The night and Geoffrey Leeds body were cold. Jeremy kept a silent vigil by the surgeon’s mortal remains. It was the only thing he could do to repay him for saving his life. He was feeling some better, though he was as weak as he could ever remember – weaker even than he had been when, as a child, he had shared the chin cough with his brother, Robert, and nearly died. Leeds loss was a great one to the prison community. The doctor had done his best to ease their suffering. And though rumor had spread fast that the surgeon had betrayed their plot, most knew it was not a cowardly act but a matter of principle.
The fate of the escape hung in the air like the miasmatic vapors that threatened to consume them. Leeds had not lived long enough to let them know just what he had told Captain Skern. Did the crew know about the plot to pick the lock? About the intention of the mess to hide in the roundhouse? With his dying breath, the doctor had assured Tabard that he had not told Skern ‘who’ but only ‘what’. The four remaining members of their mess were gathered together even now debating their course. Jeremy had offered to guard the surgeon’s body and told Upton he would stand by his decision.
For his own part Jeremy thought they should try it. Looking at the doctor’s still form made him realize that, even if they could survive the pestilence and impossible living conditions, it was likely they would die at the hands of their captors long before they were rescued. Once his strength returned, like Upton Tabard, he would not be willing to back down. Men like Thomas Crawley and Sergeant Bulstrode Nash did not deserve the air they breathed. One day they would push and he would push back…. Jeremy smiled grimly.
And then it would be over the side with him.
He turned when he heard Upton call his name. The other man signaled that he should join him. As he rose, another man silently took his place. Jeremy nodded his thanks and then stepped over a half-dozen others on his way to join his messmates. Upton caught his hand and pulled him down into the circle, which was pressed up against the ship’s wall. It was as much privacy as they could manage.
“Jeremy, we want your opinion,” Upton declared.
“Yes. You are one of us now. And we are split two against two.”
Giles Corbett was glaring at him. Jeremy wondered which side he was on. The other two men he had not learned to know as well as Tabard, Leeds and Corbett. Both were naval men and kept mostly to themselves. Their names were Churmond and Arnold. Both were common seamen. Churmond was probably two or three years older than Arnold, who looked to be about 25. To his surprise he quickly found out that one had voted for the escape and one against.
That meant either Corbett or Upton was against it as well.
“It’s me,” Upton said. “I voted to wait.”
“Why?” Jeremy demanded.
“You, for one. You are not so ill that I would leave you behind, but you are not well enough yet to make a break.” He held up his hand to silence his protest. “But more than that, I am afraid of what Geoff told the captain. They may know all our plans – who we are and what we intend. And if so, then following through is a sure death sentence.”
“No surer than not following through,” Giles growled.
Jeremy looked from one man to the other. “You are both right,” he said at last. “Captain Skern may well know all there is to know, but that is no reason to falter. We have the powder. We have the steel. We must go now before those are discovered.”
“Crawley is watching. You know what he said,” Upton countered.
“Then we must distract him. You know he is easily bribed.”
“And what would we have to bribe the Bye Blow with?” Churmond growled.
“I don’t know. There has to be something.” Jeremy pressed his fingers to his head to stop it from pounding, and then glanced at the men walking, laying, sleeping and dying about them. He coughed to clear his chest and then continued. “Someone here has to have managed to keep something from them – something of value. We must ask around. If they know it means their lives, certainly they would willingly give it up. Or, perhaps we could trick Crawley into the roundhouse instead….” Jeremy paused. He had noticed that Upton Tabard was staring at him, a smile on his face. “What? What is it?”
“You do not sound like a civilian, my friend, but one used to command.”
“It’s all right,” Upton said, “you don’t have to tell me. We all understand the need for silence at the right time.”
Jeremy drew a shallow breath. As he held it his gaze went from one determined face to the other. These men were now his Society – how could he keep them in the dark?
