Z is for Zanker - Chapter Seven
Above his head the silver moon shone down.
Beneath his feet the grass was an argent field, the river a mirror reflecting a pewter sky. Behind him was the cave – a gray maw opening into a darkness deep as the one that marred his soul.
Before him was his father’s silver snuff box, engraved on the inner lid with an elegant ‘Z’ for Zanker. ‘For a century Zanker was a proud military name’, the phantom priest had told him that night before the hostages were set to die. ‘For a century….”
Not any more.
Within the cradle of his trembling hands, he held the small rectangular box, mesmerized by its beauty and moved by the knowledge that this was one of the last things his beloved father had ever touched. But even more he was enthralled by the reflection on its shining face of a man bound, hand and foot, and lashed to a tree behind him. A man who had besmirched his father’s name. A man clothed only in brown boots and breeches, and a thin linen shirt; whose dark brown hair was matted with sweat and blood. A man left exposed to the night and the falling temperatures so that the elements would bleed him of strength, whose wounds had been inflicted with delicious delicacy and perfect timing by Jaeger Merz, the hand behind the butcher of Auvignon.
Zanker rose to his feet and turned to face his enemy. He walked slowly to his side, savoring the picture of his impotence. Merz was keeping watch. Tomorrow Merz’s murderous hand would be satisfied when the hostages were given to him. Tomorrow it would taste the blood of many innocents. But tonight….
Tonight was his.
Major Joachim Zanker approached the pitiful figure of the Marquis de Lafayette. Reaching out he took hold of a hank of the brown hair and lifted his head to stare at his patrician face. Savoring his coming victory, Zanker remained very still for some time, searching the Frenchman’s face. Then, from nearby, a sound drew his attention and he turned to find the other one – the blond boy from Chester – had awakened briefly. He was watching him, tears in his eyes.
“He is not dead,” Zanker said quietly, “if that is what you fear.” The Hessian let the Marquis’ head drop to his chest. “Imagine,” he said, crossing to where Jeremy lay trussed, “Merz has done some of his finest work, and still Yankee Doodle remains anonymous. What loyalty you must inspire, young Larkin, that your commander would face torture and pain rather than name you.” When Jeremy said nothing, Zanker dropped to his knees and met the boy’s fierce gaze. “A day and a half yet remains before Mr. Coates leads the remainder of the hostages here. Then, I will kill them one by one before the Marquis’ eyes, saving you for the last.” At his captive’s puzzled look, he added, “Oh, I can assure you that Coates will betray me, and in doing so, betray all of you. But until that time, we will continue to…enjoy ourselves.” Before he finished speaking, the boy had lapsed back into unconsciousness. Zanker left him and walked back to Lafayette’s side and knelt to whisper in his ear.
“Tomorrow, you will pay for the things you said. Tomorrow, I will show you just who the coward is.” Zanker began to tremble as he took the silver snuff box and pressed a corner of its lid into the Marquis’ lightly tanned skin, marking his cheek with a pale crimson ‘Z’. “Tomorrow I will show you that ‘Zanker’ is still a proud name and you will learn, my dear Marquis, just what it stands for.”
His threat was met with silence. The man he taunted could not hear and did not care. As the tremors grew in intensity and his head began to jerk, Zanker raised his eyes to find Jaeger Merz watching him closely.
“What? What?” Zanker was quaking now. “If you have something to say, say it!”
Merz stepped forward so that the light of the risen moon struck him, highlighting the scar that split his face and casting in shadow the hand that had seen, had craved so much blood. “Joachim,” he said, his voice the rasp of a dead limb dragged on stone, “you be losing yourselve. Iv you do not hold on, he,” Merz indicated the quiescent Marquis with a nod, “vill vin. And ve do not vant dat. Your vater vould not vant dat.”
“Your vater vas a great man,” Merz said, drawing closer. “But he died in disgrace. You do not vant to do de same.”
Zanker’s eyes were glazed. He stared ahead but looked behind, seeing his father standing before a stone wall – with a half-dozen muskets pointed at him. “No….”
