Z is for Zanker - Chapter Three
Henry took Elizabeth straight to Mayor Larkin’s house. It was the only safe place he could think of. Samuel Larkin had fallen asleep in front of the fire, waiting for his son’s return. When they roused him, the older man was confused for a moment, but when the import of what they had to say penetrated the haze of exhaustion and fatigue, he became alert and a mind sharp as a joiner’s file set itself to the task of making his town – and his friends – secure.
“Jeremy and John are both missing, but that is all you know about for now?” Samuel Larkin asked him.
Henry nodded. “Yes, of the hostages taken by Zanker that leaves six to go. Master Adams and Jason Crim, the cobbler. William Biggs, the merchant and Robert Carole, the printer. Goodwife Hamilton, and Elizabeth, here.” His eyes flicked to the attractive young woman who was heating water for some tea. “Two are dead. Two missing. Six remain.”
“So you think he has come to finish what General Lafayette put an end to – the executions?”
“Eh, Lafayette, sir?”
“So you think this old man is deaf as well as a little blind?” Mayor Larkin’s smile was teasing. “I have asked around. Folk in the town have seen the general before, and there are not too many Frenchmen who make their presence known, or leave behind such an impression.” He winked. “Especially on the ladies! I knew him right away by their description. It was as I remembered him from Robert’s funeral. A fine young man.”
“But, sir, what would the Marquis de Lafayette be doing in Chester?” Henry insisted.
“Oh, helping some friend no doubt.” As Henry wondered just how much Jeremy’s father suspected, the Mayor shifted aside and allowed Elizabeth access to the table. She placed a cast iron trivet on it first and then brought over the steaming pot. “Thank you, my dear,” Mayor Larkin said.
“Well, the first thing we must do is contact the others who were held. May we direct them here, Mayor?” Henry asked.
“Indeed. There is strength in numbers.” He took Elizabeth’s hand as she sat down beside him. “This dear sweet child makes one. That leaves five others to be found.”
“But I must go to look for Jeremy,” she protested.
“Elizabeth. Look in your heart.” Henry’s voice was gentle. “Where would Jeremy want you? Searching for him, or out of danger?”
“I can do more than make tea, you know? Jeremy taught me how to shoot,” she countered, growing angry. “And perhaps a mere woman could search in places men cannot go. You brave men might find you need me in the end!”
Henry was a little taken aback.
With one snowy owlish eyebrow Samuel Larkin emphasized his surprise. “Jeremy taught you to shoot? Whatever for?”
“I asked him,” she replied immediately, covering her slip. “I am afraid sometimes, alone in the house, when uncle is gone.”
“Child, Chester and its surrounds are a safe haven. You need have no….” Mayor Larkin’s voice trailed off as he realized what he was saying. “Or at least they were.”
A silence fell between them broken only by a rap on the door. In spite of the fact that they were three strong, they all jumped, and Henry drew his pistol as he went to answer it.
“Who goes there?” he called.
“Henry, it’s me. Isak. Let me in.”
As Elizabeth breathed a sigh of relief and Henry opened the door, Mayor Larkin rose to his feet. “I believe I will go upstairs and fetch my other arms. Robert had a pistol, and I believe I have an old musket somewhere in the attic. If we are to gather here, we may need all the firepower we can muster.”
“A good idea, sir,” Henry called after him as he shut the door behind Isak. Then he asked him, “What news?”
“Little or none. No one has seen Jeremy since late last night, nor Elizabeth’s uncle since noon today. It is as though they have both vanished without a trace.”
“Any strangers reported in the town?”
Isak shook his head. “Not within Chester proper.”
Henry heard something in his friend’s voice. “And what about Chester im-proper?”
Isak shrugged. “The road abounds with vagabonds, soldiers and good folk as always. And rumor as well.”
“What sort of rumors?” Elizabeth asked, handing him a mug of tea.
Isak took a sip. “Thanks. That’s warmin’.” He shook his head then. “Redcoats in the larder. Hessians on the march. Or if you ask a Loyalist, bare-foot rebels in their pumpkin patch.”
“Anything useful?” Henry prodded. Then realizing Isak looked weary, he added, “Why don’t you take a seat and tell us what you know?”
The tall black man nodded. “Think I will.” He sat and the two of them joined him, taking places on the opposite side of the table. Elizabeth poured Henry some tea and he thanked her for it and then held it in his hands to warm them. For some reason, he seemed to have taken a sudden chill.
“Well, to a scientific man like you, Henry, this will seem nonsense,” Isak began.
“I pride myself on having an open mind.”
“Open?” The black man pursed his lips and shook his head. “Is it open to talk of demons?”
Mayor Larkin was coming down the stairs. In his hands were the pistol and rifle he had spoken of. “Demons? These will avail little against the likes of such unearthly foes.”