When he let it out, he told them everything. “My name is not Jeremiah Kent, but Jeremy Larkin. I am from Chester, Pennsylvania. I am here, though here is not where I was meant to be, on order of Major General Lafayette of the Continental Army of the United States, to ascertain the truth of certain rumors concerning the treatment of American prisoners of war in New York. Word has come to him that our soldiers are being incarcerated on pestilence-ridden prison ships anchored in a place called Wallabout Bay.” A rueful smile lifted the corner of his chaffed and crusted lips. “I can now tell General Lafayette that I know for certain it is more than a rumor.”
“Did Robert know?” Upton asked.
Jeremy nodded. “Before the end.”
“Then he was as proud of you as I am.” Tabard’s intense amber eyes settled on his face. “I am a soldier. I follow orders and give them. Tell me to hold a line and I will do it until I am dead. I am not used to subterfuge. Do you truly think we should do this thing, Jeremy? Even after what happened to Leeds?”
For a moment he was silent. Then Jeremy grinned.
“Perhaps we can use what happened to Leeds to our advantage….”
Thomas Crawley swaggered into his captain’s cabin and threw himself into the chair beside the desk. Skern was missing for the moment. Probably out behind the mainmast bumping his blowsabella. Kate was one of the dells they had picked up on landing in New York before moving the Terrence to the Bay. Bart had been a buttock broker once upon a time and still liked a bit of mutton now and then, even though his tastes these days ran more to the beef hung below.
Crawley snorted at his own jest and then rose to his feet and began to prowl.
The cabin’s cabin had a squalid sort of splendor about it, draped as it was with cast-off velvet curtains and furnished with a hand-carved bed. The bedstead, which had belonged to some filthy rich fribble down in the West Indies, sported a set of mermaids with great round heavers who pulled a water coach for lecherous old King Neptune. Bart had won it in a card game.
Fixed, of course.
As Crawley hesitated, his hand resting on the apple dumpling shop of one fish-woman, he thought about the old times – sailing on the seas, seeing and smelling different lands, moving about among their inhabitants and taking his pleasure. Fat King George had provided for them well until the damned war broke out. Now, here they were, playing nursemaid and jailer both to a belly full of puking, mewling, Yankee Doodle brats.
It was almost more than a professional soldier could bear.
Crawley crossed to the brass bucket in the corner and spit. Bart was an odd one. Wanted his cabin kept clean, he said, though the dirt-streaked windows and dried remnants of last night’s supper on the floor begged the lie. The dogs had been away chasing down one of the rats that had escaped from below – a skin and bones Irish lad with calves gone to grass who had managed to pry the bars off one of the portholes and squeezed through – and missed their feed.
Now the lad’s skin and bones were decorating Wallabout Bay and the dogs didn’t need any supper.
Crawley pivoted as the door to the cabin opened. When Bart saw him, he kissed the doxie’s cooler and sent her flying. Then the captain of the Terrence came in and took his place behind the old Spanish desk that occupied the center of the room. With a broad smile splitting his grizzled cheeks, Bart threw his booted feet atop it and asked, “What news, Thom?”
Crawley reached into his coat and pulled out a ribbon-bound letter with an official seal that had been delivered by a rider only an hour before. He ran it under his nose before handing it to the captain. “Smells flush in the pocket to me,” he sneered.
Bart’s grin broadened when he saw who it was from. “I was wondering when Major Cripps would show up.”
Crawley sat back down. “You can assure him when he does that we been ‘taking care’ of Master Kent right proper.”
Bart broke the seal and perused the letter. As he did his self-satisfied grin faded into an anxious frown. “Where is Kent?”
The Terrence’s first mate sat up. “What’s wrong, Bart?”
“Where is he?”
“Below, in Tabard’s mess. Sick as a dog and like to die.”
Bart’s gaze stabbed him. “But still alive?”
“Aye. Today, maybe. Maybe not tomorrow.”
Captain Skern seemed to relax. “It appears Master Kent has a bit of information Major Cripps is in need of.”
“And what would that be?”
Bart’s gaze flicked to the paper and back to him. “The location of something he hid before he was taken.” The captain raised his hand and rubbed his fingers together. “Seems Master Kent is worth a good deal of gold. Cripps is willing to pass a bit of on to us if we find out just where it is. But then again,” Skern leaned back in his chair, “if we find out, nothing says we gotta tell him that we did.”