“Dis man, he has insulted you. But vorse, he insults your family. You must…hold on.”
“Hold on,” Zanker repeated. “Hold on….”
Merz took hold of his hand and pressed his trembling fingers into the cold metal of the snuff box. “You vill destroy him, and all he stands for.”
Major Joachim Zanker shuddered from head to foot. A weakness overcame him and then a severe pain in his stomach that struck him like a fist, driving him to his knees. As he shrieked and reached desperately toward Merz, the true butcher of Auvignon knelt beside him and whispered in his ear, “If you do not deal vit him, you vil be vorse den a coward, and de Marquis vill triumph and ven you are dead, he vill dance on your vater’s grave.”
Jeremy opened his eyes on another day of pain. Only this time, he was not alone. Screening his surroundings through lids half-open, he saw General Lafayette still bound to a nearby tree, either asleep or unconscious, his dark head hanging down. Neither Zanker nor Merz were in sight. Of course, that meant little. Knowing Zanker’s twisted mind, the pair could be hiding just within the cave watching, waiting for him to try something.
Well, he wouldn’t disappoint them.
He was bound, but not so restrictively as before – a fact that made him wonder if their captors hoped he would make an attempt to escape. The gag in his mouth was loose. His hands were tied in front of him, and his feet were free. But then as he shifted and started to rise, and was driven back to the ground by a throbbing in his head he couldn’t bear, he decided he was being paranoid. Infection had set into his wounds and he was sporting a rather high fever. Zanker probably thought him incapable of movement – or at least incapable of doing anything about the general’s predicament. As Jeremy began to crawl across the thirty or so feet that separated them, using his bound hands as a wedge driven into the ground, he realized Zanker might just be right.
Halfway there he fell to the ground panting. After a moment’s struggle he managed to work the gag free by pulling his face through the grass. Then he called softly, “General? Sir, are you awake?”
At first Lafayette made no response. Then he seemed to sigh, and shifted. From what Jeremy could see the exposed skin on the general’s chest was laced with a myriad of tiny stripes. Nothing life-threatening, just incredibly painful. At least he was alive.
“Sir?” he tried again.
“Yes, sir. It’s me.” Jeremy began to crawl the last fifteen feet or so.
“Zanker?” Lafayette asked, lifting his head.
There were great circles beneath the general’s dark brown eyes, indications of a night with little rest and much pain. “Gone. Or pretending to be.”
The general bit his lip against the scream of his wounds and turned his head from side to side. “I see nothing.”
“If they are here…they are well hidden,” Jeremy panted as he arrived at the other man’s side. “It may give them pleasure…to allow us to seem to succeed…and then to…emerge.”
“Oui,” the general’s words were soft-spoken. “Do you think we can succeed?”
Jeremy righted himself and leaned against the tree. His head was ringing so badly he could barely hear. Blood pounded in his temples, hammering hard and bringing blinding pain. Everything that was in him screamed at him to lie down, to sleep…to seek rest’s blessed forgetfulness. To seek rest…. Sleep….
His eyes opened suddenly. It took a few moments to remember where he was and to realize that time had passed. “Did I fall asleep?” he asked.
“A few minutes, mon ami. That is all.”
“By all that is Holy!” Jeremy exclaimed, shifting so his hands would be against the general’s and they could work to free one another. “We need to move….”
Lafayette’s voice was ragged with pain and regret. He nodded toward the underbrush to their left. “Do not bother, my friend, it is too late. Someone is coming.”
Too late for him to free them, and too late for him to move as well – to pretend that he had never awakened. Jeremy sat up and steeled himself for Zanker’s return. As much as he tried not to, he found he was beginning to feel fear in the Hessian’s presence. A fear that was occasioned by the constant threat of violence – physical and mental.
“What do you think he will do to us?” he asked quietly.
Lafayette managed a pale imitation of his usual fatalistic smile. “Anything he wants.”
