THE ELEVEN THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED

Chapter Twelve

 

 

   The Frenchman coughed again and fell back to the ground. “Merci Dieu!  Then it is not over.”

   Henry watched as the general’s aide stood up and dusted his hands off, as if preparing for a day’s hard labor.  Which he was.     “It is for you, sir,” Daniel Boggs said.  “If I have to tie you to the saddle and slap the horse’s rear myself to get it moving, I will get you safely out of here and back to Albany.” 

   “But Daniel….”

   “We have men in this area.  I will contact them.  They can hunt down Major Cripps and make certain the Wickfields are all right.  Our mission was to rescue Jeremy from Wallabout Bay.  Well, he’s rescued.”  The older man’s face was stern as an indulgent father’s who had been pushed too far.  “And if you want him to live, you had better remember that is your focus.”

    Henry hesitated to intrude, but he finally did.  “He’s right, sir.  We can use the Redcoat’s wagon to transport Jeremy somewhere where he can be cared for.  Then we must go home.”

   “I can help,” Becky McAllister said as she joined them.  “You can come to my house.”

     Lafayette was silent for a moment.  Then he sighed.  “You are correct, all of you.  Jeremy’s health must take precedence.”  He started to rise, but fell back with a cough.

   “Are you all right, sir?” Boggs asked, concerned.

   Oui.  It is nothing that a night of true rest will not cure.” 

   The general pretended to be well, but Henry noticed the long-limbed Frenchman did not refuse his aide’s help in rising.

   “Where do you suppose Cripps has gone?” Henry asked as he stared at the raging inferno that had once been a barn.

   “Back to headquarters with his tail between his legs,” Daniel Boggs snarled.  “And good riddance to him.  Now come on, Henry, help me unload the wagon.  We’ll fix a soft spot for Jeremy.”

  

   It turned out that Becky McAllister’s family farm was on the south side of the river, opposite Bennett’s Point.  With her cheeks burning, she explained on the ride there that she had lied to her parents in order to visit Jim.  She had an aunt that lived near the Wickfields, and she had told them that she was going there to visit.  They actually met Becky’s father riding out to find her as they pulled into the lane just as dusk claimed the sky that night.

   It turned out the McAllisters were staunch patriots.  They had only daughters – six of them – and so had devoted themselves to making shirts and using whatever funds they had to support Washington’s army.  Mr. McAllister, Timothy by name, was surprised and delighted to find that the Wickfields – with the exception of Joe – were also supporters of the Cause.  Though he was none too happy to find out what Becky had been up to.  Henry imagined, once they moved on, that the young woman would have to walk a narrow path to return to her father’s good graces.

   Timothy McAllister saw them safely inside and made certain that they were fed and provided for, and then he took off north.  There were other patriots he told them, in far-flung places in the New York wilderness.  He would arrange for them to travel to one of their homes where they could take a few days to rest.  With the recent influx of desperate men freed from the ship in the Bay, and the surge of British soldiers sent to recapture them, it was not safe for them to linger where they were for very long.

   Henry was placed in one of the two rooms used by the McAllister girls, along with Jeremy and the general.  The moment the Frenchman’s head hit the ticking stuffed with fine goose feathers, he was out.  Henry stared at him a moment, marveling at the man, and then went to sit at Jeremy’s side.

   Surprisingly, he found his friend awake.

   “Jeremy, how are you?” Henry asked as he took a seat and then, took his friend’s hand in his.

   “Alive, it seems,” Jeremy answered with a weak smile.  “How long has it been?”

   The apothecary frowned.  He had lost track of the days.  “You left on the 13th, I believe.  And it is now the 30th.  So, over two weeks.”

   A shudder ran through the sick man.  “Is that all?  It seems eternity.”

   “Jeremy, what happened?  How were you….”  Henry hesitated as he met his friend’s haunted stare.  “Forgive me.  I shouldn’t have asked.”

   “Not yet, Henry.”  Jeremy’s voice was the sound of brittle leaves skittering across thin ice.  “Maybe one day, but not yet….”

   Henry nodded, as he didn’t know what else to do.

