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Authors: William Martin

Tags: #Suspense, #Fiction / Historical, #Fiction / Sagas

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BOOK: Back Bay
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A handful of men remained to secure the mansion and await the President. French John, Barker, and de Peyster loaded another wagon with valuables. Jeff Grew and Magraw guarded the front door from the looters already beginning to gather. Dexter Lovell said he would go down to the kitchen to bring up more food and drink for the soldiers who would be riding with the President.

In the kitchen, he quickly packed the tea set. Then he heaved it onto his shoulder and headed for the stable. He tried to stay close to the south side of the mansion, out of view of the windows on the main floor. At the corner of the building, he thought he noticed someone peering down at him from the East Room. He waited until the figure was gone, then he hurried across the lawn.

In the stable, he buried the strongbox under a pile of hay. For a moment, he knelt in front of it like a pilgrim praying before his journey. With the help of Horace Taylor Pratt and the Golden Eagle, Dexter Lovell was going to be rich. He would never again pour wine for backwater diplomats or clean the boot scrapers in front of the President’s mansion. But for the first time in his life, he was frightened by the journey ahead. He had always been a wanderer, but he was getting old.

Many times in the past few years, he had thanked the forces that threw him and Jean Sioussa together on a French cargo ship in 1800. Lovell, forty-two, was working his way home, Sioussa was leaving France forever. In New York, they jumped ship, and for two months, Lovell educated the Frenchman in the ways of American life. Lovell drifted north to Boston, Sioussa south to Washington and the service of the Madisons. When Lovell’s restlessness brought him to the Federal city nine years later, French John offered him a position on the President’s household staff. For five years, Lovell slept in a warm room in the basement of the mansion, ate his meals in the President’s kitchen, and received payment of ten dollars a month. He told himself that he was secure and happy.

But after Madison’s second inauguration, he became melancholy, depressed. He began to feel that his life was ending. At night, he lay awake, thinking of his youth—the early voyages as
a cabin boy on an English merchantman; Beatrice Scott, the girl whose beauty inspired him to jump ship in Boston when he was seventeen; the events that brought him to Bunker Hill and placed him on the line between Horace and Ephraim Pratt. The Pratts saved Lovell’s life that day, and Lovell never forgot it. He married the girl, went to work for Pratt, and lived in Boston for fourteen years.

When his wife died in childbirth, Lovell took to the sea again. He sailed on a Pratt ship to China, a sixteen-month voyage, but when he returned to Boston, the memories of her lingered. He left the merchant fleet and shipped from Nantucket on a whaler. He lost himself and his memories in the excitement of the hunt and didn’t set foot on the American mainland again until he and French John arrived in New York. He wandered to Boston, back to sea, and finally to Washington, where he had remained and begun to grow old.

Then, just after the British clamped their blockade onto the New England coast, his old friend Pratt wrote to him of the price the Golden Eagle Tea Set would bring on the European market. They had been plotting ever since.

Now, as Dexter Lovell knelt in front of the strongbox, he realized that the Golden Eagle meant more than money. It offered him one more voyage of adventure, one final encounter with his youth. He would protect the Golden Eagle Tea Set with his life. For the next two weeks, it would be his life.

He turned to leave and saw the figure of Jeff Grew silhouetted in the doorway. Lovell froze.

“I been watchin’ you a long time, Dexter Lovell, and I got one thing to say.” The black smiled.

“Then say it,” barked Lovell, regaining his composure.

“You got a partner.”

Dexter Lovell and Thomas Jefferson Grew, linked together by the strongbox they carried between them, left the President’s Mansion two hours later and headed toward the Potomac.

They had remained with French John until Madison and his ragged escort had eaten, and continued on to Virginia. Lovell did not want French John to become suspicious at his early departure,
and he wanted to wait until dark before sprinting for the river. But when it came time to go, Lovell lingered, knowing he would never see his old friend Sioussa again. Finally, Grew reminded Lovell that the British were drawing close.

“Mais, oui,” said French John. “I will put out the cat, lock up and be off to join the President. I will see you in a few hours.”

Lovell had betrayed a friend, but he had no time now for guilt. He wanted to be far down the Potomac when the British torches lit up the sky. As he and Grew scrambled across the meadow which rolled south from the mansion, Lovell felt an excitement he hadn’t known since his days on the whaler. Even his hatred for Jeff Grew could not diminish it. But the river was a quarter mile away, the strongbox was heavy, and the ground grew soft and swamplike as they ran. Lovell’s excitement turned to agony. His lungs burned. He wanted to stop and rest, but he couldn’t. He drove himself to keep up with Grew.