Henry and Isak stood watching Sergeant Boggs. Lafayette’s aide was an old hand at tracking, having spent the better part of his life before the war as a frontiersman. Daniel was crouched beneath a brace of trees, searching the ground for signs. He had found the place where the wagon had broken down. Now he was trying to track the general’s movements.
“I wish I had been able to do this immediately,” Boggs sighed as he rose to his feet. “There are indications of him slipping down the hill, but the tracks have been compromised by our abductors.” He pointed to a patch of dry grass, sparse enough to hold the imprint of a man’s foot. “Here’s his heel. The general’s boots aren’t standard issue. We were in civilian clothes, and these are the ones he brought with him from France. The heel is narrower than most.”
Isak knelt to examine them. “At least we know he was alive, and the direction he took when he started back.”
Boggs nodded. “He’s limping. He must be injured.”
“But there’s no blood.”
“I know how my knee aches from that drop at the inn. Maybe he sprained an ankle,” Henry suggested.
“From the way he’s listing to the right, I would agree with that.” Boggs looked at the wild terrain before them, at the thick trees and interwoven thickets and low bushes. “A hard journey with an injury.”
“Can the horses make it?”
Boggs shook his head. “Doubtful. I think we will have to proceed from here on foot.”
“We passed Jacob Miller’s farm not too far back. We could leave the horses there,” Isak suggested. “I have done some smithing for him. He’s an honest man.”
Henry nodded. “Very well then. The sooner there, the sooner back. Let’s be on our way.”
It took them about an hour and a half to walk to the farmer’s house, explain their need, and then return to the place where the general had left the road. Jacob Miller was a patriot and more than happy to oblige them. By the time they left the farm, the moon was riding high in the sky providing a minimum of light. Enough to keep moving, but too little to spot tracks or signs such as broken branches. At the bottom of the hill the men paused to decide their course.
“What do you think, Daniel?” Henry asked. “Should we make camp or move on?”
Boggs was quiet for a moment. “Do you believe in intuition, Henry?”
“Well,” he answered with a slight smile, “as a scientific man I might question it’s validity, but as someone who has seen hunches too often proved reality, I consider it a science as yet unexplored or understood.”
“In other words, ‘yes,’” Isak translated.
Boggs nodded. “I have the deepest intuition that we dare not wait. Six hours might mean the difference between life and death for the general – and for Jeremy.”
“You know the general well,” Henry said. “Where do you think he would head?”
“General Lafayette is fairly familiar with the area, though not with all of the land surrounding Chester. My guess is he would head for the river and follow it back to the town. I imagine his intention was to seek out the aid of the Yankee Doodle society, and then to come back for me.”
Isak nodded. “Agreed.”
Henry did as well. “So the best thing we can do is head for the river and then south. If fortune and Providence are with us, we will find the general safe in one of the caves, or along the way. We have no injuries to slow us down.”
“I wish the moon was waxing full,” Isak said softly. “Would make the path easier.”
“It’s better this way,” Sergeant Boggs replied. “If we can’t see, then neither can we be seen. I know the land here. There are few pitfalls. We can make a good pace.”
Henry indicated the tangled wood ahead with a sweeping gesture of his hand. “Take the lead, Daniel. Isak and I will follow apace.”
Boggs nodded, his face sober, his concern evident on his strong face. And then he took off.
Henry and Isak glanced at one another and hurried to keep up.
Elizabeth’s heart was pounding hard in her chest. What she was doing was either very brave, or very foolish. She had tied her skirts above her knees and slipped out of one of the upstairs windows of Mayor Larkin’s house – a route Jeremy had told her he often used – and taken off at a run for the farmhouse where she lived with her Uncle John. On the way there she had jumped at every shadow and imagined Major Zanker and his insane accomplice waited behind every tree, each and every fence, building or sign. But she made it to the house unmolested. Once there she gathered a few items – salves, bandages, a bit of food –and placed them in the basket where she had already hidden her uncle’s spare pistol. She had only found a few balls and a small amount of powder, but they would prove enough for two or three shots. By the time she reached the barn and mounted one of the horses, the moon had passed its zenith.