   After a moment, Jeremy stirred.  He asked for water and then after he drank, grew quite pensive.  Finally Jeremy said, his words broken and grieving, “There was a man named Upton.  If not for him….”  He coughed.  “If not for him, Henry, I would be dead.”

   “Is he the one who bled you?”

   His friend paled.  “No.  That was Doctor Leeds.  He’s dead.”

   “Oh.  I’m sorry.”     Henry patted his shoulder.  “You’re still recovering from the Lung Fever, Jeremy, you should rest.”

   “Do you…know anything of Upton’s fate?” Jeremy asked.

   Henry shook his head.  “I’m sorry.  There were so many on the shore.  So many pitiful creatures dashing madly to escape.  We had no time to think of any but you.”

   Jeremy’s hand moved to cover his.  “I mean no disparagement….”

   “I know that.”  Henry caught his fingers and squeezed them.  “Dear God, Jeremy, we thought we had lost you.”

   His friend’s pained eyes met his.  “You did, Henry,” he whispered.  And then he fell asleep.

     

   On the west side of the McAllister property, in a thick pool of darkness that lay between a soldier-straight avenue of trees, a wounded man leaned on a stone hitching post.  He was breathing hard after many hours of walking.  The horse he had taken from a barn had given out he had ridden it so hard.  He felt pain as the bruised and singed skin of his jaw tightened; as his burnt fingers clenched and unclenched.  He wanted to fall down.  To give up.  To die.  But he wouldn’t.  This could not be the end. 

   He would not let that happen.

   Summoning what strength he still had, the man did not so much walk as he hobbled down the avenue toward the McAllisters’ fine stone home.  He had hurt his leg in the fire.  Each step pained him.  But he didn’t care.  He didn’t care one whit – just so long as the man who had done this to him paid the price.

   Just so justice was done.

       

     Lafayette woke after only a few hours of sleep.  His rest had been disturbed by dreams laced with gunfire and flames.  He rose and looked to his right and saw that Henry had fallen asleep in the chair beside Jeremy’s bed.  There were two bed-frames in the room for the three McAllister girls who shared the space.  He had taken the smaller one and fallen asleep with his feet hanging over the carved footboard, which had left him aching.  On top of that his chest hurt from breathing in smoke, and he found – to his surprise – that he was ravenously hungry.  Padding quietly to the bedroom door in his stocking-feet, Lafayette opened it and headed down the small winding stair to the bottom floor.  The McAllisters’ home was a modest one, though grand by a peasant’s standards.  It had two broad rooms in front, with four more above, and an attached kitchen to the back.  It was now the middle of the night, so the Frenchman did not expect to find anyone about.  Sergeant Boggs and one of the local men were keeping watch outside, while Isak and the others had bedded down in one of the rooms above.  Lafayette had thought about offering to spell Daniel, but decided against it as quickly as the idea formed.  The older man would only tell him it was too dangerous and that he needed his rest.

   And he was right.

   The female McAllisters – mother Julia and her six daughters – had gone to the aunt’s house Becky had made a pretense of visiting before.  They would be safe there.  He and his men could look out for themselves.  As soldiers, they were certainly used to surviving without a woman’s soft touch.

   He smiled as he looked into the kitchen and noted the fresh apple tart Julia McAllister had left on the table for them.

   Though it was most missed from time to time.

    Lafayette stepped into the room and headed for the cupboard where Julia had shown them she kept her dishes.  He had only gone a few steps when he stopped dead.  The room was dark.  He had not bothered to light a candle as he could see well enough.  Now, he wished he had.  There was something lying on the floor just inside the back door. 

   He thought it was a man.

   Instantly alert, Lafayette’s hand went for his pistol – and then he remembered he had left it lying beside the bed in the room above.

   “Be grateful you don’t have it, otherwise you’d already be dead,” a cultured British voice spoke from out the shadows on the other side of the room.  “Like him.”

   A chill ran through the Frenchman.  Was it Daniel on the floor?  Lafayette glanced at the still form again, but there was nothing to distinguish the dark lump that had once been a man.  He turned back, “Major Cripps, I presume?”

   The officer’s tall spare form moved into a patch of moonlight cast by one of the four-pane windows.  “You presume correctly, my dear Marquis.  Now, without making a sound, you will turn and march out the door.”

