THE ELEVEN THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED

Chapter One

 

 

     Jeremy Larkin crouched behind a dry and brittle patch of Boneset.  The large lance-shaped leaves were crusted with snow and glistened with melting ice.  He could see his breath in the air and wondered if it would alert his opponent to his presence.  The one who tracked him was good.  He had led them on a chase through Chester and into the wilderness, but had failed to shake them until just a few moments before when he had seen the deep blue blur of their cloak flash behind a tree on the slope that led down to the river.  Jeremy pulled the collar of his brown coat close about his throat.  The winter of 1778 was proving especially cold.  In the three months since the inclement weather had set it, General Washington’s troops had suffered greatly.  He thought of the soldiers at Valley Forge nestled in their rude huts with barely a stick to burn, and told himself to quit complaining.  He had a heavy linsey-woolsey shirt and soft leather breeches on underneath his thick woolen cloak, and a scarf his mother had made for him about his throat and knitted mittens warming his fingers.  After he escaped, he would return to a warm house with a fire blazing and a cup of steaming cider. 

     That was, if he did escape.

     Enough time had passed that he was certain his opponent was not going to circle round.  Deciding to dare it, Jeremy rose up to peer over the boneset plants and was immediately struck –

     With a snowball between the eyes.

     As he sputtered and wiped the wet sludge from his face a delighted female voice crowed in triumph, “Yes!  Yes!  I win!  Another triumph for the Continental Army!”

     Jeremy rose to his full height and stood with his hands in the air. “I suppose you demand a complete surrender?”

     Elizabeth Coates lowered her arms and then crossed them in final judgment.  “Full and complete,” she said, her tone stern.

     “The same conditions as before?” he asked, doing his best to keep the grin he felt from curling the corners of his lips.

     She opened her arms and held her hands out, as if to receive his sword.  “The same!”

     As he came out from behind the tangle of leaves and stems and snowy ice, he shook his head.  “You do know that the entire might of the British Army has been raised against you, and that in the end you Americans will bow and grovel before King George’s feet?”  By the time he finished he was standing directly before her, looking down at her.  “Don’t you?”

     Elizabeth cocked one dark eyebrow.  She rubbed the fingers of her right hand together.  “Shut up and pay up, Redcoat!”

     Jeremy hung his head.  He reached for his imaginary sword and then pivoted sharply back, taking her by surprise.  Then he knocked her to the ground and took her in his arms and rolled over and over again until they were both thickly coated with snow.  When the boneset branches stopped them, he touched her face with his hand and then gently kissed her on the lips.

     Elizabeth was breathing hard.  “If only…we could get King George and…General Washington to settle things the same way,” she suggested mischievously.

     Jeremy laughed, but then sobered quickly when he realized she was shivering.  Then it dawned on him she was no longer wearing her cloak.  “You’ll catch your death,” he chided as he lifted her from the ground.

     “Maybe,” she replied, “but I fooled you, didn’t I, Captain Crumpet Stuffer?”

     He pulled her close into the protection of his arms.  “Am I your prisoner now?”

     “Forever,” she said as she reached up and touched his cheek and then snuggled in.  “I’ll never let you go.”

     “Well, my honorable opponent, Mistress Doodle, before we prepare to engage again, let us retrieve your cloak.”

     As they walked together, for just a moment, Jeremy found he was able to put aside the war.  There was nothing but this day, with its brilliant sunlight and wondrous display of the handiwork of Providence.  The night before there had been a slight warming trend.  Though it had lasted only a few hours, it had bided long enough to cause icicles to form.  They hung from the trees and dotted the stone fences that separated the farmers’ fields.  A new fall of snow that morning had frosted them, turning the land about Chester into a place fit for a faerie king.

     He hugged the woman at his side.  And queen.

     “You seem content,” Elizabeth murmured as they reached the tree where she had cleverly hung her cloak.  “Are you not worried about the Cause?”

