THE ELEVEN THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED

Chapter Nine

       

 

     Major Christopher Litchfield Cripps paced the narrow confines of Captain Bartholomew Skern’s cabin like a caged cat.  As welcome and as warranted as the treatment of the American prisoners on the Terrence and the other prison ships was, the sights and smells of confined humanity assaulted the senses of any decent man.  He held his linen handkerchief to his nose as he walked.  Captain Skern, a ruin of a man, sat behind his desk prevaricating.  The question was quite simple.

     “Where is Jeremiah Kent?” Cripps asked as he came to rest before the desk and slammed his free hand upon it.  “I demand to be told.”

     “I checked my records,” Skern answered, rattling the stack of cheap paper smeared with brown ink that he held in his hands.  “Kent’s been sent out on a work detail to gather firewood.  He won’t be back until morning.”

     “Firewood?”  Major Cripps leaned in closer.  “If he escapes, it will be your funeral pyre it graces!  Is that understood?”

     Skern offered him a weak and somewhat insulting salute.  “Aye, aye, major.”

     Disgusted, Cripps turned toward the door, but then spun to look at the Terrence’s captain once again.  It seemed incredulous to him that the British army could find nothing better than third-rate scum for such an important assignment.  It was a wonder all the rebels had not simply walked out under Skern’s diseased and drunken nose and gone home to their warm beds and welcoming wives!

     “I will be in my cabin on the Whitby.  You will report to me there the moment Kent returns.  And you had better hope I find him in a condition where he can speak, or you will pay for it with your hide!”

     With that Major Cripps spun and stormed out the door.

     Once on the deck the cold air seemed to intensify the smell of death.  Cripps choked and returned the cloth to his nose.  Captain Skern had informed him of the attempted escape.  The conspirators sat huddled in the middle of the deck, their all but naked forms exposed to the inclement weather.  If it had been up to him they would have been summarily executed in full view of the entire ship’s complement, but it seemed that – not surprisingly – underneath the pocked and poxed exterior of the Terrence’s captain there beat a heart, not of charity, but of cowardice. 

       “God have mercy,” Cripps muttered as he stepped over several dead bodies on his way to the gangway.  He really would have to put a report in to his superiors.  Running a prison ship was no excuse for slovenly and sloppy conditions.  Cripps’ piercing gray eyes swept the area of the deck closest to him.  It was thick with corruption of every nature.  The ship’s lifeboats and other items rendered obsolete by its mooring in the Bay had not been stowed against future need as regulations demanded, but been allowed to rot.  And beside the wreck of a lifeboat, the ship’s coal supply was piled waist-high and fell without any order in a tumble to bury the corpse’s feet.

     Cripps paused by the boat to shake his handkerchief out and then pressed it once again against his nose.  And then, with all speed, he made his way down the gangplank and headed for his horse and the Whitby.  

 

     For the next four hours Jeremy floated in and out of consciousness.  Though the rotting lifeboat offered some protection from the wintry gale that had blown in during the day, the temperature had continued to fall until he felt he no longer needed to play the part of a corpse – he was one.

     Every few minutes, as carefully as he could, he shifted something – an arm, his foot, even his fingers.  His greatest fear was that, when the moment came to make their move, he would be unable to.  The navy man, Arnold, and three others from another mess had come with him.  They were hidden in the great pile of coal by his feet.  He and Upton had feared that if too many vanished from their own mess, the sailors would be alerted to the fact that something was up.  As it was everything had gone as planned.  Upton, Giles, Churmond and Arnold were all being held on the upper deck.  Once they freed them, the liberation of the Terrence could begin.

     The crushing weight that had pressed in on his chest had lifted, but it had been replaced by a tingling numbness so Jeremy didn’t really know if he was better, or merely surrendering to whatever ague or fever sought to claim him.  Still, in the end it didn’t matter – just so he could stand when he was called upon, just so he could rise to his feet and fight; just so the evil that was men like Skern and Crawley was overcome in the end.  Yes, there were other ships, other prisoners – there was other evil that would never be routed.  But if they could make this stand and this one proclamation that it could be done, then they had done enough.