Thomas Crawley rose to his feet. His upper lip quirked with sadistic delight. “So you want me to interview Master Kent before the major gets here?”
“Aye. But wait until after the dead are culled. Just make certain he’s alive and then get those stinking corpses out of the hold. The major ain’t due ‘til morning, and it ain’t like Kent’s going anywhere,” he laughed.
Thomas Crawley saluted sharply. “As ordered, Captain!”
“Thom….” Bart called out as he reached the door.
“When you speak to Master Kent, be sure you ask him how he has enjoyed his stay before you beat what we want to know out of him.”
Early the next morning, before the sun was truly up, when darkness still hung over the land and the last of the stars glittered in its dying breath, Upton Tabard stood at attention as Doctor Leeds’ body was lifted from the deck and borne aloft. There were eight others who had died during the night and, in spite of their persecutors jests and snickers, he kept a silent watch for them too. The seamen whose duty it was to remove the dead paid little heed to how they did it. They caught the corpses up and carried them like sacks of diseased flour, most often wrapping them in a dirty sheet or winding cloth before ascending the stairs as if that thin veil might somehow keep them from contagion and an unnatural death. In the case of Doctor Leeds, he and Corbett had already bound the doctor’s head. They had done so to keep it from coming apart.
Or so they told his wretched pallbearers.
Upton glanced back into the stall where a pitiful shape lay huddled against the ship’s inner wall. When Thomas Crawley had come crashing through and asked where Kent was, he had told him that Jeremiah Kent had sickened in the night and it was he who lay there, fighting for his life. Crawley had made a pretense at caring, and then snorted like a bull as he suggested he order the seamen to take Kent now and save themselves another journey. Upton had placed himself between the villain and the first mate. That merited him a blow that drove him to the deck and a promise from Crawley to return.
Crawley was back trolling the deck again now, picking and choosing who would live and who would die. Several of the men he ordered aloft moaned as they were lifted. One’s hand twitched. It mattered little. They would be dead before the time came for them to be thrown over the side into the murky waters of Wallabout Bay.
As the seamen ascended for the final time with Thomas Crawley following them, Upton nodded to Churmond who then moved to the bottom of the ladder and called the mate back down.
“What do you want?” Crawley growled as his feet hit the filth-encrusted deck.
“If I tell you something, mate – something that’s good for you – what can you do that’s good for me?” Churmond asked in a whisper.
“And what would that be?”
The naval man shook his head. “You tell me first.”
“Look, you brazen-faced cake, I’d as soon kill you as look at you!” Crawley caught the man by his ragged collar and lifted his feet from the floor. “You got something to say, say it!”
“All right…. All right.” As the first mate released him, Churmond glanced back at Upton who had knelt to check the huddled form. “But you gotta protect me from Captain Tabard. He’d kill me if he knew. I can’t go back to the mess.”
Thomas Crawley made a pretense of dusting Churmond’s shoulders off. “Sure, mate. Captain Skern takes care of all squealers.” Then he sneered. “Just look what happened to your doctor.”
“Crawley!” a voice called from up above. “You coming or not?”
“Stow it!” he shouted back. “The stiffs ain’t gonna complain about a little wait, now are they? I’ll be up when I’m good and ready.” With that he rounded on the navy man. “You was saying?”
“One of the others in our mess, Giles Corbett. He’s got a piece of metal and he’s bragging that he’s unlocked the roundhouse.”
Crawley’s gaze flicked to Upton and passed him, searching for Corbett. “Where is he now?”
“I haven’t seen him. He wasn’t here when they took the doctor up.”
The first mate pivoted toward the roundhouse that lay just beneath the forecastle. Beside it was a pile of coal and a heavy tub turned upside-down. “Under the tub, you think?” Crawley asked.