     Jeremy pressed a finger to her lips.  Then he shook his head.  “Not today.”  He laid his hand alongside her cheek.  “Today, Bess, I want nothing more than to be here with you and to – ”

     “Jeremy,” Elizabeth said.  “Behind you.”

     He turned to see a man working his way up the hill.  The stranger had crossed the frozen river and was advancing steadily toward them.  Jeremy grabbed Elizabeth’s cloak and threw it around her shoulders and then stepped in front of her.  He had no weapon, but even so was far from helpless if it came to confronting a threat.  Jeremy squared his legs and tensed as the man appeared directly before them. 

And then relaxed. 

     In spite of his heavy cloak and the thick scarf that was woven about his neck, Jeremy recognized the man as General Lafayette’s aide, Jean-Joseph Sourbader de Gimat.  The Frenchman’s long nose and cheeks were ripe as apples with the cold.  It appeared he had walked some distance.

     Gimat doffed his hat, but quickly replaced it.  He held out a packet with an official seal on it as he said, “Captain Larkin, I bring you a message from the General.”

     Jeremy felt Elizabeth tense.  For the last few months the Society’s involvement in the war had been minimal. It was just too cold.  Henry was taking time to bone up on his skills, as well as trying to soothe the ruffled feathers of a few of his customers who were feeling neglected.  Isak was keeping warm at his Blacksmith’s forge.  Jeremy himself had spent the last few weeks taking time to do things with and for his father.  He knew it was just the calm before yet another season of storm, but found the respite had been much needed.  And now, here was Gimat calling him to arms.

     Jeremy took the packet and held it gingerly in his fingers.

     Arms or worse.

     “Are you to wait for a reply?” he asked the Frenchman.

     Lieutenant Gimat shook his head.  “My mission was to see it into your hands.  The General told me only to say that, “It has begun’.  He said you would know what to do.”  Gimat stamped his feet and rubbed his hands together.  Mon Dieu! It is cold.”

     Jeremy pursed his lips as he tucked the packet inside his coat.

     And it was only going to get colder.

 

     The sound of Isak Poole’s hammer rang out through the crisp night.  The black man eyed the iron hinge he was fashioning and then plunged it into the pail of icy water at his feet, sending a cloud of steam raising into the blacksmith’s shop.  His friend Henry Abington, who was sitting close by, leaned over and shoved his face into the mist.  Henry gasped.  Then he sighed.

     And then he sneezed.

     “Physician heal thyself!” Isak laughed.

     “Vewy fuddy,” Henry sniffed.

     “What was that?”

     The apothecary pulled a linen handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose.  Then he repeated himself.  “Very funny.”

     “A learned man like you, Henry, can’t fail to see the irony of an apothecary with a cold.”

     “Neither can those whose custom I keep,” Henry remarked as he sullenly stuffed the handkerchief back in his vest pocket.  “The Widow Markey threw me out of her house today!  She called me a ‘nest of contagion and disease!’”

     Isak frowned as he began to hammer again.  Then he stopped.  “That’s Shakespeare!”

     “Oh, be quiet.  No one likes an educated smithy.”

     At that moment the shop door opened.  As the smoke and steam were pulled toward it, a tall lanky figure walked in.  Isak recognized the man immediately even though he was bundled from head to foot like a little boy in warm winter clothes.

     “I think I see a woman’s touch,” Isak said as Jeremy began to unwrap.

     The blond man laughed.  “Aye, at least so far as the scarf and mittens.”

     “What is it with women and mittens?” the blacksmith asked.  “The men at Valley Forge may have no shirt or breeches, and no shoes to stand in, but I bet the Ladies’ Societies have seen to it that they all have mittens!”

     Jeremy drew the wet woolen things off and laid them on the hearth next to his scarf to dry.  Then he removed his coat and shook it, and did the same.  Finally, to Isak’s amusement, his friend took off his boots and walked in his stocking feet over to where the smithy was.  Once there Jeremy sat down and pressed his feet against the forge’s well-heated brick base.

     “Ah! Creature comforts,” he said, wiggling his toes.  “What better place to spend a cold winter’s evening than by a forge?  Eh, Henry?”

