THE ELEVEN THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED

Chapter Two

Five days later

    

 

     “Let’s see?  Kent.  Jeremiah Kent.  Ah, yes, here it is.”  The elderly innkeeper turned the last page in his ledger and then looked up.  “Time for a new book, it seems,” he said with a smile.

     The British officer standing ramrod straight before him was not amused.  “Is the man here?” he demanded.

     “Went out for supper as near as I can recall,” the older man said, wagging his bristled eyebrows as if to suggest that ‘supper’ might have another meaning.

     “How long has he been in residence here?”

     The innkeeper ticked it off on his fingers.  “Two…no, three days.  Came in late in the evening on the…let me see….”  He checked his book again.  “On the 17th.”

     “That would be correct,” the officer barked.

     The older man shoved his glasses back on his nose and frowned.  “If you already know, then why are you asking me?”

     The officer leaned in, towering over the pudgy keep.  With his voice lowered, he said, “Jeremiah Kent is a wanted man.  He is a known supporter of the damn rebels in these colonies who have taken it upon themselves to deny their rightful lord and King and take up arms against him.  Tens of thousands of dollars have passed through Kent’s hands and been used to aid these vagabond ruffians in their cause.”  The last word he spit out like a wad of used tobacco.  “For your information, innkeeper, the man you have harbored in your establishment is one of the most wanted criminals on the island of Manhattan!”

     “W…w…wanted?” he gulped.

     “By God, England and St. George!” the soldier proclaimed as he brought his fist down upon the wooden counter.  “Now where is he?”

     “I don’t rightly know for certain,” the innkeeper replied.  “But I got the feeling Master Kent was going down to the docks.  Might have been to eat.  Or maybe for something else.”

     “Perhaps to pay one of those doxies the rebels use to gather information.  Or just to buy one,” the officer sneered.  “What is your name, innkeeper?”

     “George Wall.  Er…Sir.”

     “Mine is Major Christopher Litchfield Cripps.  You would do well to remember it.  I am here to take this man into custody – as well as any who give him succor.”  He leaned in closer.  “Now, you wouldn’t be one of them, would you?”

    “No…no, sir!  I am loyal to my King.”

    Major Cripps reached into his coat and produced a small hand-written card.  “This is the address where I am staying.  If Jeremiah Kent returns, you will contact me there.  He is as slippery as an eel and I will not be denied his capture.”  Cripps caught the older man’s collar in his fingers and pulled him forward until they were practically nose-to-nose.  “Is that understood, civilian?

     The older man started to salute and then realized it would be an insult.  His hand remained suspended halfway between his chin and forehead as he replied, “Understood.  Sir.”

 

     Outside the door to the inn, which was located in the fashionable end of the city known as the Battery, Major Christopher Litchfield Cripps paused.  He glanced back through the window of the inn in time to see the elderly keep run for the back door, outside of which he knew the necessary lay.  Cripps threw his head back and had a hearty laugh.  He straightened his scarlet coat and made certain his black tricorn hat was set at the right angle.  Then he stepped out into the busy street.  The southern shoreline of Manhattan Island had long been known for its wide promenade that attracted only the best and brightest of this jewel of King George’s colonies.  Since the rascal Washington had been driven out and shown for the coward he was, it had resumed that role, standing now as a beacon of Loyalist light to the rest of the world.  How the ragtag dirt farmers and common laborers of New England had been able to gain an upper hand in the colonies’ government and worked their mischief he would never understand.  The Englishmen of New York and those of the southern colonies should have been able to prevent this insurrection.

     If it hadn’t been for men like Jeremiah Kent, they could have.

     Kent himself had been born on American soil, but his family had come from a small fishing village near New Forest and the Isle of Wight.  They had capitalized on trade between the new and old world, growing obscenely rich as so many others had done.  But they had not been true gentlemen.  Their lack of understanding concerning this conflict proved that well enough.  Kent’s father had argued against the war and it seemed his son was of the same ilk.  Jeremiah had been educated in England but was known as a radical, and like so many radicals he had taken what Mother England had taught him and brought it back to the colonies and used it to bite the breast that had suckled him.

     There was no worse creature than a commoner who thought himself a king.

     Major Cripps halted and drew out his pocket-watch.  He nodded with satisfaction as the cover snapped open precisely as it should to reveal the jeweled face and gilded hands.  It had been a gift from his father when he had set sail for the Colonies.  ‘So you will never miss a hanging,’ the old man had told him with a grin.

     He had missed one or two, but only because he had been in charge of the firing squad.