“I don’t know. I told you all I know.” Churmond was trembling. “I need to go – ”
“You ain’t going nowhere, prisoner. You’re coming with me!” Crawley snarled as he caught the man by the arm and began to drag him to the front of the deck.
Tabard watched the drama unfold with a wry grin. He took advantage of Crawley’s distracted state to move to the bottom of the ladder. Once there he listened. The deck above the wooden stair had grown quiet. The British seamen had deposited the dead and moved on to their other chores.
Things were going just as planned.
“Raise it!” Crawley ordered, pointing toward the tub.
Churmond was shaking. He glanced back at Tabard who, after noting that there were only two other crewmen on the lower deck and that they were standing in the midst of two hundred men desperate to escape, nodded his head.
Churmond did the same, imperceptibly. Then he bent to the task as ordered. He started and stopped, dropped the tub back down, and then hoisted it so it fell upright to the deck with a crash. When no one from above called out to see what had happened, Tabard nodded again and then said, his voice a hoarse shout, “Now, Corbett! Now!”
At that moment the door to the roundhouse opened with killing force, knocking Crawley to his knees as Giles Corbett erupted from it. Corbett caught hold of the first mate and applied a clawhold, squeezing Crawley’s skull until he blacked out. Then he stuffed the mate in the roundhouse and locked the door. At the same time the two crewmen were seized and swallowed whole by the mob of angry, desperate prisoners.
Upton knew they only had a few minutes. As quickly as he could he armed the men closest to him with sharpened bits of steel. Then, one by one, they began to ascend the ladder to the deck uncertain of what awaited them, but determined to carry on no matter what.
They emerged on the deck in a sea of corrupted flesh. All about them lay the dead and rotting corpses of their fellow inmates. In the east the sun was rising, casting its golden light over the Bay and the land beyond; glinting from the river-polished bones of their fellows and the water that lapped against the shore that threatened to take them out to sea. Upton gave a signal and together they began to advance toward the captain’s cabin intent on taking the old man, securing him, and using threats against his safety to demand that the hundreds of men below be brought up from their dank dungeon and freed from the ship before the Terrence was set ablaze.
At that moment two things happened: the sailors on the upper deck became aware of the revolt and raised their weapons, and the captain’s mistress stepped out of Skern’s cabin directly into their midst. Upton caught her in his arms and whirled about just as Bartholomew Skern came striding onto the deck.
“Shoot them!” the captain cried. “Kill every last man-jack of them!”
Upton took his sharpened sliver of metal and held it to the doxie’s throat. “I will kill her before you do!”
Captain Skern whirled to look at him. In his eyes there was something – anger perhaps, but deeper than that, a sadistic sort of amusement. “Be my guest,” he snarled. “The bawd means nothing to me.”
Upton met the captain’s stare with a steely one of his own. “We have Crawley as well. Let us go, or he dies.”
Captain Skern’s jaw tightened. His eyes darted to the ladder leading down to the deck and back. “Where is Thom?”
“You’ll never know unless you let us go.”
“I’ll find him on my own and you’ll all die while we’re laughing!” The captain’s words were tough, but his voice shook as he spoke them.
Upton was breathing hard. He glanced at the upper deck and saw there were now at least six pistols pointed at them, as well as the ship’s single gun. Captain Skern was armed as well and there was nowhere to retreat unless it be back into the purgatory of the hold. His grip tightened on the woman until she squealed.
“Stalemate, then,” he said. “What will you give me if I let both the woman and Crawley go?”
“A quick death?” Skern growled.
“Not good enough. Arnold, are you ready?”
In answer, a voice rose up from below. “Aye, Captain.”
“Crawley dies with one more word. Now, what will you give us?”
Skern watched him closely, but his eyes continued to dart to the hole. No one knew what his connection to Crawley was – no one really wanted to know. But they were thick as thieves and some said that Crawley was Skern’s bastard son; others that he was his lover.
For all Upton could have cared he might as well have been both.
Finally the Captain said, “You have my word that you and your men will not be executed, but sent back below.”
“Your word? And what is that worth, Captain?”
“It’s all you’ll get, you damned rebel. Take it or leave it.”