That had been at least three hours before. She had ridden as hard as she could to General Lafayette’s camp in search of Henry and Isak, but was informed by the sentry at its edge that they had already come and gone – and taken Sergeant Boggs with them. The young man had tried to detain her, saying it was too dangerous for her to travel alone, but she had spurred the horse and broken free of his grasp and sped on her way into the dark night and the unknown.
Jeremy was out there somewhere, and deep in her heart she knew he was injured and in terrible danger. Elizabeth could not bring herself to think he might be dead. As she had told Henry, she thought – somehow – she would know if that had happened. The connection she felt to her love might be stretched to the point of breaking, but it was still unbroken.
She wondered now if the choice she had made was wise. She had not told the sentry what her uncle had said – that Zanker would be in the caves near the river. Henry and Isak and Sergeant Boggs were already on the trail. Somehow, with Zanker’s madness, the idea of setting a whole camp of angry Continental soldiers on his trail seemed a foolish thing. If the Major thought he was about to be taken, she was certain he would kill anyone he held. This way, they could use stealth and surprise, and achieve success.
Please, Dear God, she prayed. Please.
Elizabeth reined in the horse and slowed it to a walk. Her task now was to find the others. She knew they had planned to return to the ‘Born on Newcomb’ inn, but by now they would have done that and would be on their way back. So instead of going there, she decided to approach the area of the caves from the south, and to follow the river. Tethering her horse in a place with water and grass, she bid it farewell and descended into a dry ravine and began to move on foot. From here on out the path would prove too wild for the animal and, besides, it might neigh or whinny out of fear, giving away her position. And if there was one thing she did not want to do, it was to become a hostage again – this time, against the two men she sought to free.
Clutching her uncle’s pistol in one hand and carrying the basket in the other, Elizabeth continued to follow the ravine as it filled with cold water and ended momentarily in a tall stand of cat-tails. Leaving it, she sat on the bank and paused to eat a bite of bread, and then went to the river to wash it down with a handful of cold water. As she knelt on the bank she saw something that she thought, at first, was a snake. Upon closer examination she realized it was a coil of rope, lying close to a pointed stone imbedded in a spot where the tall cat-tails had been trampled down – as though someone had lain there. Elizabeth picked the rope up. As she examined it, noting that it had been crudely cut, a viscous substance coated her fingertips. Tasting it, she tasted blood.
A shiver ran through her that had nothing to do with the chill night. Someone had been tied. Someone had escaped.
Could it be Jeremy? Or perhaps, General Lafayette?
Glancing at the hill before her, she remembered one of the larger caves in the area ran deep into its heart. The entrance was just over the rise. Elizabeth glanced at the rope dangling loosely in her hand. This was it. At the top she would find the man who had escaped.
Or the one who had bound and tortured him.
John Coates was not a happy man. Samuel Larkin stood watching the small, wizened man deal with his conscience, wrestling between his concern for his niece – and his concern for his own neck.
They had met, as stated, at the hour of six, just after the light had risen, and the shadows that blanketed the world begun to retreat. Each man – each one who had been held hostage – was asked in turn for his decision. All but one chose to confront Zanker. And that one was John Coates. Some argument ensued and then, abruptly, they realized the women were missing. Although he knew well what choice both Elizabeth and Goodwife Hamilton would make, Samuel insisted on having them speak their piece. They must have fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion, he suggested. Jason Crim offered to go upstairs and call them. He returned with Goodwife Hamilton several minutes later. She had indeed fallen asleep.
Elizabeth Coates was gone.
“That fool girl!” her uncle declared. “What does she mean sneaking out? What in God’s name could she be thinking?”
“We know she wouldn’t have gone to warn Zanker,” Jason Crim spoke up. “Perhaps she was afraid….”
“That makes no sense. Safety is to be found, here, in numbers,” William Biggs answered him.
“She was afraid,” Goodwife Hamilton said softly. “But not for herself, for her young man.” Her troubled eyes went to Mayor Larkin. “I think Elizabeth went in search of your son.”