     And he could die.

     Jeremy closed his eyes and saw his father standing beneath the great tree whose shadows wept eternally over his brother’s grave.  He saw a second headstone beneath it and the soldiers standing by it, their rifles raised.  He saw Lafayette approaching the older man with a second flag in his hand and he saw his father take it, and break down.  Then he saw him, sitting in their home, alone. 

     Forever alone.

     Bending his frozen fingers Jeremy formed them into fists.  No.  No!  He would live.  He had to live for that old man if for nothing else.  “Father,” he whispered as he choked back tears, “I am so sorry….”

    And then he heard the sentry call out the Second Watch.

 

     Upton Tabard stirred as the midnight-watch was called.  His breath caught as he gazed up at the forlorn sky and prayed the moon, which was half-full, would quickly lose its game of chase with the clouds.  For what they were about to attempt they needed darkness as pitched as that of the ancient god’s Stygian shore.  Upton shifted, seeking to ease the pain in his wrists and ankles.  The cold metal bit into them, chaffing his paper-thin skin.  Whatever happened this night, he would play little part in it unless the keys to his cuffs could be found.  Odds were one of the crew – Thomas Crawley, most likely – would simply take him out with a shot to the chest or head in the midst of the fighting.  That was all right.  Just so the others made it.

     Just so someone did.

     As the sentry finished calling out the hour, Upton turned his eyes toward the corner of the deck where the dead lay.  The noisome smell of rotting flesh was rank and potent, so potent that the sailors ordered to stand guard over them did so from some twenty feet upwind.  The seaman on guard was leaning with his back against one of the masts, half-sleep.  After all, his charges weren’t going anywhere.

     Upton grinned wearily.

     Or so he thought.

     As he continued to stare, the upturned lifeboat rocked to the side.  A shadow separated from the other shadows beneath it and rose to lumber like a sleeping giant of old toward the unsuspecting seaman.  At the same time, like demons rising from the pits of Hell, four emaciated figures clawed their way up and out of the black coal and began to crawl across the deck toward him and the other men. 

 

     It was not in Jeremy to kill wantonly.  Every man was some woman’s son, someone’s husband; another’s father.  And it was different when you looked at your enemy from the end of a gun.  Here, the killing was personal.  His hand.  The makeshift blade.  A throat.

     The blood.

     Jeremy stared at it as the seaman fell to the deck; as the red stuff ran down the sharpened metal to his wrist and then onto his clothes.  He stared at it, but he felt nothing.  He couldn’t feel anything anymore.

     If he survived, he wondered if he would ever be able to feel again.

     A sound made him crouch and then he crawled over and looked down the deck to where Upton and the others had been corralled like cattle.  The other ‘dead’ had freed them.  With the exception of Upton, who awaited the raid on Captain Skern’s quarters and the delivery of the keys to his shackles, it was done.  They were free.

     Now to take the ship!

 

     Captain Upton Tabard urged his men on.  There was nothing they could do for him, he told them.  Think of those below!  Only the first part of their plan had met with success.  There was still the captain and Crawley, and the gun.  As Corbett, Churmond and Arnold fanned out across the Terrence’s main deck, each seeking his own target, Upton felt a cold touch on his arm.

     He turned to greet the walking dead.  In the darkness of the diseased hold he had not noticed.  Now Upton saw what a toll the past week and a half had exacted upon Robert Larkin’s young brother.  The man who had stepped aboard in his fine brown suit and leather shoes with silver buckles was no more.  Both were gone.  Jeremy’s linen shirt was tatters and his breeches black with his own filth.  His face had grown gaunt as a gallows’ nag; his skin stretched taut over his bones and gone pale as a plaster.  The wounds from the beating he had taken before he arrived had never healed.  A bloody crust remained, painting his cheek and tinting his wheat blond hair.  But his eyes….  In his eyes there was a fire of determination such as Upton had not seen since – well, since Jeremy’s brother Robert had defied his superiors and remained behind with him to wait for Lew and the other prisoners to return.

