Hoppertown, New Jersey, May 1778
The moon cast a silver glow over the sleeping villages as a lone figure broke from the shadow of a large oak and ran toward the copse near the edge of the road. With a last furtive glance over her shoulder, Kirsten Van Atta slipped into the forest clearing ahead.
Her heart raced as she followed the familiar path. The trip was never more risky than it was this night; British soldiers were in residence at the local tavern. Alert for danger, her eyes sweeping the woods for any movement, she clung to the side of the road, moving stealthily from one hiding place to another. Overhead, moonlight filtered through the leafy canopy to make dusky patterns on the dirt lane. The night hummed with the song of summer's insects, and a warm breeze caressed her skin as she picked up her pace.
She had to get home. If her father found out she'd been out at night to see Miles, there'd be hell to pay. Cousins as well as good friends, Kirsten and Miles refused to sever their relationship, though their families were on opposite sides in the war. The Van Attas were Patriots, while William Randolph, Miles's father, was a staunch supporter of King George. Randolph had ordered his wife and son to stay away from his sister's family, and James Van Atta distrusted his brother-in-law enough to fear for his loved ones' safety. So Kirsten and Miles had no choice but to meet in secret, at night, when there would be no chance of discovery by their fathers. The cousins' affection for each other was so strong that they willingly risked attack by soldiers from either side.
The night blackened as Kirsten left the road for a footpath near the river, following the trail as it curved from its course parallel with the stream, heading deeper into the woods. The breeze rustling the treetops became cooler, and the moon slipped behind a cloud.
She had been gone much longer than she'd expected, longer than was wise under the circumstances; and each passing second intensified her fear. Her gaze now darting wildly from one shadow to the next, Kirsten clutched at the collar of her dark homespun shirt. She wore her father's shirt and breeches, both too large for her, the breeches held up by a piece of hemp. She could move freely through the forest in men's clothing, unhampered by petticoats.
An owl hooted in the distance. Startled, Kirsten stumbled and then righted herself. She seized hold of a nearby tree, struggling for breath, her pulse roaring in her ears.
Calm down. Use your head,
she told herself.
No use getting excited over an old bird.
Kirsten tucked back the silver blond tendrils that had escaped from beneath her conical, linen cap before she moved on. Suddenly, the woods had grown strangely quiet. She heard the roaring current of the Hohaukus as clearly as if she stood on the river's bank. Then lightning illuminated the sky, and she gasped at the great rumbling in the distance.
Thunder. It's only thunder!
she thought. The advent of a summer storm . . . not British cannons.
As the first raindrop settled upon her cheek, Kirsten began to run. Within moments, the rain fell in torrents, soaking her to the skin. Her head bowed against the onslaught, she caught sight of a faint flicker of light through the trees. She froze. Someone was down by the river!
Once again, her feet flew over the uneven ground as she hurried toward home. Halting abruptly near a bend in the path, Kirsten surveyed the tangled underbrush. Ahead the path wound closer to the riverbank. Dare she venture off the trail?
Above, lightning streaked the sky and thunder shook the heavens. Kirsten decided there was nothing she could do but go on. If she didn't, she'd have to go back to Miles and endure her father's wrath. Hands shielding her face from the stinging rain, she plodded ahead determinedly.
Richard Maddox huddled beneath the tree, seeking shelter from the storm. Despite his cocked hat the wind whipped rain into his face.
Biv is long overdue,
he thought. Only a few minutes and he'd have to leave.
Richard waited, although he was chilled to the bone and hunger gnawed painfully at his belly. A twig snapped, and he stiffened.
“Maddox! Don't turn around, ye bloody traitor!” The guttural growl came from behind him.
Richard felt a jolt of surprise. How did the man know his real name? He cursed. He should have been more careful, watched his back. To lower one's guard was a dangerous thing in this time.
A gusty wind caught hold of his hat, and he grabbed for it.
“Don't move, I said!”
Richard froze as he felt the sharp edge of a bayonet, thrust through two layers of clothing, nick his damp skin.
One good clean strike and all will be over,
This is all wrong! I won't die this way!
He should have suspected that something was wrong when Biv changed the meeting date.
By the king's royal arse, I've been set up!