   “What if I don’t?”

   “I will shoot you.”

   “And what if I cry out?  I have many men in this house.”

   “And the McAllisters have many women.”  Major Cripps’ sneer was smug and evil.  “I know where they are.”

   “If you are taken prisoner by my men,” Lafayette countered, “that will mean nothing.”

   “You presume that I am alone.”  Cripps paused.  “Can you be certain?”

    No, he couldn’t be.  For several heartbeats, Lafayette studied the major.  It was hard to tell with his scarlet uniform, but there were deeper crimson patches on it that seemed to indicate one of Daniel’s shots had hit the mark and Cripps had been wounded as Henry said.  The major’s face and hands were blackened with soot, as though he had gone too close to the fire he had set.  Still, the Englishman moved with a certain amount of assurance, and had no difficulty keeping his pistol level.  As the options appeared and spun off into nothing before his blurry eyes, Lafayette raised his hands and, with a sigh, turned his back on the man who was going to kill him and stepped outside.

   As he was in his stockings, hose, and linen shirt, the Frenchman shivered as the blast of cold air hit him.  Since they had been inside a light snow had begun to fall.  The pale moonlight revealed several sets of tracks impressed in it.  One must be Daniel’s.  His aide had been circling the house, looking for an intruder.  The second, Cripps.

   But there was a third.

   Just as Lafayette decided they must belong to the Bennett’s Point man who had shared the watch with Sergeant Boggs, he felt the cold steel of Cripps’ pistol pressed between his shoulder blades.  “Start walking, Marquis.  And keep walking until we are far away from here.”

   The British major had caught up a broom from somewhere – most likely in the McAllister’s house – and as they walked he dragged it behind him, destroying the evidence of their passage.  The harsh scratch of its bristles on the surface of the packed snow grated on the Frenchman’s nerves even as his toes began to tingle and his hands and lips to go numb.  Five minutes walking brought them to the edge of the McAllister’s estate where a shadowed narrow lane ran through a line of trees, and then bottomed out at a bridge that led over a ribbon of water and, from there, into the nearest village. 

   When he hesitated upon arriving at the trees, Cripps shoved the barrel of the gun into his back again and snarled, “Keep walking.”   

   Lafayette did what he was told; his mind awhirl as he stepped into the channel of darkness.  It was here his fate would be determined.  Either Cripps would kill him, or he would take the gun and kill Cripps.  He had no way of knowing what lay at the end of the avenue.  If the major was telling the truth, it might be a regiment of Redcoats.  And even though being taken most likely meant chastisement and house arrest, he would not be taken.

   He would rather die.

   The course before him was patchy with moonlight.  It trickled through the trees, never quite lighting the path.  As he and Cripps moved into a particularly pitch-black segment, Lafayette made his move.  He whirled and struck out with his long leg, knocking the pistol from the Englishman’s hand.  Then he fell on the British officer. 

   The major’s strength was startling, born of multiple disgraces and a growing sort of madness.  Cripps snarled like a beast as they struggled and finally succeeded in rolling over until he had the upper hand.  Lafayette’s dark eyes flicked to the side as the major straddled his form.  The officer’s pistol glinted in a patch of moonlight.  The Frenchman’s lips pressed together in a determined grin as he reached for it.  He halted the attempt as the tip of a knife cut into his throat.

      “I…have been…disgraced…for the last…time,” the older man panted. 

“I will not…be…overcome by some fribble of a French boy.  Lafayette, prepare to meet your maker – ”

   There was a shot.  And the smell of gun-smoke.  And then Major Cripps pitched forward; his knife-blade nicking the Frenchman’s throat as he fell.

               Lafayette was breathing hard.  With blood dripping onto his shirt he looked up from his prone position, expecting to find Sergeant Boggs, or perhaps Isak Poole.  It was neither.  He did not know the man.  The stranger was of an average height, with light brown hair.  His clothing was ragged, though it might once have been a uniform.  The man’s face was battered and burned and when he moved, it was with a decided limp.  The stranger drew close enough that the Frenchman could see he had a scrap of fabric tied about his throat which, in a curious way, gave him the air of a disaffected gentleman.