     Jeremy dropped to his knees beside him.  “We must free you,” he breathed as he took hold of the chains that bound him and pulled.     

     “No.  Leave me.”  Upton wet his lips.  Speaking was not easy.  The pounding he had taken at Crawley’s hands had taken its toll.  “I need you, Jeremy.  I need you with the others.  Skern and Crawley are slippery as snakes.  They will slither away with ease.  I need you to make certain that they don’t.”  Upton winced as he lifted his shackled wrists and caught the other man’s hands in his.  “Jeremy.  Go.  Now!

     “I won’t leave you to die, not like I did Robert,” he vowed, pulling harder.

     “Stop them.  Save the men!”  Upton paused to wet his lips again.  Jeremy had to understand.  “Save them!  Then I won’t die.”

 

     Major Cripps laid his reading material down and pinched the bridge of his nose between his eyes.  It was past midnight and he should have been asleep, but he found himself restive and uneasy and had finally given up, lit a lamp, and begun once again to examine the material he had on Jeremiah Kent.  He was looking for names, for a mention of anyone connected to the financier.  In particular, he was looking to see if either Daniel Boggs or a man named Joseph were mentioned.

     Their meeting at the inn still troubled him.

     That night back in Tappan after the odd pair had retired, he had set a watch on the passageway outside their room.  His men swore to him that the older man and the boy never left it, and yet the soldiers he had deployed to watch Doctor Abington reported to him the next morning that they had heard voices in the doctor’s room – at least four voices – speaking long and low into the night.  A private had sworn that one of the occupants of the doctor’s room had a French accent.

     A French accent.

     Major Cripps leaned back in his chair.  Was it possible?  Could the boy that General Howe so longed to take and disparage be here, so close to the city their commander occupied?  Intelligence had reported Lafayette traveling north toward Albany only a few days before.  What could compel the nobleman-turned-American general to make such a suicidal choice?  Youth?  Inexperience?

     Or the dire condition of a friend?
     He had no actual confirmation that Lafayette even knew Jeremiah Kent, but the coincidence of Doctor Abington – who was known to frequent Kent’s company – and the fact that Lafayette had been seen outside Tappan rankled with him.  If the Frenchman had defied all logic – and most likely Washington’s orders – to make a personal foray in to the heavily-occupied Loyalist bastion, then it only made sense it would be to save someone like Kent. 

     But then again, it was all conjecture and most likely, a fairy tale constructed of frustration and too little sleep.

     As Cripps reached for the lantern, there was a knock on his door.  He frowned at the hour and then said, “Enter!”

     A thickset man with lambskin hair of grizzled gray and white stepped smartly into the room.  “Begging your pardon, sir!” Bulstrode Nash said.

     “Sergeant.”  Nash had returned to his service that day after spending some time at the Provost attending to…other matters.  “What is it?”

     “There seems to be trouble on the Terrence.”

     Cripps was instantly alert.  “What sort of trouble?”

     “One of the seamen, sir.  He’s just come aboard.  He’s babbling about an escape attempt.”

     Cripps dismissed it with a wave of his hand.  “That was put down yesterday.”

     “Begging your pardon, sir.  This is a second attempt.”

     “What?  Where is the man?”

     “Just outside, sir.”

     Cripps grabbed his papers and jammed them into his satchel and then ordered, “Show him in.”

     If this was true, then it might be that – instead of him going to find the French boy – the French boy had come to him.

 

       Jeremy pulled for all he was worth, but the irons binding Upton Tabard refused to budge.  He was not going to, he would not abandon the other man – not if the ship was ablaze about him and the last of the men were gone.  Jeremy looked around, desperate to find something to pry with, and then remembered the bloody blade.  Fishing in his pocket for the scrap of metal, he palmed it and began to dig desperately at the wooden deck.