“They were close when we were in Chester’s jail,” Biggs admitted. “Always with their heads together.”
“He is not her ‘young man’!” John Coates growled. “I have told that shiftless boy to keep away from my niece at least a hundred times. And she knows what I think of him! Elizabeth would not have gone against me in such a way.”
“And how would she know where to go to look for Mayor Larkin’s son, anyway?” Jason Crim asked, turning a suspicious eye on John Coates. “Unless you told her where Zanker is….”
Coates sputtered. “No, I didn’t. I swear!”
“John,” Samuel Larkin said as he approached him. He had a sympathy for John Coates. It was not easy to live with a critical spirit – for the man who was possessed by it, or those around him. Elizabeth’s uncle had had many losses – his brother, his wife. Beneath the bluster and his seemingly self-serving ways, there was a real love for his brother’s child – and a real fear that she would come to harm. He laid his hand on the other man’s shoulder. “Whether or not you care for my son – even if you think Jeremy the devil himself – Elizabeth has gone to save him. If we are to save her, you must lead us to where Major Zanker is. We are nearly a half-dozen strong. There are only two of them. Come John, tell us what you know. You must, if we are to save Elizabeth.”
Coates fell silent, shamed at last into speaking. “The river. We must follow the river to the largest of the caves.
“He is there.”
“Do not bother my friend, it is too late. Someone is coming.”
Lafayette felt helpless, impotent. It was not a feeling he liked. Since early childhood he had been forced to be strong, to care and protect the women who reared him in the wild country of Auvergne, to become a man without a father to show him how. He had learned to be independent, to think for himself, to take care of himself. He had not had the luxury of being a child. And from a very early age he had learned that life was nothing if not unpredictable. The only way to remain sane was to remain in control. His friends in America would never have believed that in France he was known for being quiet and sober – chilly even. Cold. The fire that fueled his ardor had only been lit when he had heard of this young nation, struggling as he had, to be independent and in control of its own destiny.
And now he, was out of control.
He glanced at Jeremy where he rested close by, leaning on the rough tree trunk; his breathing shallow, his color a feverish, glistening white. He knew his friend was dangerously ill. It was several days since he had first been taken and beaten. Lafayette doubted he had had any food. And so far Zanker delighted in tormenting them by giving them only enough water to survive.
“What do you think he will do to us?” Jeremy asked, his voice breaking.
Jeremy was afraid. But then, he had good reason to be. Whatever they might face on the field of battle, the ground was level. They understood their enemy and their enemy understood them. There were certain boundaries set, by which everyone must abide.
Zanker knew no boundaries.
The Frenchman breathed a sigh as he attempted to smile. “Whatever they want to do,” he answered.
If it had been only him, his fear would not have been so great. On the journey over from France he had faced death several times – and had even decided to destroy the ship he traveled on and himself if overtaken by British privateers or sailors. But he knew Zanker would not kill him but Jeremy, just to break his spirit.
Lafayette drew a breath and lifted his head, ready to meet his fate. When Zanker did not emerge, he frowned. “What is this?” he whispered to his friend.
Jeremy said nothing.
There was the sound of someone shifting within the leaves close by and then a sudden sharp intake of breath. And then a woman’s voice – horrified, terrified –
“Jeremy? Dear God! Jeremy!”
He glanced at the man now leaning on his shoulder. Jeremy was unconscious. Lafayette shifted but could see no one. Still, he knew the voice. “Elizabeth? Is that you?”
Wisely she had not left the protection of the leaves, though he knew her heart had to urge her forward. “Yes.”
“How?” he asked. “Are you alone?”
“Yes,” her voice faltered, then gained strength as she went on, “Uncle John told me where Zanker took him. I snuck out as soon as I could. I found the bloody ropes below….”
“Free Jeremy!” he said suddenly. “Get him away from here.”
“But what about you?”