   That impression was done away with by the feral look of unbridled hatred that lit his amber eyes. 

   “It is your maker you will meet this night, Cripps,” the man snarled as he took his frozen and bloody bare foot and rolled the major’s corpse off of Lafayette.  “May you rot in Hell.”

   It was obvious to Lafayette that this was one of the prisoners, escaped from Wallabout Bay.  There was a story here that had not been told, and he was anxious to hear it.  But at the moment, the Frenchman was freezing.

   Merci, messier, for your timely rescue.  If not for you,” he reached up to touch his throat, “I would be dead.”

   The man continued to stare at the cooling corpse of the British major for several heartbeats, and then he turned his unusual eyes on him.  A moment later he offered him a hand up.  As he did, the man said, “I tracked Cripps all the way from Dead Man’s shore to here.  Riding first, then walking.  He owed me.  He owed my men.”

   “Then you are an officer?”

   The stranger’s lips quirked with a half-smile.  “I was.”  Then he straightened up.     “Captain Upton Thelonius Tabard at your service.”

   Lafayette drew a sharp breath.

   Upton.

 

   Lafayette knew before they reached the McAllister’s house that he had been missed.  Candles had been lit and small figures were pouring out of the door, lanterns in hand.  When Daniel Boggs saw him, his aide gave almost as loud a shout as he did.  Lafayette found out that Major Cripps had attacked the frontiersman.  Cripps had struck Daniel in the temple with the butt of his blade and sent him spinning into the snow where he had lain unconscious for nearly an hour.  Upon awaking, his aide had returned to the house to find the other sentry dead of a knife wound and his general, missing – at which time Daniel Boggs had raised hell and dragged everyone but the injured Jeremy out of their beds to search for Lafayette.

   Now, an hour after their reunion, he and Daniel sat in the McAllister’s kitchen along with Henry and Isak.  Upton Tabard had gone quietly upstairs to see for himself that Jeremy was still alive, and then the former prisoner had returned to join them and tell them his tale.

   Captain Tabard’s unit had been in a minor skirmish with the enemy.  Nothing major, he said.  Nothing like Long Island or Brooklyn.  But men on both sides had been killed and when the Lobsterbacks ended it with the upper hand, he and several of his men had been taken captive.  They had been placed in one of the converted Sugar Houses of New York to begin with, which he said was bad enough, but then an edict had come down to move the officers to one of the prison ships and he had learned the true meaning of the word hell.

   Upton was sitting at the table before the fire, spinning an empty mug in his fingers.  His look was far away, but also far from dreamy as he relived the nightmare he and Jeremy had barely escaped from.

   “It was bad enough, just existing, between the rats and lice and poisonous food.  Every man was sick.  Every one had no place to purge the blackness inside but where he lay.  If a man wasn’t dying when he came, then he was dying soon after.  We were all a bunch of walking corpses, praying for the reaper to come and take his harvest.”

   The room was silent.  Henry and Isak stood near the door.  Sergeant Boggs, with a bandage about his head, was directly behind Lafayette.

   “Then one day, when I was on butter duty – bringing the rancid stuff on board – I overheard Captain Skern say something about his ‘take’.  I figured the bastard was making money hand-over-fist stealing what by rights of war was ours.  We started listening, Corbett, me, and Arnold.  It didn’t take long to realize that Skern was dirty as a louse and Crawley with him.  But they were just the errand boys.  There was someone else.  Someone higher up.  Someone with permission to do what he was doing.”

   Lafayette was sick to his stomach.  “Cripps?”

   “Aye, Cripps.  Though I didn’t know for sure until the escape when I talked to some of the other men.”  Upton brought the mug down on the table so hard it made them all jump.  Then he pushed it away and leaned back and looked each man in the eye.  “The major does it with his government’s sanction.  Those ships aren’t prisons, they’re killing factories for American officers and their men.”

   “You know this for certain?” Isak asked from the shadows.

   “As certain as one who was there.  Can I prove it?”  Upton shook his head.  None of us could, and if we did, there would be those who would say we dreamt it, or made it up.  The thousands who die on those ships will never know justice – not as they should.”