Just as the first of the bolts came free, a clamor stopped him.  Jeremy halted what he was doing and lifted his head to find the first mate, Thomas Crawley, bellowing like a baited bull and crashing across the deck.  Behind Crawley, by the door of the captain’s cabin, Jeremy could just make out Giles Corbett’s giant form struggling with Bartholomew Skern.  Beside them the captain’s mistress wailed loud enough to wake the dead.  Her shrieks echoed from the ship’s timbers and beams, and then rolled off the Terrence to wash across the barren shore where so many of the Wallabout dead lay.  Crawley was headed for the great gun anchored at the far end of the deck.  In his hand was a pistol.  The fact that the first mate didn’t shoot anyone as he passed told Jeremy one thing –

Crawley intended to use the pistol to light the ship’s gun.

“You have to stop him!” Upton cried.  “There is no one else!”        

     Jeremy wavered.  “No.  I have to free you.”

       “If he reaches the gun, I am dead anyhow.  Corbett is dead, as are Churmond and Arnold!”  Jeremy had seen the other two of their mess.  They were by the captain’s cabin as well.  Between them, they held a half-dozen of the Terrence’s crew at bay.  “The men below, they will all be dead.  Jeremy, you have to let me go.”  Upton swallowed hard.  “You have to let Robert go.”

       Jeremy hesitated only a moment longer.  Then he dropped the chains and began to run.  His gait was unsteady and he slipped and fell once, but managed to reach the ship’s gun only shortly after Crawley.  Once there he reached across it, hoping to catch the mate’s arm and force the pistol from it.

       Instead, he found himself staring down the weapon’s shining barrel.

       Damn your eyes, Kent!” Crawley shouted.  “Since you’ve come aboard there’s been nothing but trouble!  If I didn’t need this shot to fire the gun….”

       Jeremy shook his head.  “It’s over, Crawley.  Look around.  You’ve lost control.  The captain is taken, as are your mates.  There’s nothing to do but put it down and surrender.”

       “Surrender?”  Thomas Crawley bit the word off and spit it out like bad meat as he waved the pistol under Jeremy’s nose.  “To the likes of you?  To the likes of these damned rebels?  You ain’t even soldiers.  You’re nothing but backwoods chawbacons, brats and bachelor’s sons.  You ain’t worth the maggots it takes to keep you alive!”

        “You should know, Crawley,” he snarled.  “They’re your kin!”

       Crawley’s finger tightened on the trigger.  “It’d be worth it, to lose the ship but take you down with me.”

       “Do it then!  Shoot!”  Jeremy dared him.  “Or put the weapon down.”

       Thomas Crawley thought about it, but in the moment it took to consider, something changed.  He watched as the mate’s eyes lit with something akin to fear.  Jeremy whirled, following the villain’s stare, and found that a crowd of fifty or sixty ragged, emaciated prisoners had formed on the deck and were steadily advancing toward them.  The men were armed with sticks and jagged bits of metal, with something and anything torn from the hated ship’s carcass that they could use as a weapon.  Jeremy turned back just as the first mate began to lower his pistol. 

“Whatever you say, mate,” Crawley replied as he took a step back, “whatever you say.”  Then a slick sneer curled the corner of the mate’s lips and he grinned like a Chesire cat, revealing the black hole in his teeth and soul.  Pulling the trigger Crawley fired, igniting the rope that ran into the cannon only an inch or so below the powder.  Then he added with quiet menace –

“See you in Hell.”   

       Jeremy grabbed for the rope but it was too late.  The powder caught and the gun ignited.

       The concussion blew him over the side.

      

       “Sir!  There!  Look, there is a light!”

       As Henry spoke the sound of a cannon being fired echoed across the empty beach before them.  They had already heard the sound of a woman screaming and it had brought them racing down the shoreline; closer to the bay where the great hulked ships loomed like the behemoths of old against a horizon spangled with stars. 

       Lafayette skidded to a halt beside him.  Dieu merci!” he breathed as he pointed.