The woman’s scent – cheap perfume and paint mixed with fear – sickened him. Slowly, he released her and watched as she ran back to the man who had been willing to let her die.
Upton held out his makeshift knife. “I’ll take it.”
That morning as the escape played out, when the attention of Skern and his men was focused on Upton Tabard, the corpse of Doctor Geoffrey Leeds stirred and began to move. And as if his reanimation had inspired his fellow corpses, four others soon followed. Slowly, painfully, the dead pulled themselves across the deck until they found a home within a dusty pile of black coal and beneath a split hulk of a lifeboat.
Then they returned to silence and waited for the night.
Their morning of disaster passed quickly into a night of despair. Throughout the long day as their fellow prisoners bodies were caught up and tossed over the side, as Thomas Crawley was freed to pass his own judgement upon them, moving from one to another and raining blows against their heads and backs; as the skies wept for them, turning a steely gray and loosing a storm, Upton Tabard and the other inmates who had attempted to escape shivered and groaned. Captured and placed in a rough circle on the deck, exposed without any blankets or other cloth to cover them and with barely a shirt among them upon their backs, they suffered that day as they had suffered no other, never knowing if – at any moment – the captain would go back on his word and murder them all.
Near the second mess, as the sun sank below the horizon and the moon rose to claim a brooding sky, Upton Tabard woke from a restive sleep. Of them all, Thomas Crawley had singled him out for punishment. As the others watched Tabard had been beaten about the head and pummeled in the chest until he resembled the poor forlorn corpse of Doctor Leeds. Upton turned his head, though the action brought him pain, and looked at the deck where still more fresh bodies lay. So it would continue until they were all dead. In the time he had been aboard he had calculated that at the very least three hundred men had died. That was ten men a day, each and every day for over a month. It had to be stopped. It would be stopped.
“Please, Lord,” Upton whispered, his lips broken and bleeding, “let it stop.”
What had roused him had been the voice of the sentry calling the First Watch, which meant it was eight o’clock. The temperature had dropped, and the only way he and the other prisoners could keep warm was to huddle as close to one another as their ropes and chains would allow. Most of them had been tied so they could not move, though Tabard had the distinction of being cuffed and his feet chained and bolted to the deck. Thomas Crawley had just made his inspection of them and given him another blow. “Just for luck,” the villain said.
Upton’s amber eyes went to the pile of coal just to the back of the graveyard where the corpses were laid, and then shifted to the upside-down lifeboat beyond it. If luck was with them, that would be the last act of cruelty First Mate Crawley would ever perform.
Jeremy Larkin was chilled to the bone. He lay beneath the rotted hulk of the Terrence’s lifeboat still dressed in the dead doctor’s clothes. He had told Upton that, since the crew expected an escape attempt, they should give them one. He only hoped it had not cost the captain of the Chester militia his life. Jeremy had been forced to lay in silence, stifling his coughs as he listened to Thomas Crawley erupt in anger and knew Upton, as leader, would be the target of his rage. As he heard the blows fall, one after another, he was overwhelmed with grief. Upton was not Robert, but he reminded him of his brother, and now the life of a man he had come to respect and love was in danger because of his plan.
Again. Because of his plan.
Jeremy clenched his fists and closed his eyes, readying himself. The call of the First Watch had passed. At the Second Watch, the second stage of their plan was set to begin. All he had to do was survive another four hours and emerge from his hiding place with enough strength to do what he had to do. He and the other men buried in the coal would take Captain Skern and Crawley first while they were sleeping, and then the gun. With those two objectives accomplished, they would force the crew to surrender and bind them. After that, they would usher the thousand or so men off the ship under cover of darkness, and then light the powder and set the Terrence ablaze.
General Lafayette, his aide Sergeant Boggs, Henry Abington and Isak Poole stood on a raised piece of land opposite Long Island known as Bennett’s Hook, looking to the south and west. The hook was so named for the tumble of rocks crashing down from it that extended out into the East River. Behind them was a ruinous stone watchtower constructed nearly a century before and used by Dutch soldiers to guard against Indian attacks. It had been abandoned as an outpost some time in the next four decades and, after that, it and the house attached had passed through the lineage of a Captain Peter Praa until they finally came into the possession of one of the children of his daughter, Anne, who had married a man named Bennett.