When they reached the bank, they were ankle-deep in mud and soaked with perspiration. Lovell collapsed in exhaustion, and mosquitoes the size of humming birds descended on both of them.

“You must have damn strong sweat,” said Jeff Grew, catching his breath. “Most ’skeeters I ever know bite the black man first. Blacker the berry, sweeter the juice. But dem bugs all over you.”

Lovell sat up and slapped angrily.

Grew began to laugh. “You know, Dexter Lovell, it’s a damn good thing I find you stealin’ dat tea set when I do. Otherwise, you never make it across dis here lawn.”

Lovell knew the black was right. The strongbox was too heavy for one man, and the tea set was too delicate to be tossed in a sack. He needed Grew’s muscle, and later, he might need the machete that Grew had slipped into his belt when they left the mansion. Lovell extended his hand and forced a smile. “I guess I ’ave to take you along, after all.”

Jeff Grew heard the white man in Lovell’s voice. He didn’t like it. In Jamaica, he had cut cane, raised orchids, and earned his freedom by rescuing his master’s family from a burning house. In America, he was another nigger. Slave and freedman were treated
alike, and it made no difference that the freedman tended the flowers in the President’s garden. But Thomas Jefferson Grew was a nigger to be reckoned with. One day soon, he would spit on Dexter Lovell and every white man who ever treated him like a slave.

“I told you back dere, Dexter, you got a partner.” Grew’s voice was firm. “I let you be boss, ’cause you be smart enough to steal dat tea set in the first place. I figure you know what you doin’. But without me, you never get dis far. I stickin’ to you, Dexter, and I gettin’ half when dis strongbox gets where we takin’ it.” Only then did Grew shake Lovell’s hand.

They packed the strongbox into a rowboat moored at the bank and headed downstream. Grew pulled at the oars. Lovell took two cumbersome dueling pistols from his shoulder sack, loaded them, and set new flints in each hammer.

“You plannin’ to shoot someone?” asked Grew.

“Maybe you.” Lovell was only half-joking.

“And maybe some morning, you wake up with my machete in your skull.” The black smiled.

The current moved swiftly through the humid Virginia night, and they reached the dock above Greenleaf’s Point within half an hour. Greenleaf’s Point commanded the junction of the Potomac River with its eastern branch. The city of Washington spread across the triangle of land between the two streams. The American Army had built a shore battery and an arsenal at the fork, and a small community of hotels, saloons, and bawdy houses had sprung up nearby.

Although the main Washington dock was on the east branch, near the Navy Yard, many fishermen and ferry captains kept their vessels near Greenleaf’s Point. Lovell had investigated the seamanship, reliability, and character of each one. He jammed both pistols into his belt and left Grew with the strongbox.

“Be ’ere when I get back.”

“I ain’t goin’ no place, Dexter. We be partners. Besides, somebody see a black man runnin’ around with a big strongbox, dey shoot him dead.”

Duncan’s Blind Pig was the largest tavern on the waterfront. The rest of the dock was deserted, but the Blind Pig shone like a
campfire on a stormy night. The sounds of raucous laughter and music, made louder by the surrounding silence, rolled out the door to greet Lovell.

Before going inside, he peered through one of the windows. There were four people in the saloon—Duncan, the wooden-legged barkeep, and three scurvy-looking sailors. One of the sailors, dead drunk, was dancing with Duncan while another played the hornpipe and the third swilled ale straight from the tap.

Lovell entered quietly and stood in the doorway. He was nervous. He gripped his belt tightly so that no one would see his hands shaking, and he waited for the music to stop. Four drunken faces turned to inspect him.

“Come in, mister,” said Duncan, whose wooden leg was well proportioned to the rest of his lank body. “Come in and drink your fill. I’ll not leave a drop for the bloody British.”

“I’m lookin’ for Captain Cletis Smith,” said Lovell firmly. “I was told I could find him down ’ere.” Lovell knew that Smith was an honest man with a vessel large enough for an ocean voyage.

“You been told right, mister,” said the barkeep. “He lives on his boat, but he took to the river early this mornin’, sayin’ he’d give no damn Redcoat the chance to burn the
. That’s his boat.”