In response to the cannon’s fire, lights had appeared on the other ships anchored in the bay.  They could hear someone shouting orders, and knew they had only minutes in which to reach the ship where Jeremy was held.  Earlier in the day they had watched as Major Cripps’ martial figure boarded the prison ship clearly marked ‘The Terrence’.  He had been aboard less than an hour, and then beat a hasty retreat to the larger more sinister ship anchored to her right.  There was some distance between the ships, such as might take five or ten minutes to cross once a company was mustered. 

Five or ten minutes. 

Henry felt all his hopes vanish in despair.

After arriving at the Bay about an hour before midnight, they had conferred and decided that Isak and Sergeant Boggs should move ahead under cover of darkness to scout out the area around the ship.  He and the general would remain behind.  Ostensibly, it was their duty to keep the horses that were tethered just inside the tree-line ready and be prepared to dash in to make the rescue.  Henry glanced at the tall Frenchman at his side.  In a separate conversation just before they departed, the general’s aide had made it abundantly clear that his duty was to keep Lafayette alive and out of imminent peril of being captured – even if it meant he had to hit him over the head and sit on him to prevent it!

Mon ami,” the Frenchman’s soft voice prodded.  When Henry turned to look at him, Lafayette inclined his head toward the Terrence. “I do not think we are the only ones thinking of escape this night.”

Henry turned back.  It was true.  Prisoners were crawling down the baneful ship’s ladders.  They were leaping from its main deck.  Dozens, if not hundreds of them.  As the inmates of the Terrence spread out across the shore, running in all directions, the moon broke free of its cloudy blanket to reveal their deplorable condition.  They were not men but walking skeletons, all bone and ashen-gray skin.  Some ran a few yards and fell, never to rise again.  Others stopped and picked up the ones still breathing, adding more weight to their own labored footsteps.  Some simply ran as if Lucifer himself were behind them. 

He and Lafayette stood as a rock in the midst of the flood of pitiful humanity that parted and flowed around them.  They searched every face, seeking for ones they knew – not only Jeremy, but also Isak and Daniel Boggs.  When they did not find them they tried asking, but above the shouts and cries they could not be heard.  Finally, one pitiful specimen of a man, tall as a spruce but thin as a reed, paused long enough to shout something at them.

“What?” Henry shouted back.  “What was that?”

“Get a move on it, you bleeding idiots, she’s going to blow!”

And then it happened.   There was a thunderous explosion.  Whatever fire had been kindled, must have reached the ship’s powder supply and set it off.  After the explosion there was a moment of silence and then the air was filled with flames –

And screams.

“Jeremy!” Henry shouted as he started to run toward the ship.  The general caught him by the arm and stopped him, and then crushed him in a bear hug to hold him back. 

“Henry!  It is too late.  Mon Dieu!  It is too late.”

    Tears streaked the apothecary’s cheeks.  In the midst of the clamorous tide of filthy and fetid humanity rushing up the shore, with the Redcoats waking to danger on every side of them and taking up arms, Henry fell to his knees, sobbing.         

       “Jeremy….”

       For a moment there was nothing.  Nothing but the loss.  Then Henry felt the general’s hand on his shoulder.  He looked up to find the Frenchman, of all things, smiling.

       “Sir?  What?  How can you – ”

       “Look, my friend,” Lafayette answered, his voice choking with emotion.

       Henry did.  What he saw brought him to his feet and set him running.  Out of the billowing smoke and the insanity of hundreds of men desperately seeking to make their escape, against a background of flames and horrific shrieks and the rising shouts of British soldiers abruptly awakened to duty in the night, came a familiar trio of figures:  Isak, Sergeant Boggs, and between them, dangling like a fish fresh from the catch, Jeremy.              All three were soaked to the skin.  From the look of their clothes they had been in the brackish water that surrounded the ship.  Boggs and Isak looked stunned. 

Jeremy.  Well, Jeremy….

       “Is he alive?” Henry asked as the two men came alongside him with their burden.

       Isak’s black eyes met his.  They were crisp with anger.  “Aye.”