     Henry nodded.  Then he sniffled and sneezed again.

     “Physician heal – ” the blond started to remark.

     Isak raised a warning hand.  “I wouldn’t go there if I were you.”

     Jeremy looked from one to the other, and then settled on the apothecary.  “Are you unwell, Henry?”

     “I am sick to death of this winter and this weather and waiting for spring!  Half of Chester is ill and the other half is caring for it.  It will….  It will….”  He sneezed again.  “It will be the death of many.”

      “Aye,” Jeremy said growing sober.  “We are most fortunate to have our health and a fire to keep us warm.  There are many who have neither.” 

     When he had finished, a silence fell between them, broken only by the sound of Isak’s hammer falling.  The blacksmith gave the hinge one last whack and then doused it in the fire again.  The steam swirled up around his head, bringing a fresh wash of sweat to his ebon face.  As he wiped it away with his arm, he glanced at Jeremy.  His friend’s look had grown distant. 

     “Is something wrong, Jeremy?” Isak asked as he hung the hinge on a rack and began the preparation for cooling the forge.

     At first the blond man didn’t seem to hear.  Then Jeremy stirred and looked at him.  “No.  It is only that I have come to tell you that I must be away for a few weeks.”

     “Abay?”  Henry sniffed.  The handkerchief came out again.  “Away?  Where are you going?”

     “Some business for my father.  As the war will be as frozen as the Delaware for the next few months, I did not see any harm in it.  And I have done so little for him since Brandywine.”

     “Where will you go?”

     “We own property in New York, near the Connecticut border.”  Jeremy’s grin was sheepish.  “Father thinks it would be good thing for me to go to New York.  He thinks it will put any notion of following in Robert’s footsteps out of my head.”

     “I thought your father now approved Robert’s choice,” Henry said as he rose and headed for the hearth.

     “He does.  But he does not want me to go for a soldier.  Not that he really thinks there is any possibility of his wastrel son taking up arms.  Are you going to fix tea, Henry?”

     The kettle was in his hand.  Henry held it aloft.  “Since Isak has shut the forge down for the day – more steam!”

     Jeremy laughed.  “I feel a chill.  I will gladly take some when it is ready.”  As Henry bustled with the kettle and water, he went on, “I think the change of scenery will do me good.”

     “What does Elizabeth think?” Isak asked.

     His friend shrugged.  “I haven’t told her for certain yet.”

     “How long will you be gone?”

     “About six weeks.  Do you two think you can handle the rebellion without me for that long?”

     Henry had opened the tea caddie and the scent of the dried herbs that made up the Liberty tea filled the air.  Isak drank it in and then answered with a laugh, “So long as the Redcoats don’t thaw out before March.”

     “Not with this wedder,” Henry snuffled as he pressed his finger against the kettle to test its readiness, and then popped the digit in his mouth after singeing it.  “We will midd you,” he finished.

     “Oh, I’ll be back before you know it,” Jeremy remarked casually as he rose to his feet and went to get the teapot from the shelf in the corner.  “Six weeks is but the blink of an eye in a lifetime.  Isn’t it?”

     Isak turned to look at him.  He sensed something in Jeremy’s voice.  He watched the tall blond man closely as he walked back across the room to Henry’s side where, after delivering the pot, Jeremy fell into idle chatter with the apothecary.  He hadn’t told them everything, but then, he didn’t have to.  Just because they were associates and friends, it didn’t mean Jeremy couldn’t have his own life – and secrets.

     Several minutes later Henry raised the pot, indicating the tea was ready.  As he did Isak wiped his hands off on his apron and then removed it.  With several long strides he joined his friends, taking a seat on a chair that Jeremy had pulled up for him.  As they sipped the heady brew, letting it warm their stomachs and course all the way down to their cold toes, they fell silent once more.  Then, out of the blue, Jeremy spoke.

     “To freedom,” he said, lifting his cup, “and to those who give their lives to preserve it.  May they never be forgotten.”

