Z is for Zanker - Chapter Eight
“Jeremy? Can you hear me? Jeremy?”
A soft, familiar voice bled into the nightmare world he was trapped in. Cool hands gripped his arms and struggled to hold him down. He had thought they belonged to a silver demon, sent from Hell to tease and torment him. He was being held under the water – icy water – and was drowning. Next to him, beneath the rippled surface was his brother Robert’s cold form. And on the other side, in the grass, dead as well.
“No!” he heard someone scream. “No!”
“Jeremy, hush! You must be still. Jeremy!”
One of the cool hands was placed over his mouth, and for a moment he panicked, thinking he would not be able to breathe, but then, he knew why the voice was familiar.
“Elizabeth?” he whispered, disbelieving.
“Yes.” There was a sigh of relief. “Yes, it is me. Dear God, Jeremy, I thought I had lost you.”
He felt her warm body fall on his and heard her begin to sob. Though it took an effort akin to the one that brought Washington across the Delaware, he lifted his hand and placed it on her hair. “Shh. I’m here. And I’m not going anywhere….”
She lay across him for a moment longer and then seemed to pull herself together. “Do you know what has happened?” she asked.
He thought a moment. He had been tied to a tree. No. He had been leaning on it. Someone else was tied there.
“Yes. He is still Major Zanker’s prisoner. I have brought you a little ways away from their camp.” Her voice sounded incredibly weary. “I couldn’t leave you. You were raving….”
“Then the general is alone.” The words were a pronouncement of doom.
“I think I freed his hands. I tried, at least.” He heard her shift and a moment later she held a pistol before his eyes. “I tried to leave this with him, but he wouldn’t allow it. He said I would need it, since you….”
“Could not defend you.” Jeremy hesitated and then started to sit up.
“Jeremy! No!” she said, holding him down.
He took her hand in his. “Elizabeth, I cannot lie here and let him die. We have a weapon. I can stay on my feet long enough to use it.”
She backed away and let him rise, and then continued to sit, watching as nausea, hunger and blinding, pounding pain all but overwhelmed him. “Are you certain?” she asked softly as he leaned against the stone outcropping behind them.
He met her skeptical look with a forced grin. “Well, Dr. Johnson said, ‘It is no wise man that will quit a certainty for an uncertainty, but….”
“But then, whoever said Captain Yankee Doodle is a ‘wise’ man,” she said, rising to her feet.
Elizabeth wrapped one arm around his waist. She frowned at the fever he knew she felt raging through him. “Jeremy….”
“It may kill me,” he admitted as he took the pistol from her. “But I have to try.”
She was silent a moment. “I know. That’s why I love you so much.”
This time the smile was not forced. “I love you too, Elizabeth.”
He placed pistol behind his belt and then, leaning into her strength, let her lead him from the cave into the dawning day and back to the madman’s camp.
Lafayette knelt knee-deep in ice-cold water and parted the cat-tails before him, scanning the hills and the trees that shivered with the soft susurrations of the approaching morn. Major Zanker had stood, the pistol pointed between his eyes for at least five minutes, and then had walked away without a word. He and Merz had retreated to the cave to speak out of his hearing. The thin line Zanker walked was stretched to the point of breaking. The major wanted him dead – for the insult to his father, to himself – but whatever demons drove him knew that with Lafayette’s death, Zanker’s life would end too. The signs were there: the palsy, the pains in the stomach, the periodic almost catatonic state.
All that was left was paralysis, and death.
Lafayette had watched the madman walk into the cave and, once he was certain he would not return, had set about finishing the job Elizabeth had begun. Within a few minutes his hands were free. Sweating, almost panicking, he had worked feverishly to free his arms and then his feet. Mother Mary and his sweet God had been with him, for while Zanker was still occupied, he had loosed the last of the ropes and escaped into the trees!
Now he knelt, freezing, his teeth chattering, hiding, trying to decide what to do. Somewhere in the vast wooded reaches beyond Chester, Elizabeth and Jeremy lay hiding. Somewhere his devoted aide, Sergeant Daniel Boggs, was desperately seeking him. Somewhere, Henry and Isak followed in Boggs’ wake.
He closed his eyes and tried to think as they would. Elizabeth had a woman’s strength, and so had not dragged Jeremy’s long frame far. The two of them had to be close by. Boggs would know that he would follow the river and head for Chester, hoping to enlist the Yankee Doodle Society’s aid in his release. So, it only made sense that Daniel, Henry, and Isak would be close as well. If he just stayed put and waited, it was certain one of them would come this way. He could make contact and then, together, they could overtake Zanker and Merz.
The sound of someone moving quickly through the trees almost made him jump up and shout. But he realized deprivation of sleep and food were the authors of that rash and dangerous thought. Lafayette crouched down and waited in expectation of a familiar face, and was granted his request –
It was Zanker.
“I know you are here, Marquis,” Zanker shouted. “And I thank you for defining the final ‘act’ of our play. It would have been a cowardly thing to shoot you while bound. And Zankers are not cowards. No. Not cowards!” Major Zanker’s voice shook. Lafayette could sense the rising madness that fueled its manic strength. The demons that drove Joachim were coming to claim him.
It was only a matter of time.
“I will give you ten minutes…no, fifteen to run. Since you are injured, it will be more sporting that way.