       “What happened?”

       “Not now, Henry.”  Sergeant Boggs’ jaw clenched tightly.  “Dear God!  All these men.  All….”  His eyes lit with fear.  “Where is Lafayette?”

       Henry spun to look.  In his excitement he had forgotten all about the Frenchman.  “I left him on the beach.  I….”

       “Henry!” Boggs growled.  “I trusted you – ”

       “Wait!”  It was Isak.  “Wait.  There he is.”

       The general had gone for the horses.  As Lafayette approached, they watched the desperate prisoners give his and their other empty mounts a wide birth.  It became apparent why as the youthful Marquis came alongside them.  In his hand was his pistol.  The tip of the barrel was smoking.

       “General, what?” Boggs asked.

       Lafayette’s eyes were haunted.  Unexplained tears entered them as he shook his head.  “There is no time.  Give Jeremy to me.  Then you must mount yourselves, and fly like the wind!”

       Henry watched as Boggs and Isak did as ordered; the blacksmith with less alacrity than the older man.  It was as if Isak feared, as he did, that even though the rescue had been made, they would never see their friend alive again.

       The general scowled as he wrapped one arm about Jeremy’s depleted form.  “We rendezvous at Bennett’s Point,” he said, “and if not there, then at the safe-house outside Tappan.  If not there, then may Providence grant that we all live to meet another day.   Keep your weapons to the ready.  On this shore, it is each man for himself!” 

       With that, Lafayette spurred his horse and disappeared into the night.

                     

       Major Cripps stood at the edge of the waterline a few hundred feet from the Terrence with a spyglass in his hand, watching the prison ship burn to the waterline.  As quickly as was possible, he had mustered and deployed as many of the rag-tag collection of disaffected soldiers and sailors as was prudent to subdue the escaping prisoners.  Reports had reached him since he had taken up his command position on the beach that both Captain Skern and First Mate Crawley were dead.  It was no more than they deserved for the reprehensible job they had done of keeping control of their prisoners. 

       Cripps raised his glass and concentrated on the scene unfolding on the shore just above the ship.  Amidst the hundreds of men on foot, there was one on horseback.   He focused the glass to its highest resolution and narrowed his eye, trying to make out the features of the rider.  Cripps wasn’t certain, but he would have bet his next year’s pay that it was the man he had met at the Riverbend Inn a few days before –  the supposed deaf-mute named Joseph.

       He had known that letting that man and his ‘father’ slip through his fingers would bring ruin in the end!

       The man on the horse was accepting a burden.  With a snarl, Cripps added the next year’s pay to the wager.  It had to be Kent.  Of all the prisoners on the Terrence, only Jeremiah Kent had the means and the monetary might to move the mountains it would take to attempt a rescue on one of the ships anchored in Wallabout Bay.  Only Kent would have had the audacity to challenge the right of the British army to its prisoners and to set them free while burning their prison to the ground.

       Major Cripps snapped the glass closed and then anchored it at his waist as he called out in a strident tone.  “Sergeant Nash!”

       The stocky man had been waiting in the shadows, minding the major’s horse as well as his own.  “Sir!” he answered as he stepped forward into the flickering light cast by the dying ship.

        “Those men on the shore.  The ones mounting horses.  Do you see them?”

       Bulstrode Nash narrowed his muddy-green eyes.  “Aye, sir.”

       “I want to know where they go.  You will follow them and then report to me.”

       “And where will you be, sir?”

       Major Cripps took his horse’s reins and mounted.  “I don’t know yet.  I’ll pick Jenkins and a few of the others up on the way.  He’s keeping guard near the mill.  Jenkins will bring you word when the fox is cornered.”

       “The fox, sir?” Nash’s grizzled brows formed a frown.  “And who would that be?”

        “I’m not sure,” Cripps answered as he put his mount to the spur and started up the shore toward the tree line into which the man from the inn had disappeared.  “But I have a feeling when I do, that Jeremiah Kent’s supposed fortune will pale against the value of the prize.”