     Isak did not miss Henry’s sideways glance.  “To freedom,” the smithy echoed and raised his cup.

     But he did not drink his tea.

 

     Jeremy hesitated outside the door of his house.  His father was within.  On his way back from Isak’s he had seen the older man enter.  Samuel Larkin’s steps were heavy as they had been the last six months since Robert’s death.  Jeremy had no desire to lay another burden on his father’s shoulders, but he didn’t know what else he was going to do if – well, if he was going to do what he had to do.  Six weeks was a long time.

     He just hoped he was as convincing an actor as everyone told him he was.

     Shaking off the melancholy that gripped him, Jeremy took hold of the front door latch, opened the door, and stepped inside.  His father was before the fire, as was everyone these days it seemed.  The cold was unrelenting.  He had heard it was even worse farther north.  In New York, it was said, people were dying for lack of firewood.  Jeremy drew a deep breath.

     Well, he would soon find out.

     “My boy!” his father exclaimed as he turned around and saw him.  “Come in and close the door.  The cold bites hard on old bones.”

     “Sorry, Father,” he apologized as he pushed it to and latched it.  “My mind was elsewhere.”

     The old man nodded.  “Mine too.  Mine too.  Tomorrow will mark the five-month anniversary of your brother’s death.  Robert’s shade is close tonight.”

     Jeremy nodded.  Yes, it was.  He had a sense of Robert as he drew near the house, as though his brother’s erect golden-haired figure had occupied one of the upper windows and been watching his approach.  “I feel it as well,” he said as he joined his father before the fire.  What would Robert think of the task he had chosen to undertake?  Would his brother approve?  Success would mean much to the army Robert had served, but failure might destroy this man he loved.

     “You are thoughtful tonight, Jeremy.”  His father indicated the chair across from him.  As he reached for his pipe, he asked, “Would you care to share those thoughts with me?”

     Jeremy pursed his lips as he fell heavily into the cushioned seat.  Then he lowered his head and looked at his hands.  His voice shook, not from shame as he pretended, but with emotion.

     “Father, I am going away.”

     The old man started and sat up in his chair.  “What?”

     “There is a debt I must pay.  Someone I have wronged.”

     “Jeremy, what is this?”

     He leaned back and began to tell the lie.  “After Robert’s death, in order to drown my sorrows, I took too much to the drink.  One night, in a drunken rage, I followed a young girl to her father’s farm and when she would have nothing of me, I….”  His fingers were knit together.  His head still down.  “I am afraid I took out my anger on her family’s property.  I did not mean to, but I knocked over a lantern and there…was…a….fire.”

     The silence in the room was so profound he heard the hiss of an ember as it died on the cold hearthstones.  Jeremy waited, and when his father said nothing, looked up and found there were tears in the old man’s eyes.

     The sight nearly killed him.

     “Father, is there nothing you have to say?”

     The older man was stiff.  “Is it money the man wants?  Is that why you mean to run?  Or has he come to town with the woman’s brothers to thrash you within an inch of your life?”  His father’s voice had risen with his temper.  “If I were not your father, by God, I swear I would aid him!”

     Jeremy swallowed the tears that threatened to flood his eyes.  “Father, no!  I do not mean to run.  I know I have done wrong.”  He winced at the disbelieving look that entered the older man’s eyes.  Had he been too convincing?  Did his father think him incapable of a conscience?  “I have spoken to the man.  He will be content if I come and work for him.  I have agreed to go.”

     Samuel Larkin said nothing.  Jeremy could tell his father was taking time to still his temper.  Finally he said, “Who is this man?”

He steeled himself.  “I don’t intend to tell you.”
What?”

Jeremy held his hands up.  “I know you, Father.  I know the love you held for Robert and, in spite of everything, hold for me.  I know you would offer to pay this man off to keep me from the shame.”  He shook his head.  “I have made my own bed and must lie in it.  I intend to go and work for him until the debt is paid.”

     His father’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.  “And how do I know that this is not just another excuse?  That you do not intend to run off to more drinking and whoring?”