For the last day and a half the saddle-sore and weary quartet had followed Major Christopher Litchfield Cripps on his journey to New York City, and beyond it to the west side of the river and the borough of Queens. The borough as well as the city were occupied territory and, as such, dangerous for them, but there were many citizens there who did not agree with the Quartering Act that had allowed British soldiers to take over their abandoned and uninhabited buildings and at times, though it was illegal, their homes. These citizens had helped them to make their way by hiding them and secreting them over the river on little known ferries; by pointing out paths that paralleled the major’s but kept them relatively safe. Among these men was a current resident of Bennett’s Hook who was a known supporter of the Cause. The man had welcomed them and provided them with shelter for a few hours, and had given them food and drink. They no longer needed to follow Major Cripps. They knew where he was going. In their mind’s eye they could see it from the Hook.
The day had been a hard one. The sky had wept and pelted them with icy tears. A strong wind whipped their hair about their faces even now, stinging cheeks already chapped red. The sun was just setting, casting shadows over the closest ferry and the paths where they soon must ride. There would be more patrols in the dark, but they dared not chance traveling during the hours of light. Though the general wore his hood up at all times and slouched in the saddle so as not to make too fine an appearance, there was all too good a chance that someone would recognize the Frenchman if they saw him in the broad light of day. They had all chaffed at the delay, but knew as well that if anything were to be accomplished at the Bay, it would have to be done under the mantle of night.
Henry Abington turned and looked at the tall Frenchman. The general’s deep brown eyes lay in haunted pools of shadow. The apothecary understood. Though there were hundreds of men dying everyday – good men, giving their lives for a cause they believed in – when one of those men was your friend….
Well, the toll on a man’s soul was all the greater.
“What now, General?” he asked softly.
Lafayette sighed. “Henry, I do not know. We are here, and I trust it is Providence that has seen us this far. We can only hope that Providence continues, as well, to provide a way. Below us, there, anchored on that fateful shore are a half-dozen hulked British ships, and though our spies tell us each one has only a skeleton crew of, perhaps, a dozen to twenty at the most, still that is nearly one hundred Redcoats keeping watch. Beyond that, on those cursed ships, are thousands of American men. How we can find one in the midst of all that suffering, I cannot see.” The Frenchman’s jaw grew tight. “And much as I would wish it, we cannot save them all.”
Henry nodded. He had thought of that too. Finding Jeremy, rescuing him from sure and certain death – and then abandoning and condemning a thousand other mother’s sons to a living Hell. How could he do that? How could he look into their faces and walk away? How could he, a man dedicated to relieving suffering, leave them to die?
Lafayette’s hand came down on his shoulder. “When His Excellency stood not far from here, thinking there was no hope – that all of his men would be killed or captured and the Cause, lost – fate intervened and they were saved. Let us not forget, Henry, that there is a higher power watching over us, one that holds us in its hand and will not let us fall.”
Henry knew that Lafayette was a Catholic, but then most in France were due to their King’s dictates. In all the time he had known the Frenchman, he had never heard him voice words of belief of such a personal nature.
At his silence, Lafayette turned toward him. “Are you a man of faith, Henry?”
“I am a man of science first, but like Dr. Franklin, I believe there is a Divine Mind driving the universe.” Henry shrugged. “Though I am not certain how much It chooses to interfere in our daily lives.”
“Oui. I believe our destinies are our own to make, but I have seen things since I have been in this country – rain descending from a clear sky, fog arising at precisely the right moment, a thousand men moved under the very nose of the British Army. If the cause is just, then I believe Providence listens to men’s prayers.”
The Frenchman moved to the very edge of the Hook. Beyond his lanky figure the stars shone clearly and far below and beyond him, reflected in the dark hole that was Wallabout Bay.
“And our cause is just.”