     Cripps turned the watch into the light cast by one of the city’s myriad streetlamps.  Candlelighting had passed and it was time for all of the city’s unseemly and disorderly inhabitants to make their appearance.  If Kent had gone to the docks, it would not be hard to search for him unnoticed among the crowds of trollops and panderers, cutthroats and knaves.  Though he might have some trouble spotting the man – how could he tell one damned rebel from the other villains!

     The major snapped the cover back in place and returned his watch to his pocket.  Then he searched and found the paper he had been given at headquarters.  On it was a description of Kent given by one of the men he had worked with.  Under torture, of course, so it was if not incoherent, then decidedly sketchy.

     Tall.  Blond.  About twenty years of age.  Speaks with an educated tongue, though with no hint of his paternal land.  The informer said Kent was very self-assured and thought himself indestructible and untouchable.  After all, he had enough money to buy half the city.

     Cripps snapped the paper in two and shoved it back into his coat. 

     Half the city, perhaps, but not enough to buy Major Christopher Litchfield Cripps.

     He was going to enjoy watching this one beg.

 

     The man Jeremy had gone to meet was to be his contact throughout this mission.  The germ of the idea had occurred shortly after the turn of the year when reports had begun to pour into Washington’s headquarters of the abysmal conditions under which American captives were being forced to live in places like the Sugar House and the Provost in New York.  The information that leaked out was scanty at best.  They needed confirmation of the truth of it in order to convince Congress to do something and to lend weight to Washington’s negotiations with the British concerning cartels and other prisoner exchanges.  It seemed that, for the most part, the British were not honoring the conventions of war.  They did not consider American fighters to be legitimate enemies, but called them instead damn rebels, suggesting that they were criminals at best and therefore not worthy of fair treatment.  Instead these captured patriots were to be cast into Hellholes and left to rot.  There were rumors that up to 10 men a day were dying in some of New York’s prisons. 

     Someone had to find out if it was true.

     On top of this was the very real need for present-time information concerning the British Army and its plans for the upcoming campaign.  They had many spies and informants in the vast metropolis, but getting them out was problematic.  Of all the colonies in these united states, New York had remained the most fiercely loyal to the King, and those who were not loyal to His Majesty were, for the most part, not neutral but indifferent.  The raids that had taken place and been overlooked and condoned, were proof enough of that.  

     One evening, shortly after the turn of the year, he and General Lafayette had been sitting and speaking of just these things.  Lafayette had recently learned he was to accompany General Philip Schuyler to John’s Town, New York in March, there to treat and meet with the area’s native inhabitants in hopes of securing their neutrality.  As it was, the natives were allied with the British.  As they spoke, the topic of the captive Americans being held in the city came up.  For some reason, one he could not explain to this day – even to himself – Jeremy was touched by their plight and felt compelled to do something about it.  The tales of starvation and humiliation seemed almost beyond belief.  And that was the problem.  There was no real proof other than the stories of the few inmates who had escaped and returned home.

     Something had to be done.

     Two weeks later he had gone to General Lafayette with a plan.  He had not involved the Society as he felt it was too dangerous – and, in a way, unnecessary.  This was a personal cause of his own and he had no right to drag Henry or Isak into it.  The General had turned him down flatly at first.  Lafayette told him he was too important to the Cause to risk.  Then, once the fighting was finished for 1777, the reports of abuse began to pour in.  American prisoners, it seemed, were being systematically executed by neglect. 

      What had finally convinced the general was one young soldier who had come to his camp.  The private remained nameless to this day.  He had managed to escape and through sheer strength of will, lived to walk the endless miles between New York City and his native city of Marcus Hook.  Just outside the camp he was found facedown in the dirt by one of the general’s men.  Though the camp surgeon did his best, it was clear the man would never make it home.  Lafayette had sat and talked with him until the soldier’s eyes closed and Providence claimed his soul.  Jeremy had seen the Frenchman the next day.  His color had been bad.  His eyes haunted.  Lafayette had been unable to say much, but did manage to relate one tale the private had told him – of men in the Sugar House so hungry they had died with bits of wood from the prison fence clamped between their teeth,

     It was that day their cause had become one.

     Precautions had been taken, of course, so he would not end up like the nameless private.  They had many operatives in New York and these men were to arrange for him to go to the Provost and then, due to his money and position as Jeremiah Kent, he was to be released on parole. It was expected, naturally, that a gentlemen would not – on his honor – take advantage of such a privilege.  Jeremy grinned as he glanced at the clock set in a high tower nearby and then looked out over the rough crowd, searching for a sight of his contact.  In this case he was not going to be a gentleman.  Once he had the information he needed, he was going to run as if the Old Nick himself was on his tale.