   “What was Cripps game?” Sergeant Boggs asked.

   “Sick as it is, to him it must have seemed legitimate.  Crawley and Skern were no better or smarter than the vermin they picked off their skin.  I can almost excuse them, but Cripps….  Bastard is too kind a term for him.  Devil is more like it.  He paid Crawley and Skern to starve the men, skimming off our food and drink.  Then with the money that was made from selling it at market price, Cripps paid to have American officers and other important men like Jeremiah Kent taken from the Provost and sent to Wallabout Bay where they would die.”

   “But why?”  Henry asked.  “Dear God, why?” 

   Lafayette could tell by the apothecary’s voice that he was horrified.  That was no surprise, they all were.

   “God had nothing to do with it, Henry,” Upton answered, his tone incredibly weary.  “It’s man.  Give a man a chance and he will choose to do wrong.  He’ll choose to see himself as God, with a perfect knowledge of what is right.  He’ll choose to take care of himself.”  He leaned his head into his hands.  “God knows I have seen enough of it these last six weeks.”

   Lafayette leaned forward and touched the man’s arm.  Upton bolted upright.  “Forgive me.  Captain Tabard, you should rest.”

   “I can’t rest.  I won’t rest again for a long time.  Every time I close my eyes I see them crying, dying….  Burning.”

   It was something the Frenchman had wanted to ask him, but had hesitated.  “How did you escape?  Jeremy thought you dead.”

   Upton looked up.  As he spoke, his amber eyes reflected the candle’s flame as well as the memory of the night the Terrence had burned.  “Jeremy wasn’t going to leave me.  I told him to, but there was Robert, you know, and….”  The soldier was silent a moment.  “Jeremy had started to dig at the wood that held my chains when Crawley ran past.  I sent him after the mate to stop him.  I saw the spark when the gun was lit.  I watched it explode.  I thought Jeremy was dead.”  Upton drew a breath.  “I pulled at my chains and, with the deck so rotten from the filth of the endless dead, they came free.  I found the keys later on Skern’s corpse on the beach.”  He touched his wrists that were chaffed and bruised.  “After the gun blew, I ran to where I had seen Jeremy last and looked over the rail, but there was nothing but black and brackish water…and so I turned back to the fight.  By that time the crew was mostly dead, but there were a few, and there were Redcoats shouting and running toward the ship.  I knew if I stayed, I’d be retaken.  I took long enough to look for my men.”  He swallowed hard.  “They were all dead.  Corbett was still moving, but he’d taken a fishing spear in the stomach.  As the first of the red-coated bastards from the Whitby stepped onto the deck, I slipped over the side and into the water.  I stayed there, under it for the most part, for a couple of hours.  And then, when I could, I slipped away into the darkness.”  Upton looked up.  “The Lobsterbacks’ attention was on the shore.  I saw them hauling men back.  I couldn’t be one of them.  I would have died before I went back.  After I got to the shore at the north end of the Bay, I found a horse.  I had to get away, but there were so many men….    His chin fell to his chest.  Tabard swallowed again.  “Well, I did in the end.”

     “We do what we have to do,” Lafayette said quietly.  “One of the other prisoners, they tried to stop you and take the horse, did they not?”

   Upton stared at him, his expression puzzled.  “How would you know that?”

   “If there has been a hell upon this earth, it was on that shore that night, my friend.  Men incapable of extreme violence were driven to it.”  The Frenchman paused before he made his confession.  “I had to shoot a prisoner in order to rescue Jeremy.  He would have killed me for the horses.”

   “Dear God, General…” Sergeant Boggs exclaimed.

   He nodded.  After a pause Lafayette asked Upton, “You know the major’s death will not put a stop to this horror?”

   Upton met his stare.  The man’s amber eyes were haunted, as they probably would be for the rest of his days.  “I know.  Cripps was just another digit in a long line of men who will say one day, ‘I only did my duty’.  That’s the worst part of it.  Cripps believed in what he was doing, and he had government sanction for it.  He was an Englishman who saw us Americans as criminals, as damn rebels and not as soldiers.  Everything he did to us, he thought was justified.  In Cripps’ eyes, he thought – no, he knew he was a good man.”
    “So every villain thinks,” Lafayette sighed.  “And so we all could become, if we do not keep a careful watch.”