Henry took another sip and pushed his chair back, leaning into it. “Do tell. Isak, pray continue.”
Isak nodded. “Someone said, well…they said they visited Goodwife Abigail Edwins yester’ eve and saw her speaking with a demon not two hours before she was found stone-cold.”
“And I suppose it was a demon that put the noose about Mr. Thomas’ throat as well!” Mayor Larkin sat in a chair with a huff. “Such nonsense!”
“Mayor, wait.” Henry sat up. “There are many kinds of demons in the world. What did this ‘demon’ look like, Isak?”
“Small and slightly bent with a scar from here to here,” he ran his finger from the tip of his upper lip to just above his left eye. “And they said his voice was strange – rasping. Not human.”
Henry shifted in his excitement. “That could mean only that the man was foreign. Few in Chester have been exposed to the dialects of the far-flung world.”
“What is it, Henry?”
“Well, if not for the part about him being small, it could be Zanker. Think about it. I mean, the man has seen much battle, though I don’t remember such a scar, but then I did not see him close except in the dark. His hair was short. And his accent, well, some might hear that and think it strange.”
“But Zanker was tall,” Isak countered.
“Aye. And not bent. A counterpart then. An accomplice?” Henry drew a breath. His glance went from Elizabeth to Samuel Larkin, but he spoke in spite of his misgivings. “Jeremy is a capable fellow, able to look after himself. If he was…overcome…it would suggest more than one man was in on it.”
Another silence descended, broken only by the older man’s sigh. Mayor Larkin rose to his feet and went to the door where he took his hat from a peg and placed it on his head. Then he reached for his coat. “Speculation will gain us little but worry. I need action! We must gather the remaining hostages together and protect them. And then organize a party to comb the town and the surrounding forest until we find Jeremy and John,” he drew a deep breath and steeled himself, “whether it be alive or dead.”
Isak finished his tea and rose to his feet. “I will go with you, Mayor.”
“And I will wait here until you return,” Henry replied. “Then, we can switch places Mayor, and Isak and I will join the hunt.”
The object of this intense discussion and concern had awakened again. Jeremy came to lying on his side, with his face half-frozen to the brittle earth. Every inch of him screamed with pain. So much so that he feared it had dulled his mind. There had to be a way to escape.
Zanker would kill him – now or later – there was no doubt of that.
He had watched the two of them depart leaving him alone, trussed like an animal ready for the slaughter, and hidden in the midst of a tall patch of frosty cattails near where a ravine ended and the river began. It seemed the major had returned with a vengeance, intending to carry out the sentence he had pronounced on the Chester hostages four months before. Two were dead. He was taken, but still alive. Why? From what Zanker had said it sounded almost as if the hostages were not the real focus of his vendetta. ‘After you have served my purposes’, the madman had told him. What ‘purposes’? What would his capture lead to? The town would be roused. His father would grieve and search. Elizabeth might come, but Zanker could take her in another way with more ease. Henry and Isak would look for him and, if they could not find him, carry word to the general’s camp to be forwarded to Lafayette in New York, or left there to await his return….
“Oh God,” Jeremy moaned as he struggled against his bonds to right himself. They were after the general! Lafayette had not only humiliated Zanker and destroyed his military career, preventing any sort of retirement with honor, but he had also revealed deep personal information about the man to total strangers and taught them to taunt Zanker with it, until the Hessian mercenary was finally pushed over the edge. Zanker had not cared about the hostages then, nor did he now. They were just a means to an end.
And this time, it was the destruction of Lafayette.
Zanker knew if he started killing the hostages one by one that General Lafayette would not be able, in good conscience, to stand by. The major probably meant to send a challenge to the general’s camp – ‘surrender yourself or more innocents will die’, or something like that. But Zanker could not know that Lafayette was nowhere near Chester.
They were on their own.
After some minutes of effort Jeremy managed to sit up. The rope cut into his throat, choking him, but it was not so tight that he could not bear the pain. He searched with his fingers for a sharp rock, the jagged edge of a branch, something with which he could cut the cords that bound his hands. Luck or Providence provided it in the form of an upright stone wedged in the mud, battered and pounded by the river that had deposited it there until it resembled a stone blade.
Nearly an hour later, his hands covered in his own blood, Jeremy felt the ropes give way. He fell back to the frozen floor of the river bank, panting. With the freedom of his hands came a lessening on the tension of the rope around his neck. For a few minutes he lay there, drawing in great gasps of sweet crisp air, gathering strength. Then, as sleep beckoned, he roused himself and set about freeing his legs. It had been nearly a full day since he had eaten, and truth to tell, he had eaten sparely the day before. As he rose to his feet the cumulative effects of that, the beating, and the chill night slammed into him. Struggling to remain awake, he managed to climb to his hands and knees and began to crawl. He had to get away from here. Anywhere. Had to fall anywhere but here where Zanker and Merz would find him and bind him, and torture him again.