     The dockyards of New York City were immense and staggering in their noise and complexity.  Ship’s masts cleaved the sky like so many knives set on end.  Sailors swung from the riggings as dockworkers and seamen boarded and disembarked from the great ships like ants.  Passengers waiting to depart walked the piers and, as would be expected, spent a great deal of time avoiding the hawkers, pressers and prostitutes as well as the panderers of a thousand wares.  This chaos and congestion was why he was here.  His contact had deemed it the safest place for them to meet.  His stay at Wall’s Inn was to be brief.  His contact, Marcus Priestley, an expatriate British solider who had chosen to side with the Americans, had arranged for him to be betrayed in the city’s most fashionable quarter as it was reported that captives taken there most often went to the Provost. 

     Jeremy stamped his feet and planted his hands beneath his arms.  The crush of humanity was warming but the night was, as the scurrying sailors might say ‘a cold fit to freeze the tail of a brass monkey’.  Many of the tall ships harbored there were locked in place for the time being, waiting for a thaw.  Since he had arrived, the rumor had been confirmed.  There had been deaths in the area due to lack of firewood.  The price of kindling challenged the pocketbook of a king.

     All of which took his thoughts back to the American prisoners.  If the average man could not live in this cold, how did they fare?  The King’s men declared loudly that it was a lie; that all prisoners of war received a two-thirds share of a soldier’s daily ration, and that they had adequate exercise and ample opportunity to obtain anything else they needed through barter or by purchasing it with the money supplied to them by relatives and friends.  The nameless soldier’s pitiable condition and death begged the question of whether or not this was the truth.

     “Master Kent, is it you?” a breathless voice asked as a hand came down on his shoulder unexpectedly.

     Jeremy turned.  Lafayette had described the man to him; fair-haired, near forty, with a distinctive scar that split his left eyebrow in two.  The man standing close by him fit the description and had a British accent as well.

     “The jaws of power are always open to devour,” Jeremy began, quoting John Adams as the established password.

     “And her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking and writing,” Priestley finished.  “I am glad to find you, Jeremy.  We must away!”

     The sense of urgency in the other man’s tone communicated itself instantly.  “What is wrong?”

     “When we chose Kent as your cover, we did not realize that there was a British officer whose sole intent is to retake him.”

     “Why?”

     “Kent escaped on his watch and Major Cripps is not one to take such an insult lightly.”  Priestley paused dramatically.  “He was with No Flint Grey at Paoli.”

     Jeremy blanched.  Nothing more need be said.  “Is he here?”

     The other man nodded.  “In the city.  One of our informers followed him to the Brazen Beauty.”

     As inconsistent as it seemed, that was the name of the elderly George Wall’s inn; the inn where he was staying.  Jeremy’s concern ratcheted up several notches.  “Have I been found out then?”

     “We don’t know.  But you are to come with me now.”

     “My papers are at the inn.”

     “Did you leave anything incriminating among them?”

     He shook his head.  He had destroyed anything related to the mission before leaving his house.  “Just my identification and the information provided to use in bargaining for my freedom.”      

      Marcus Priestley caught his forearm and squeezed it through his thick coat.  “Let us hope now that you have no need of those.  It is too dangerous to continue.”  As Jeremy’s heart sank with defeat, the other man’s fingers clutched him even more tightly.  “Good God!  It’s him.  Cripps.”

     Jeremy followed the other man’s startled gaze.  Coming toward them was a tall distinguished-looking man with a long English face topped by an unruly mop of grizzled silver-black hair.  He appeared to be somewhere between forty and fifty and might have been accounted handsome by the ladies, though to Jeremy the pitch of his mouth and his pale narrowed eyes revealed a streak toward pride and cruelty.  As the frigid wind caught the man’s heavy woolen cloak and flapped it back, there was an unmistakable flash of scarlet.

     “Jeremy, now!  We must fly!”  Marcus Priestley pulled on his sleeve and, after a second, Jeremy responded.  There were so many people milling about them, surely it would not be that difficult to disappear into their ranks and vanish like a shade into the safety of the tomb.  He turned and took a step, but pivoted back almost instantly at the startling sound of a pistol being fired.