   A moment later Daniel Boggs’ hand came down on his shoulder.

“You’re weary, sir.  Time for bed.”

   Lafayette covered it with his own.

   Oui, Daniel.  I am, and it is.”

 

   Jeremy Larkin blinked and turned toward the window that was set in the wall just above the bed he occupied.  The sun was rising.  Its pale pink fingers had already crept into the room.  They brushed the water in the bowl on the stand beside him before running across the floor to strike the bed the general laid upon and dance as highlights in his dark brown hair.  Lafayette was sleeping, curled to one side like a little boy.  One hand lay close by his chin and the other reached so far over his head that it was bent back upon itself by the board.  The Frenchman’s breathing was rough.  For a moment Jeremy wondered why, and then he remembered the fire in the barn.  Then, with a start, he also remembered the fire that had taken the Terrence and most, if not all, of the men he had suffered with.  The sick man drew a sharp breath and felt his chest shake with a sob.  Dear God!  All of them.  Corbett and Churmond, Arnold, and Doctor Leeds.

   And Upton.

   Suddenly all Jeremy could see was Upton Tabard, chained to the doomed ship’s deck because he had been unable to free him, burning alive.

   As the tears began to run down his cheeks, someone spoke from the shadows.  “Good to see you’re still among the living, Kent,” the man said softly, so as not to wake the sleeping Lafayette.  “I had my doubts.”

   Whoever it was stood on the side of the bed opposite the window.        Jeremy slowly lifted a hand to shield his weakened eyes from the streaming sunlight.  “Who is it?  Who’s there?” he asked.  Then as the figure shifted and rose with effort from the chair he occupied, Jeremy’s breath caught again. 

   No.  It couldn’t be. 

   “Upton?”
   “That’s Captain Tabard to you,” Upton answered, his voice breaking.

   For a moment neither of them said anything.  Both were overcome with emotions which, while on the Terrence had been perfectly acceptable, here – in reality – seemed almost embarrassing.

   “How are you feeling?” Upton asked, breaking the silence with a safe topic.

   “Better.  I think Doctor Leeds….  I think Geoff’s treatment saved me.”

   “He was a good man.”

   “Yes.”

   Another silence followed.

   “And you?” Jeremy asked at last.  “How are you?”

   Upton licked his chapped and swollen lips.  Changed.  Never the same.”

   Jeremy nodded.  He understood that all too well.     “What will you do now?” he asked.

   “Return to my unit.  What’s left of it, that is.”  Upton shifted uncomfortably.  “General Lafayette gave me leave to go home first, to see my wife and sons.”

   “To West Chester?”

   “Aye.”  A slight smile lifted the corner of the captain’s lip.  “I hear there’s some good men near there, fighting the good fight.  One of them by the name of Captain Yankee Doodle.”

   Jeremy’s eyes flicked to the general.  Upton didn’t miss it.

   “Lafayette told me.  He figured I deserved to know the whole truth.  You know, if you could honor Robert in any way, that’s the way to do it.  Though I understand, your father doesn’t know.”

   “It’s how it has to be.”
   Upton nodded again.  “Right.  Maybe I’ll get to meet your father someday.  I’d like to see what kind of a man produces such sons.”  He paused and then added, “Well, I should be going.  You need your rest.  General’s orders.” 

   The man who had saved him stood there, lingering by the bed.  Upton was dressed in borrowed clothes.  He hadn’t shaved yet, but the transformation was amazing.  If not for the beating he had taken at Thomas Crawley’s hands, Upton would have looked like a man who had just returned from an adventurous hunting trip.  The scars on the outside of them both would fade and disappear entirely in time.

   But the ones on the inside….

   “Upton,” Jeremy said, his voice barely above a whisper.  “How can I….”

   “You don’t have to, Jeremy.  It’s….”

   At that moment something broke in both of them – fear of what outsiders would think, fear of what the other would think, just fear – and in a heartbeat Upton had crossed over to the bed and leaned down and caught him in a crushing hold.  Jeremy returned it as tears spilled down his cheeks.  He had lost one brother.

   He had found another.