His body tensed with his anger. He wouldn't go down without a fight, nor would he be stabbed clean through like a skewered pigeon.
The heavy downpour continued as Richard slowly lowered his arms to his sides. He clenched his jaw as he anticipated the stranger's next move.
“That's it!” came the hateful voice. “Wouldn't want to frighten me and 'ave me slip.”
“What do you want?” Richard asked.
“Want? Why nothing, mate.” The man's harsh, mirthless laughter sent chills down Richard's spine. “You're the one who wants it. And the others thought I'd be just the one to give it to you.”
“Where's Biv?” Had Biv been caught, too?
The man snickered. “Sorry, but Biv couldn't make it tonight. 'E sends 'is regards, though.” He snorted. “Snivelin' coward if you asks me. Always wantin' me to do 'is dirty work.”
Richard controlled his temper, his fists clenched at his sides. Damn, he'd been tricked by the man who was to have helped him!
Biv is one of them,
he thought, his muscles coiling in readiness to spring.
A whoring murderer like this bastard behind me.
He angled his chin slightly to the right, heedless of the bayonet point at his back. If he could just get a look at the man . . .
Suddenly, Richard sensed that they were no longer alone. From the corner of his eye, he spied a small figure farther along the trail.
The stranger inhaled sharply, apparently catching sight of the newcomer. “What the 'ellâ”
Richard spun sidewise, smashing his fists against his assailant's face. The man staggered, but recovered quickly. Dodging the bayonet, Richard came back swinging. The stranger grunted under the force of Richard's fist and leapt back, brandishing his musket.
Rain fell in a deluge, blinding Richard as he fought for his life. He gasped, wavering, when the bayonet pierced his arm. Rallying, he landed a solid blow to his opponent's midsection. The man slipped in the mud and lost his weapon. Richard lunged for the gun, tripping in the slimy ooze. He fell on his injured arm. His head spun, and he could see spots before his eyes.
The pain was so intense, Richard knew he couldn't hold out much longer. He sensed that his opponent rose to his feet and retrieved the weapon. Richard's vision wavered as he fought to see him. He waited for the death strike. Suddenly, he heard a high-pitched scream and, on instinct, spun backward. Excruciating pain sliced through him as the bayonet penetrated his thigh. Richard's world went black as he lost consciousness.
Kirsten shrieked as she saw the bayonet plunge downward and sink into the felled man's flesh. In the eerie flash and fire of the storm, she could still make out the attacker poised over his victim. He looked up and stared at her.
Her heart skipped a beat. The man's face was horribly disfigured. When she realized that he was scanning the woods beyond her, she broke from her stupor and ran.
Terror kept her from looking back as hot tears mingled with rain on her cheeks. The wind howled a mocking litany:
He's coming to get you.
coming to get you!
She tripped, rolling as she fell, a wet tangle of cloth and scraped limbs.
When she scrambled up, gasping, afraid, she searched for the disfigured man, but could find no sign of him. Where was he? Out there, waiting to pounce on her?
A twig snapped in the bushes behind her, and she held her breath. Seconds later, air left her lungs in a whoosh of relief. She saw two gleaming eyes in the darkness, before a deer, startled from its hiding place, turned and sped off into the night.
A loud crash reverberated overhead. Kirsten jumped, then fled for cover behind a huge boulder. She held a hand to her mouth as she crouched, swallowing against the bile of fear that rose to her throat.
She had no idea how long she huddled in her hiding place. Her legs were cramped, she'd lost her hat, and the rain drenched her hair and formed a puddle about her feet. She was cold, frightened, and wanted nothing more than to be home and in bed.
But despite her discomfort and the storm, she couldn't stop thinking of the murderer's victim. What if he wasn't dead?
She shuddered. How could she in all good conscience leave him, knowing there was a slim chance he might be alive?
She rose and then gasped as feeling returned to her sleeping limbs. A check of her surroundings showed there was still no sign of the disfigured man.
I have to get home,
she told herself. . . .
But an injured man may be lying alone by the river!
If he was struggling for life, she might be able to save him. Kirsten thought of the risk involved in returning to the clearing. What if the man's attacker was there? What if he'd come back to finish the job?
her common sense insisted.
Why risk your life for a stranger?
Kirsten headed back toward the river.