     Gun-smoke drifted on the air, its acrid scent mingling with those of the dock.  Major Cripps had tossed off his cloak and stood revealed as a high-ranking British officer.  The pistol was in his hand and pointed into the air.  “In the name of His Majesty King George I command you to remain where you are.  My orders are to take you alive, Jeremiah Kent, but nothing would please me more than to have you force me to disobey them.”  As Cripps spoke Jeremy noted several more soldiers in the crowd, evenly placed around Priestley and him.  They shoved back their cloaks to reveal highly polished and undoubtedly loaded weapons.  “As you can see, you are surrounded.”

     The crowd around them had, at first, fallen nearly silent.  Now it was abuzz with excitement and whispered words.  Who were they, the panderers and patrons wondered?  What had they done to merit the attention of such a paragon of British virtue as Major Cripps?  And what was about to happen?

     The British officer nodded once and they were quickly apprehended and subdued, their hands tied and held by the men who traveled with him.  Major Cripps walked coolly up to them.  He stared at Marcus Priestley first and then turned a professionally dispassionate gaze on him.  “Jeremiah Kent, we meet at last.  The fox may think he has escaped the hounds, but in the end, the chase only brings more pleasure to the kill.”  Major Cripps turned and addressed the crowd.  “These men are enemies of your king.  They have aided and abetted the rebels who have seized your property, burned your buildings and killed your kin.  They are now the property of His Majesty, King George the third of England and Great Britain, and as such they are not to be killed except by express order of that same king.  However….”  The British officer let the word linger in the air for a moment, savoring the frenzied expectation it created.  “However, I care not one whit what condition they arrive in.  If those of you loyal to the king would like to let them know what you think of their profane rebellion, you are most welcome to do so.”  He produced his pocket-watch and opened it with a snap. 

“You have five minutes.”

      

     Major Christopher Litchfield Cripps sat at his desk in the Provost in lower Manhattan; a large and elegant gray stone building first constructed as a debtor’s prison and workhouse.  It’s official name was the Bridewell, but those who had the misfortune to end up incarcerated in one of its many cells had renamed it after the Provost Marshall of the city – William Cunningham.  Cunningham was a shrewd administrator and more than efficient in carrying out his duties.  If those who warranted his attention cared to call it ‘torture’, well, so be it. 

     Cripps had sent a communication to his superiors informing them of the arrest of Kent and his cohort.  The man, Marcus Priestley, would be hanged at sunrise three days hence as a deserter.  He had once been a soldier of His Majesty King George and as such deserved to be put down like the dog he was.

      Kent was another matter entirely.  Though it galled Cripps, it was likely a bargain would be made and the man exchanged in time.  Some well-connected Loyalist somewhere no doubt needed to be rescued from the hands of Washington’s rebels.  There had not been a great many Tories taken, but one was more than enough.  Still, it would take nearly a week for the communiqué he had sent to reach General Howe in Philadelphia, and most likely another week before he would receive a reply.  A great deal could happen in fourteen days.  It had happened before.  A man’s identity could be lost. 

The record of where he had been sent, disappear….

     On their way back to the Provost one of his lieutenants had asked him why he hated the American civilian so.  Did he have a personal grudge against Kent?  Cripps rose from his chair and walked to the window to look out on the snow-covered grounds of the prison.  Yes, it had infuriated and embarrassed him when Kent had escaped prison and slipped out of New York directly under his nose, and been made worse when he found out the man had slipped back in again the same way.  His record up until that time had been spotless.  But there was something more to it than that.  Kent represented the worst of the lot.  He was not a fighting man with a gun in his hand, willing to die for what he believed; bold enough to face down his enemy.  He was a snake in the grass, slithering about in the shadows, playing the kingpin and systematically manipulating people’s lives. 

Oh, Kent might make a profession that he loved the rebels’ damned cause, but it would be a lie.  Men like Jeremiah Kent thought of themselves as privileged.  Kent did what he did because he knew he could buy his way out of any situation he found himself in. 

Cripps turned sharply and tossed the tails of his scarlet coat behind him.  That might have been the case, but such rank and privilege ended here and now.  His sharp gaze shifted toward the door and the holding cell beyond.

     In fact, the end had begun some three hours before with the mob on the pier.

     As Cripps stood there, thinking, the door opened and his aide walked in smartly.  With a salute, the younger man held out a piece of parchment.  “The document you required, sir!”

     Major Cripps nodded and took the paper.  His cool grey eyes quickly scanned the writing it contained, and then he nodded.  “I see all is in order, lieutenant.  Have preparations been made?”

     “Yes, sir.  The coach will arrive within the hour.”