“Zanker will not kill me. He intends something far more sinister. Free Jeremy and get him away from here. Then, if there is time, you can attend to me.” He felt Jeremy’s body move and then shifted to see her hands pulling his unconscious form into the shelter of the leaves. “Take him away from here. Now!”
“Henry and Isak are on their way,” she whispered. “And Sergeant Boggs.”
“Daniel? Remerciez un Dieu! Then he is free?”
“Yes. Are you certain you don’t want me to free you?”
He hesitated. If only he could be certain Zanker and Merz would not return. Through lidded eyes he had watched the two madmen talk. After Merz left him, the Major had remained on his knees, staring at his father’s snuff box from a very long time. Then he had risen and stumbled away into the trees. Merz had cursed upon finding him gone. He had checked their bonds and then followed the other man, leaving them alone.
Lafayette could not decide what the relationship was between the two. Merz seemed completely sane – if maniacal and murderous – until he began to argue or cajole his left hand. He had seen the man, in the shadows, arguing with himself, and once had watched as the blood-stained hand crept toward Merz’s own throat. Joachim Zanker, on the other hand, was completely mad and on a downward spiral. The disease that ate away at his sanity was the same one that plagued the Crown heads of Europe – those descended of the Hanoverian kings. It was the same madness that had afflicted his father, destroying the man he had been, and ultimately driving him to acts of cowardice.
Who was the puppet here – and who the puppet master?
He started, ashamed that he had become lost in his own thoughts when time was so precious. “Loosen my bonds before you go. But then, get Jeremy away.”
“I have a pistol,” she said. “I’ll leave it with you.”
“Elizabeth, no! Jeremy will not be capable of defending you. Keep it.”
He felt her fingers on his wrists, working at the ropes. “Men,” she answered, her tone tinged with anger, “I can take care of myself. I will not leave you here, unarmed and alone, to die.”
“I told you Zanker will not kill me – ” Lafayette paused. There had been a sound. Voices.
Something, or some one was approaching.
Elizabeth heard it too. Her fingers froze on his wrist.
“Go! Now!” he ordered. “Take the weapon. Go!”
“But I am not done.”
He hated to be unkind, but time was flying. “You doom us all by hesitating. Go!”
He felt her hesitate, and then her hand gripped his for just a moment. Then he heard her whisper Jeremy’s name.
A moment later, he was alone.
Merz was the first to emerge from the trees and for just a moment, he had the hope that one madman had eliminated the other. Then Joachim Zanker followed. Zanker was himself again – the ramrod stiff Hessian major in total control – and he was railing at Jaeger Merz for having left the captives unattended. Merz did not reply. He simply crossed the open space before the cave and disappeared into the darkness.
Major Joachim Zanker halted before him. Lafayette lifted his head and met his intense stare.
His eyes were the image of hate.
Zanker looked at him for several heartbeats and then struck him savagely across the face. “I grow weary of this,” he pronounced. “Weary to death. When Merz returns, your friend dies. And then you will be next.”
Zanker started to turn. Lafayette called him back, hoping to delay the realization that Jeremy was gone. “Killing two men, bound and tied? I see you intend to be a greater coward than your father was. At least the men he butchered had a fighting chance.”
The major was on his knees in a second and his hand circled his throat, the fingers pressing in. “Be silent, or I will have Merz cut out that golden tongue,” he snarled.
“If you…silence me,” Lafayette replied, gasping, “there…will be another…voice to take…my place. And you will add mine…to those who…taunt you from…the grave.”
Zanker stared at him and then, growling, slammed his head into the tree trunk so hard it made him dizzy. “Merz!” he screamed.
The other man appeared seconds later. “Vhat?”
“Bring the prisoner back out here. It is time to let your hand have its way.”
Jaeger Merz appeared puzzled. He glanced at the place where Jeremy had lain and shook his head. “I do not haf him.”
Lafayette saw the defeat register in Zanker’s face. He also saw his death.
Major Joachim Zanker whirled and pointed his pistol at his head, the barrel a mere two inches from his eyes.
“Tonight. You die.”
Continued in Chapter Eight