Fifteen minutes later he found himself at the edge of the ravine again, but this time at the top of a slippery slope. Above him the stars shone cold and bright. The moon had risen and the night – while not brilliant – lent little cover to a man attempting to hide. With a small prayer that the bottom of the ravine was not filled with six inches of ice cold water here like it had been before, he wedged his toe in the stiff earth and kicked off, sending his battered and bruised body to a hard landing below.
Just as he passed out, a small voice in the back of his head reminded him of something he had forgotten.
Zanker almost certainly knew. He knew about him being Captain Yankee Doodle.
What did that mean?
For a moment Lafayette thought he was back on the ship, traveling the high seas to America. He felt a steady motion, side to side, and experienced the same kind of sick, prolonged agony and nausea. The place he was in was dark as the grave and stank of sweat.
He opened his eyes and raised a hand toward a tiny pinprick of light, thinking it to be the portal far away, but was stopped by a solid sky made of oiled cloth. He ran his fingers across it and realized the sky was a tarpaulin. Then he heard the sound of men talking and the steady hoof beat of horses, and recognized the side to side motion, which he had mistaken for a ship’s, for the steady progress of a vehicle traveling over an uneven road.
His hands were tied, but in front of him, so he was able to feel around, and what he found told him he was not alone. He could not see, but touching the man’s face and hair, he was all but certain it was Daniel Boggs who lay unconscious beside him. What was going on? He remembered the tavern now, and the libertine woman, Maggie, sending them downstairs into the darkened corridor. And the empty room. Then they had been outside and then –
Unexpectedly the wagon jerked to a stop and then listed dangerously to the left. With nothing to hold on to, he was thrown over and on top of Sergeant Boggs. Then the wagon rocked once or twice and settled back into position, tossing him back to its bed.
“Damn the luck!” he heard a gruff voice curse. “The wheel’s hit a stone and bent the metal. It’s halfway off! We’ll have to mend it before going on.”
“What about the…cargo?” another voice asked.
He heard several cords being untied and just as the tarp was thrown back, feigned unconsciousness. “They’re both sleepin’ like babes,” the first man snorted. Then he added, warily, “What’s with this one? Looks wealthy. Someone might miss him.”
“Joe says it’s all right. Some Frenchman from out of town.”
“He looks like a frog. Pale and prissy. Hands don’t look like he’s done a decent day’s work.”
The tarp was replaced and the dawning light cut off.
Lafayette released the breath he held. Par un Dieu! He would soon show them what his hands were capable of! Struggling against his anger, he rolled over and touched his aide’s shoulder. “Daniel,” he whispered. “Daniel, can you hear me?”
Sergeant Boggs made no reply.
What was he to do?
The men were sure to take them from the wagon. It would be too heavy with them aboard to lift and mend the wheel. They would place them aside and if there were only two, have to leave them alone while they effected the repair.
If there were only two. He had no way of knowing if there were more.
The men’s voices drew near again and the tarp was cast back and pulled away completely. Through half-lidded eyes Lafayette was able to determine that, indeed, the sun was just dawning in the sky. Considering when they were felled, they could not be too far outside of Chester. If they could get away, they could seek out Jeremy and the others and call on them for aid. Much as he wanted to take these two out on his own, Boggs – if he had been awake – would have chided him and told him he was being reckless when help was so near.
Lafayette suppressed a smile. Even unconscious, Daniel Boggs served General Washington well!
Just as that thought came to him, he felt rough hands grip him and lift him up. None too carefully. One man took hold of his sprained right ankle which sent a shock wave of pain through his system. He bit his lip and managed to stifle the cry. Then he had to remember to land as if he had no coming knowledge of what the fall might do to him. The two men slung him to the ground like a sack of potatoes beneath a brace of trees, and then went back for Sergeant Boggs.
Opening his eyes again and peering through his thick lashes, Lafayette watched them walk away after depositing Daniel. There were four. Two more had been riding ahead, no doubt keeping watch. Four against one was not the best of odds, especially since they were armed and he was not. He had spotted his favorite pistol fastened by a leather thong to the saddle of the man nearest him.
“Pouvez vous faire cuire au four!” he cursed beneath his breath, praying God had installed a competent cook in Hell to roast the man.
“Pace! Take the musket and keep watch,” a dark-haired man with a felt cap yelled. He was the owner of the first voice. “Since these two are bound for his Majesty’s ships and service at sea, you can shoot ‘em if they try to run. Won’t be more than a month or two and they’ll be dead anyway. We got our money already. What’a we care if we deliver ‘em alive – or dead?”
