Z is for Zanker - Chapter Five
The night was chill but he dare not light a fire. After escaping from the press gang Lafayette had traveled as long as the dying light and his injured leg would allow, and then had taken shelter in a low cave near the river that allowed him to sit up but not to stand. He had gathered a few nuts and berries as he traveled but was weak from lack of food. If he could have lit a fire, he might have tried to spear some fish in the half-frozen river. But a fire was too dangerous in the dark night.
It would be a beacon for enemies – both four-legged and those who walked on two.
After settling in he had gingerly removed his boot and examined his ankle. It was a bad sprain. There was a goose-egg size swelling on the top of his leg and, since he had been unable to rest it after the injury, deep black bruises ranging from his toes to his knee. He was not certain he would be able to put his weight on it in the morning.
What he was fairly certain of, was that he was headed back toward Chester. He had no compass but had used the sun and then the moon to plot his course. The river was a familiar sight. It ran near the town and would eventually lead him to the familiar buildings and avenues. Once there he would contact Jeremy and the others, and together they could free Sergeant Boggs. With that accomplished, he would return to the ‘Born on Newgate’ tavern to expose and end the criminal activity there. Lafayette grinned as he leaned his head against the cavern wall. He had been lamenting a lack of action in Albany.
“Be careful what you wish for, Gilbert,” he said softly to himself, “you just might get it.”
A sudden noise outside the cave brought him to immediate attention. He had constructed a crude knife from a sharp piece of stone, a split stick, and the laces from his shirt. He gripped it now and shifted forward so he could look out. A frown marred his handsome face. Whoever it was, they must be either well-armed or a lunatic. They were making no attempt to conceal their presence. He heard twigs snap, heavy footsteps, a groan, and then a ‘thud’.
Then, there was silence.
Warily, Lafayette inched out of the cave, his hand clutching the knife – his deep brown eyes searching the surrounding foliage for any sign of danger. Then he rose to his feet and hugged the wall’s masking shadows and listened again. His heart pounded in his chest and blood roared in his ears, but those were the only sounds to disturb the quiet night other than his rapid breathing. Abandoning his place of concealment, Lafayette began to search the cave’s perimeter, fanning out in an ever-widening circle, checking under every bush, behind each tree, and in each tall clump of grass.
It was in one of these he found him, battered and broken, nearly dead.
“Mon Dieu!” Lafayette breathed as he gently rolled the bruised and bloody form of a young man with matted blond hair over, “Jeremy!
She smelled like flour and cinnamon. Like smoke and baking bread.
Jeremy sat at the table with his feet dangling down, still unable to reach the floor. The early morning sun was streaming in the window of their home, setting fire to his brother Robert’s golden hair. Robert sat across the table from him, a finger pressed to his lips. While Jeremy watched he quietly lifted the linen cloth that covered the basket and stole one of the hot-cross buns within that were intended for the new parson and his wife – and ate it.
Jeremy shouldn’t have, but he snickered. Robert scowled as their mother turned and, with both hands on her hips, asked suspiciously, “What are you two boys up to?”
“Nothing, mother,” Robert replied, looking studious and pretending to read his lesson book.
Jeremy fought to keep from smiling. He knew something Robert didn’t know. His brother had icing on his chin.
“Nothing, is it?” their mother asked. She had blond hair, like both of them, but with a hint of copper – like flax spun in the sun. And she had a way with her – stern but gentle. There was nothing Jeremy would not have done for her.
“Jeremy, have you anything to tell me?” she asked, turning on him. His mother’s eyes were blue as lake water under a summer sky.
He hung his head beneath their scrutiny.
He couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t lie – not to her. His small hand pointed across the table. “Robert did it! He stole one of the buns.”
“You little snitch!” his brother growled. “I’ll get you later….”
“Robert. Lying is a second sin,” their mother said. “And anger yet another. Apologize to your brother. Now!”
Their mother placed her hand on Robert’s shoulder and made him rise and come to the other side of the table. Jeremy stood as well. Robert’s hair was curly, not straight like his. One of the spiraling golden locks hung down the middle of his forehead. His older brother looked up, a deep blue eye to either side of it. “Sorry, little brother,” he grudgingly apologized.