     Jeremy reached into his pocket and produced the letter that had been in the packet delivered by Gimat, along with his secret orders.  One of Lafayette’s men had penned it.  “Here is a letter, written by the man, detailing what he expects of me.”  It was signed only ‘An irate father’.  The General had been careful to include the necessary details while leaving everything else vague. 

     His father took it and read it, and then slumped back in the chair with the letter on his knees.  “Jeremy…” he sighed.  “What am I to do with you?”

     “I have learned my lesson, sir.  On Robert’s grave, I swear to drink to excess no more.”  He shifted forward and fell to his knees before the older man.  “You must believe me.  I never wanted to hurt you.”

     His father looked at the letter and then at him.  Then Samuel Larkin reached out a hand and gently placed it on his head.  “It is only because I love you that I grieve.”

     “I know, sir.”  Jeremy’s voice broke.  “I hope that what I am about to do will go in some way toward showing you that I can be responsible.  That I am your devoted son and wish to become a good man like you.”

     For a moment, the older man said nothing.  Then, after leaning forward and kissing his hair, he said, “Go then, with my blessing.  How long will you be gone?”

     “The man I wronged demands six weeks of my life.  It is little to pay for the hurt I did him.”

     “Will you write?”

     “If I can.  I do not know what privileges he will accord me.”

     “And I cannot know who this man is?”

     Jeremy drew a breath.  “I think it is better if you do not.  I might….  I would not want to shame you by begging to be released from my debt.”

     His father nodded.  Then, for the first time he smiled.  “You know me too well.”

     As he climbed to his feet, Jeremy said, “I will pack tonight.  The man desires that I go with him tomorrow.”

     “So soon?”

     “It is better to get it done.  I have said goodbye to my friends.  Oh, and Father….”

     “Yes?”
     “I told them I was going out of town on business for you.  To see to some land we own in New York.  I pray you will give truth to my lie if anyone asks.  I did not want to tell them….”

     “Jeremy, little good can come of a lie.”

     His smile was the one he had worn since he was a little boy.  His mother called it charmed.  “One indulgence, Father, for your wayward boy?”

     Samuel Larkin sighed.  “As you wish.”

     Jeremy nodded and the smile faded.

     It was done.

    

     Later that night, alone in his room, Jeremy opened the packet Gimat had delivered.  In it were several more letters, a group of miscellaneous papers, and the document signed and sealed by Lafayette; a copy of which had also been sent to General Washington to inform him of their intentions.  The papers were his new identity.  They had been taken from a civilian named, luckily, Jeremiah Kent who was well known in the city of New York for his financial support of the rebel cause.  The man had managed to make an escape from prison, out from under the eye of its Redcoat commander, bringing with him news of the abhorrent conditions under which American prisoners were forced to exist in the occupied city.  Kent brought, as well, intelligence of British movements, but they were months old – as old as his own confinement.  With the balance tipped in favor of England by the British Army’s occupation of Philadelphia, it had been decided that New York must once again be taken and both its residents and the prisoners freed.  The metropolis was a haven for Tories and Loyalists, offering those who still held allegiance to Great Britain a safe base of operations.  There had been raids against innocent men and women loyal to the rebels and the violence was only growing.  Lafayette was due to arrive with Phillip Schuyler in New York in the first few weeks of March.  Before that time, if he could, Jeremy was to have infiltrated and to have obtained current intelligence regarding the British Army’s plans for the Spring campaign and – and this was the major thrust of his mission – he was to report on the condition of American captives in the city and surrounding areas.  He had been chosen on two accounts; his relative anonymity in New York and his willingness to take the risk.  Though Captain Yankee Doodle was important to Chester, Pennsylvania, in the greater scheme of things his contribution would be minor.  The war was already moving on to other colonies.  In time it would leave the Yankee Doodle Society behind.  This was a chance to strike a bigger blow, one that might well influence the outcome of the entire conflict.  Though his friends might not understand, it was something he had to do.

     There was another reason as well. 

     It was something he felt Robert would have done.