged to the man who had taunted him from the corridor the first night he had awakened in the hold – the privateer, Nysell Hawksworth. The Frenchman glanced in his direction. Hawksworth was dressed like a dandy in ostentatiously embroidered silk. His crimson-clad daughter, Miranda, stood mute at his side; her hazel eyes wide and fastened on him.
Instead of doing what he was told, Lafayette shifted closer to the side of the ship. The waters of the Delaware were running fast with the recent rain. He eyed them, wondering if he could make it.
“That chain is made of iron, Marquis. As are the shackles around your wrists. I doubt very much a man could swim with either on. And with both?” He let the question hang. “It would not be my choice of a way to die.”
If his death would have freed his friends to act – to stop this man – he would have done it. But, sadly, Lafayette knew it was not to be. He would die and Hawksworth would lie, saying he still had him, and whatever evil the English privateer intended to perpetrate would still occur. If he chose to live – even though he would be imprisoned again – there was always the hope that he could escape, and that whatever knowledge he might have gained would aid the others and their Cause.
Still, surrender did not come easy to him.
Lifting his head, he limped toward the older man. As he drew near, he realized Nysell Hawksworth had not even bothered to draw his weapon. The Englishman, it seemed, knew him well – even though they had never met.
“You have won the battle, mon ami,” Lafayette breathed between clenched teeth, “but not the war.”
“I think you will find in the end, my dear Marquis,” Hawksworth said as he grasped his chain, “that they are one and the same.”