Impressed! They were being impressed! And not only that, sent to a ship Anglais! The tavern must have been the headquarters of the operation. Lafayette thought about the courier who had sent them there, but was certain he had seen the man before and did not think he had set them up. General Washington needed to be warned and told to keep the soldiers away from there.
The man called Pace took up a position leaning against one of the trees. He was chewing on a strip of jerky and only keeping a casual eye on what he assumed were two men dead to the world around them. Lafayette thought furiously. He could escape alone, but the idea of leaving Boggs behind was like a knife thrust to his gut. Still, with four of them and only one of him, any attempt to overcome the men was predestined to fail. He knew where they were headed. Making his way to Chester would take half a day at best. On horseback they could overcome these villains, rescue Boggs, and return to camp before the sun had set on another day.
Through lidded eyes Lafayette continued to watch the men at the wagon. They had the wheel off and two of them were straining to lift it up. At that moment one of them signaled to Pace that he should come and lend a hand. Pace answered he would check the prisoners first and then join them. Seconds later he stood between them. For several heartbeats Pace just listened, then he bent and shook each of them, watching for a reaction. As a last insult, he kicked Boggs in the side.
Anger and shame flooded through him. It was he who had brought Sergeant Boggs to this! As Pace walked away, Lafayette gripped his aide’s limp hand. “Hold on, Daniel. I will be back for you.”
With one last glance at the men who were huddled around the wagon, bickering and cursing as they lifted the wheel and fit it into place, he slid down the hill into the thick underbrush and limped away.
Henry Abington looked at the huddled mass of humanity in Mayor Larkin’s common room. They had been fairly successful. Of the six remaining hostages they had managed to round up five. Only Master Carole was still missing, and his wife told them he had gone to New Bedford to visit his kin. Henry had tried to convince the woman that she should come with them – that Zanker might be mad enough to choose a substitute – but she insisted she would go and stay with her sister on a farm outside of Chester and be safe there.
So long as Zanker or his mysterious companion had not been listening outside the window, she was probably right.
“A few will have to bed down on the floor,” Mayor Larkin said. He was walking through handing out blankets. “The women I have given Robert’s room. You may stay in Jeremy’s while you are here.”
“Mayor Larkin, I was not a hostage,” Henry protested. “There is no danger to me.”
The older man pinned him with his clear blue eyes. “Mr. Abington. I do not wish to know your politics, nor what you do in your spare time. If I did, I should probably have to order you to stay away from my son.”
“But you were seen standing with General Lafayette’s aide that day in the square, when Jeremy and these good people were being marched to the gallows. And if one of the townsfolk saw you – so did Major Zanker.”
There had been so many people there. He thought no one would notice. “Coincidence, sir.”
Samuel Larkin nodded slowly. “Have it your own way.” The older man’s hand came down on Henry’s shoulder. “But take care.”
He turned to find Elizabeth. She had been aiding Goodwife Hamilton in settling in. “Elizabeth?”
“Any word of Jeremy?” she asked. Her eyes were rimmed with red. It was evident she had been crying.
He shook his head. “Sadly, no.” Then he brightened. “But then, no word could be construed as a ‘good’ word.”
“You mean there is no body yet,” she said quietly.
“I think…” she began.
“I think I should know if he was dead. Somehow….”
There was a knock on the door – three raps, two, and then three more. It was the signal they had set for anyone wishing to enter the house. They both looked up to find Isak being ushered into the room.
“Are you going now, Henry?” Elizabeth asked.
He nodded. “We head for the general’s camp. Word must be gotten to him. Lafayette must stay away, for his own good and the good of the Cause. And perhaps we can enlist a few of the soldiers to search for Jeremy.”
She gripped his hand. “God speed, Henry.”
“We will find him, Elizabeth,” he promised, “and we will bring him home.”
Elizabeth nodded her head. Then she added, “You make no mention of Uncle John.”
Henry looked startled. “Oh! Do you want him rescued too?” Then he grinned.
She smiled gently. “For all his faults, I love the old Surly Boots. Bring them both home. And stay safe!”
“Isak!” he called. “Are you ready?”
“Mayor Larkin, we bid you farewell,” he said turning to the older man. “The next time you see us, I pray it is with your son at our side.”
“Pray God!” Samuel Larkin said and then with his heartfelt thanks, walked them to the door and locked it after them.
“To the camp, then?” Isak asked, glancing at the sky, which was filled with a pale golden dawning light.
“We must. Our lives are as nothing compared to the general’s.” Henry placed his hand on Isak’s shoulder. “Thank Providence it has seen to send him away! Imagine, if he knew Jeremy was missing – why, he’d be off his horse and combing the woods, and then where would we be?”
Continued in Chapter Four