     “Very well.”  Cripps returned to his desk and spread the document upon it.  As he picked up his pen and dipped it in the ink, he asked the lieutenant, “Is the prisoner awake?”

     “I believe he is conscious, sir.”

     The Major glanced up at him.  Did he sense a note of disapproval?  “You ‘believe?’”

     “He is moaning.  Sir.”

     Cripps signed the paper with a flourish and then methodically dusted it and blotted away the excess ink.  He folded it and sealed it, and then gestured the soldier over and placed it in his hands.  “You understand what you are to do?”

     The man nodded. 

     “You are free to go then.”  Cripps returned to his desk to retrieve his hat.  When he turned back around, he was surprised to find his aide still standing there.  “Is there something else, lieutenant?”

     “I understand what I am to do, sir,” the soldier replied, all business.  “What I do not understand is why.”

     Major Christopher Litchfield Cripps placed his tricorn hat on his head and adjusted it to precisely the right angle.  He straightened his coat and then walked to the young man’s side.  Once there he spoke quietly, his tone laced with menace.  “When the dogs are sent to finish the fox, do they question their master as to his reason?”

     His aide stiffened.  “No, sir.  But as I understood it, Jeremiah Kent was to be treated differently from the other prisoners due to his – ”

     Cripps held up his hand.  A sneer twisted the end of his lips.  “Lieutenant, that is precisely what I am doing.”

    

      Jeremy groaned and opened his eyes on a world gone crimson.  Outside the barred window in the filthy cell he occupied the sun was dawning.  Its red rays reached out to him, crawling across the rank straw floor that was bathed now in his blood.  Through the square opening of the cell door in the opposite corner, he could see the scarlet coat of his enemy and knew it was only a matter of time before the ramrod straight figure of Major Cripps appeared to torment him. 

     If anything else could go wrong, he didn’t know what it was.

     When Cripps had loosed the mob on them, both he and Priestley had fallen fast.  Resentment and anger had overflowed, turning once reasonable people into raging brutes.  He had seen it happen before.  As a young man of fourteen, he had witnessed a public humiliation where a man accused of adultery had been tarred and feathered.  The expressions on the faces of his neighbors as they poured the boiling pitch over the hapless man and then pelted him with chicken feathers haunted him to this day.  His father had raised him to believe that most people were good unless they chose to be bad.  That day had taught him there was an underlying streak of cruelty in every man and it would surface unless, like a raging beast, he held it in check.

     The people on the docks had struck him until he fell, and then they had continued to kick him into unconsciousness.  He imagined it was the same with Marcus Priestley.  Within seconds he had lost track of the other man.  Fighting for one’s life took precedence, it seemed, over looking out for your fellow man.  Jeremy’s lip was split, as was the skin above one eye.  A kick had taken him in the ribs under his left breast and another close below.  The attack had left him sweat-soaked and dizzy.  His entire body ached but especially his left side, which was swollen and tender to the touch.   His clothing stunk of vomit and, he hated to admit it, fear.  He was far from home.  No one except the general knew where he was.  He was hurt and he had no idea what was yet to come.

     At that moment a key entered the lock and the door to his cell opened to admit Major Cripps.

     “Master Kent, I take it you are satisfied with your accommodations?” the British officer asked as he strode to his side.  When Jeremy made no reply, Cripps’ perfectly polished boot took him in the ribs. 

     Jeremy screamed with pain.

     The major took a step back.  “Would that be a ‘yes’?”

     “What…do you…want…from me?” Jeremy gasped as a shiver shook him from head to toe.

     “Recompense,” the British major snarled. 

     “Recompense?  For…what?  You don’t…even…know me.”

     Cripps struck like a snake, kneeling and catching him by the collar and hauling his broken form halfway off the floor.  “I know you.  I know you well.   You are the reason King George cannot sleep at night.  You are the reason Englishmen who should be brothers are at each other’s throats.  You are the reason why tens of thousands of England’s sons are in the hateful country risking their lives.  And for what?  So other predators like you can grow rich on the spoils.  You Americans have not fooled me with all your talk of liberty.  What this is about is the liberty to make your fortune without giving King George his rightful percentage!”  Major Cripps glared at him and then drove him forcefully down into the stinking straw.  “I am here to remedy that.  For you, Master Jeremiah Kent, it ends.  Today.”

     Jeremy was barely conscious.  The Englishman’s lean form was winking in and out of existence as he watched.       “What…are you…going to do…with me?” he asked.  “Kill me?”

     Cripps smile was that of a hawk triumphing over his prey.

     “You could only wish.”