“Then, I will hunt you down like the dog you are and you will die.”
Sergeant Daniel Boggs crouched in the wild grasses and parted the leaves of the bushes before him. He nodded toward the clearing framed by the opening. “There it is. The largest cave in the area.”
“And you think they brought the general here?” Henry asked. “And Jeremy?”
A pale light had just begun to streak the sky when they had arrived at the small cave farther down the river where signs told them two men had rested. Daniel had recognized his general’s boot-prints, and they had found the remnants of a meager breakfast and a small stone formed by nature to hold water.
Outside they had found the signs of a struggle, and of two men being dragged away.
They had followed the trail and it had led them here.
“I don’t see anyone,” Isak remarked. “Though, look! There are ropes at the base of that tree.”
Henry and Boggs looked. The sergeant nodded. “Someone has been bound there. And released.”
“Or escaped,” Isak added quietly.
“Let’s go in for a closer look,” Henry suggested.
Boggs caught him by the arm. “Wait. Someone is there.”
The three froze and watched. A small man, wiry and slightly bent, with close-cropped hair and an ugly face, emerged from the cave. He was dressed as a frontiersman and seemed to carry no gun, though a coil of rope hung from his hip, close by a long, deadly knife. Boggs drew his gun and nodded, and the three of them moved in a little closer.
The man was carrying several sacks. From the look of them, they were very heavy. He paused beside the tree and seemed to be contemplating his next move.
“Zanker’s accomplice?” Isak whispered.
Boggs nodded. “And the missing gold and silver from Connecticut.”
“What is he doing?” Henry asked. “And where is Zanker? Do we dare chance that he is – ”
It was Isak. Henry looked at Isak first. His friend appeared stunned. Then he turned back to the open area and saw the man with the sacks was no longer alone. Jeremy was there, leaning on Elizabeth’s arm.
Looking about two steps short of the grave.
“Remain where you are!” Jeremy warned. The gun in his hand was shaking. “Or I will shoot!”
The lips of Zanker’s accomplice parted and a sneer appeared on his scarred face. “Go ahead,” he replied, “I vill not die.”
“At this range, I cannot miss you, Merz,” Jeremy countered.
“You still do not understand, young vun.” Merz let the bags fall to the ground so his hands were free. “D’ey vill not let you kill me.”
“They?” Elizabeth asked.
“You haf seen them, in de night, in your terrors, in men’s eyes. In my eyes.” His words were soft, mesmerizing. Merz raised his left hand and held it out before him, the gloved fingers curled. “D’ey speak to me, tell me vhat to do – and vhat to haf other men do.”
Boggs signaled that they should move, but Henry shook his head. The two men were so close, there was no knowing who a ball would hit if they had to fire, and no promise that Merz would not wrest the gun from Jeremy and kill one of them before the could shoot.
“I have heard you,” Jeremy said, “arguing with your demon self. It may drive you, but you do not want to do what it tells you. Do you, Jaeger?”
For the first time Merz seemed to falter. “I lif to kill –”
“No,” Jeremy replied, growing weary. His hand that held the gun dipped and then was straightened. “The demons let you live so you may kill. Aren’t you tired of it? Does all the blood not sicken you?”
Merz was staring at his hand as if it did not belong to him. His scarred lips were moving, but they made no sound. Isak indicated they should attack. Henry was uncertain. Still, it was evident Jeremy was weakening. They would have to do something sooner than later.
And then Merz made the decision for them.
Faster than thought the killer’s hand lashed out and struck Jeremy across the face, sending him reeling to the ground. Jeremy’s gun discharged, but struck nothing but the tree, though it sent bark like missiles flying through the air. Merz grabbed Elizabeth and tossed her aside and then fell, one knee on either side of Jeremy’s prone form.
And drew his knife.
“Now!” Henry shouted.
Even as he did, and Merz turned his head at the sound of his voice, Sergeant Boggs rose up, took aim, and fired. The ball took Merz in the shoulder and spun him around, throwing him back against the tree. He struck his head and shuddered once, and then fell stunned beside it.
Henry and Isak were out of the trees in a second and ran to their friend’s side. Isak knelt beside Jeremy while Henry sought out Elizabeth. As he helped her to her feet, he saw Sergeant Boggs taking charge of Merz, shifting the killer so he leaned against the tree. Then he set to binding him with the ropes left there.
As Elizabeth assured him she was all right, they all turned to Jeremy. He had fallen unconscious.
Henry knelt beside his friend. He shifted his cloak, revealing a leather pouch beneath. “I have brought medicines. I thought we would find one – or both – wounded.” He placed his hand on Jeremy’s head and frowned. Looking at Isak, he said, ““We must get this fever down.”
Boggs was examining the remainder of the bloody ropes. He held them in his hands as he looked around. “Where’s the general?” he asked, his voice weighted with concern.
Elizabeth was sitting on the ground, holding her love in her arms. “He was here when we left. I freed his hands as best I could. He must have escaped.”
Daniel Boggs stared at her. Instead of looking relieved, his worry deepened. He knelt and took Merz’s collar in his hand and shook the man awake. “Where is Zanker?” he demanded. “Tell me! What has he done with the general?”
Merz smiled slyly and licked his bloody lips. Then he laughed. “Nothing.
Continued in Chapter Nine