“Aye,” said the man with the hornpipe. “Most captains on the river hauled keel up into Maryland this morning. Them that didn’t are off gettin’ their fair share of the city’s loot before the British do. And then, there’s us.” The man stood, a scrawny figure with no front teeth and a scar all the way around his neck. “Captain Jack Dawson and Sons. That’s Henry drinkin’ the beer, and Jeff’s the dancer.”

Lovell nodded to the two sons, who gazed at him sullenly.

“We own the
, that cargo sloop settin’ out there, and we’re always happy to be of service to a gentleman, even one so muddy as yourself, sir.”

Lovell did not look quite as imposing as he’d have liked. His stockings and breeches were covered in mud, and his blouse was soaked through with sweat.

Dawson offered his hand. “Now tell me what three fine sailors can be doin’ for you.”

Before extending his right hand. Lovell slipped his left around one of the pistols. He knew Dawson to be one of the most scurrilous men on the river. “I need passage down the Potomac… tonight.”

“Tonight? You’re crazy, mister.” Jack Dawson and his sons began to laugh.

“Perhaps. But I’m willin’ to pay ’andsomely.” Lovell was a seaman, but he had never sailed a river at night. With the British Navy anchored ten miles downstream, he wanted an experienced captain to steer him through the sandbars and currents along the bank of the Potomac.

“How handsomely?”

Lovell took a twenty-dollar gold piece from the pouch on his hip and gave it to Dawson.

The captain bit into the coin and nodded his approval. “It’s real gold, but I wouldn’t sail past a British squadron for ten of these.” He dropped the gold piece into his pocket.

“Get me where I’m going, and I’ll give you fifty. One thousand dollars. More money than you make in a year.”

Dawson’s face lit up. “Mister, for a thousand dollars I’d sail up the Thames and shit on London Bridge. Now you just give me the rest and we’ll be on our way.”

Lovell noticed Duncan reaching behind the bar. He drew both pistols. “ ’Ands up!”

The barkeep leaped back and threw his hands into the air.

“There’s no need to be so jumpy, mate,” said Dawson. “We be friendly.”

“I don’t need friends. I need passage. I’ll pay you two ’undred when we cast off, three ’undred at Chesapeake Bay, and the rest when we drop anchor.”

“And where might that be?”

“I’ll tell you in the mornin’.”

Dawson turned to his sons. “The limey gent drives a hard bargain, boys. Are you game for a little adventure?”

“I ain’t movin’ from the tap till I seen a gold piece,” said Henry.

Lovell flipped gold pieces to each of the Dawson boys, who grabbed them like hungry men snatching food.

“It’s real gold, Pa,” said Henry, weighing the coin in his hand.

“Then I’d say we have a contract.” Dawson grinned. His face looked like a skull without crossbones.

Dexter Lovell wasn’t turning his back on this cut-throat or his sons for the rest of the night.

Toward one in the morning, as she rode the current close to the lee shore, the
rounded into view of H.M.S.
, the forty-gun frigate which led the British squadron. With lanterns extinguished and sails furled, the
slipped past, although Jack Dawson nearly tore out the bottom of the boat on a submerged tree.

“Like stealin’ breakfast mush from an old maid.” Dawson laughed softly, and the journey continued downstream.

In the bow of the thirty-foot sloop, Dexter Lovell sat on his strongbox. He kept his back against a bulwark, both pistols in his lap, and Jeff Grew beside him. All night, he watched the Dawson boys warily, expecting an attack at each bend of the river. All night, the Dawson boys eyed the box, wondering what the man and his slave guarded so diligently, waiting for their father to make his move.

But Jack Dawson concentrated on piloting the
. He was accustomed to running in the dark, and he kept in the shadow of the shoreline all night. The British watch never saw him. At three o’clock, he passed the
, the last ship in the squadron. “I think we can relax now.” he said.

Dexter Lovell became more vigilant.

Around four, Jeff Grew began to doze.

Lovell nudged him. “ ’Ave you ever killed a man?”

Grew barely opened his eyes, but his smile told Lovell he was awake. “Easier’n choppin’ sugar cane.”


The sun was half-risen, like a bloodstain on the morning mist, when the
reached the mouth of the Potomac.

BOOK: Back Bay
8.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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