“Now, go and say your prayers,” their mother told him as she turned away.
He shouldn’t have done it, but the minute her back was turned Jeremy stuck his fingers in his ears and his tongue out, reveling in his brother’s abject misery. Robert shouldn’t have done what he did either. He shoved him so hard Jeremy fell over the chair and struck his head on the floor.
And then he passed out.
“Jeremy?” His mother’s voice was gentle. It called to him from far away. “Jeremy, can you hear me?”
The touch of her hand was rougher than he remembered, and her words colored in a strange way. “Mama?” he whispered, his voice as cracked and dry as his lips. “Mama….”
“Jeremy, you must wake up, my friend,” a male voice said.
His eyes opened on darkness. His mother was gone. Robert was dead.
He was a man.
“Where am…I?” he asked.
“Drink this first,” the voice said. And then a hand lifted his head and poured cold, clean water into his mouth. Jeremy swallowed and coughed, almost choking.
“Slowly, my friend. Slowly.”
He sipped some more and then fell back to the cold floor exhausted. His eyes closed and then opened again, this time focusing on the jagged stone only a few feet above his head. “Where…is this place?”
“We are in a cave. A small one,” the male voice answered. “I am sorry I could find no finer accommodations. This meager inn offers no wine, no bread, not even a fire. But we will keep each other warm. We are friends, are we not?” The man laughed. “And in here, the closest of friends.” Then his tone darkened. “Jeremy, what happened to you?”
Jeremy. That must be his name. The woman had called him that as well. He closed his eyes again and listened to the tale his body told. There was not an inch of him that didn’t hurt. His neck burned like fire and his shoulder felt as if it was out of place. He remembered waking in the midst of frozen cat tails and ice-crusted water, stumbling over rocks, and falling on the uneven terrain. He climbed for a while and then fell again. There was blood in his mouth and one side of his face was swollen.
“Who did this to you?”
Jeremy looked up. The face of the man who held him was a brown blur. His voice was familiar, but maddeningly unknown. “Did someone do it?” he asked.
“Yes, my friend. Someone did this. These are not the marks of a stumble in the woods. But rest now. Do not force the memory. It will return in too short a time.”
Jeremy frowned, and then he nodded. And slept.
The next time he awoke, he was alone. Outside the small cave the day had dawned. Jeremy shifted and tried to sit up, but the attempt made his head spin and he was forced to lie back down. He listened for a few minutes to the sounds of the waking world and then tried it again. This time he managed to prop himself against the stone wall. Examining himself, he saw that the worst of his wounds had been crudely bandaged with strips torn from the tail of his shirt, and then he noticed, set in a curious kind of order on a series of leaves close by, a feast of nuts and berries. As he reached for one of them he groaned, feeling his injured ribs protest. As he munched on a handful of berries, a shadow eclipsed the cave opening and a familiar face appeared.
“Ah! My friend, you are awake?”
Jeremy almost choked. He sat there, stunned. “General?”
“Oui. It is I.” Lafayette crouched and entered the cave. Jeremy noticed that, as he did, he favored one leg. He also noticed that the general’s coat was missing and found it draped about his own shoulders. “I see you have found your breakfast,” Lafayette said.
“Sir, what are you doing here? We thought you in Albany.”
The young Frenchman looked a bit chagrinned. “I was. I should be. I….” He paused and then added with a dimpled grin, “I should be shot for insubordination.” As the word’s left his mouth, a shadow eclipsed his merry mood. Lafayette sobered and turned away.
He picked up one of the leaves and popped a berry in his mouth. “Please, call me Gilbert. In our circumstances, formality seems out of place.” As he chose another berry, a little of the Frenchman’s normal exuberance returned. “Unless you would like me to refer to you as ‘Captain Larkin’.”
Jeremy nodded, though he doubted he could do it. He swallowed what he had been chewing and then asked, “What are you doing here?”
“I might ask you the same thing.” Lafayette shifted and braced his back within the small cave’s opening. “Daniel and I were…waylaid on our return. Have you ever heard of the ‘Born on Newgate’ inn?”
“Yes,” he accepted some more water held in a bowl-shaped rock. “Robert said it is a vile place. I know my father sought to shut it down, but it is out of his jurisdiction.”
“Vile, yes. And dangerous.” Lafayette gazed out into the dawning morn. The breeze that wafted in promised a warmer day than most had been of late and it ruffled his deep brown hair. “A press gang operates out of it. Sergeant Boggs and I were taken. We ended in a wagon bound for the port and a British ship. I escaped. Daniel did not.” He turned and looked at him. “I was coming to Chester to seek you and the Yankee Doodle Society to accompany me back to free him. But, I see you have your own tale to tell.”
The first time Jeremy had awakened everything – including the memory of his mother – had seemed like a dream. Now the reality of their situation returned with the cold clarity of a splash of icy water.
“Zanker is back.”
The general usually took news that would make the bravest of men quake, with a simple nod of his head. Lafayette paled. “Major Joachim Zanker? How is that possible?”
Jeremy explained what had happened, about the two former hostages in Chester found dead, about his own kidnapping and beating, and his interview with Joachim Zanker and his homicidal accomplice. Last of all he told Lafayette that Zanker suspected he was Captain Yankee Doodle.
“I think he took me to draw you out. Otherwise, I would be dead like the others.”
Lafayette nodded. “I humiliated him. Destroyed his career. By my hand he was to be returned to Bedlam from which, only by a miracle and his cousin, King George’s intervention, he had managed to escape.”
“He means to kill you, sir.”
Lafayette lowered his head for a moment and then looked at him, a deep sadness in his eyes. “I do not doubt it, Jeremy. Though I doubt a simple – or quick – death is what Major Zanker has in mind. I imagine he has a crueler fate in store for me.”
“My death will not be enough, my friend. There must be some sort of humiliation. Or he will try to break me.” Lafayette caught his shoulder and squeezed it. “But that is my trouble, and it is not for the moment. We must get you home and have a physician see to you.”
“Sir. Gilbert. Zanker must know by now I am missing, and my trail, I am sure, is not hard to follow.” Jeremy struggled to rise. “We must go somewhere they will not suspect. Marcus Hook or perhaps Darby. They will be watching the road into Chester.”
“Where would Henry and Isak look for you?”
He thought about it. “At your camp. Perhaps in Marcus Hook. We set no designated place since we did not foresee the danger.”
“If we cut across country, we should be able to reach the camp by nightfall. We are not too far out of Chester by my calculations. Once there we can set my soldiers on Daniel’s trail and then return here, with reinforcements, to flush out Major Zanker. You wait here, Jeremy, while I seek more food for the journey.” Lafayette winced and stifled a cry as he shifted into a crouching position. “Rest and gather strength, my friend. The road home will be long and hard in your condition.”
“May I ask…?”
Lafayette paused. “Yes?”
“What happened to your leg? Are you injured?”
The Frenchman shook his head. “It is nothing. Now, rest until I return.”
He nodded as the general ducked and exited the cave. Then Jeremy leaned his head back and closed his eyes, hearkening once again to the sound of the waking morning, to the birds singing in the trees and the rustle of their myriad leaves stirred by an unseasonably warm breeze. Then he heard a strange sound. A drawn breath followed by something hitting the ground.
“Sir? Gilbert, is that you?” Jeremy called quietly, edging toward the cave mouth.
Jeremy held the general’s coat close about his shoulders as he ducked through the opening of the cave. He rose shakily to his feet and stood, and then walked a few feet in the direction from which the sound had come.
And found the general laying unconscious on the ground.
“Captain, so good to see you again,” Major Joachim Zanker greeted him as he and his maniacal companion emerged from the shadows. Lafayette’s make-shift knife was in his hand. Zanker moved forward until his long legs straddled Lafayette’s prone form and then he met Jeremy’s eyes.
“How kind of you to have provided the evening’s entertainment.”
Continued in Chapter Six