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Authors: Siri Mitchell

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BOOK: The Messenger
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2

Jeremiah

 

“ . . . so Colonel Beckwith put a pistol to the rebel’s head and the fellow dropped clean away. Right to the floor. Didn’t even stop to soil himself on the way down. And he said, the colonel did, ‘The only thing rebels are good for is dying.’ ” A ripple of laughter passed through the public room of my tavern. It was followed by the stamping of feet. Both sounds of a normal Monday’s business.

Clamorous crowds were not unknown to my tavern, even though the loyalties of my customers had changed with the occupation. But any tavern owner knew that a man who drank three mugs of rum paid more for his pleasures than a man who only drank one. As I collected an empty tankard, a hand reached out and grabbed my sleeve. Had I not seen it, had I not stopped, that pull might have stripped the coat from my shoulder. “Don’t you think so, Jones?”

I turned toward the voice. The same one that had told the story. “Unhand me, you loathsome brute.” I hoped the smile at my lips would temper the venom in my words. “I think the only thing you’re good at is getting your mates to pay for your drinks.”

Another wave of laughter. Another call for drink.

I summoned the cook’s daughter from her corner and went back to my daybook, protected by the wooden cage that framed the bar. I had no illusions about the refinement of my guests. The cage had sheltered me a time or two during brawls and it kept my customers from pilfering my spirits. I watched the girl’s progress, noting when she served the tailor. He was sitting alone at a table in the corner, sunk into the Windsor chair as if he did not want to be noticed. I wished I did not have to.

A round of applejack for the noisome soldiers and a mug of rum for the tailor in the corner.

Rum.

I filled six mugs with applejack. Pushed them across the counter toward the serving girl. Then I took up a bottle of rum, pulling the cork from it with my teeth, and poured a drink with my good hand. My only hand. The hand that hadn’t been shot off fifteen years earlier during Pontiac’s War.

It didn’t bode well that the tailor had ordered rum. Not when he usually drank Madeira. But a man couldn’t refuse to read the signs just because he didn’t like the message they bore. I walked across the room and set it down in front of the man. Turned to leave.

“I can’t do this anymore.”

I paused. Cast a glance down at him. “This is not the time or place.”

He nodded, jerkily, eyes darting about the room. Though nearly half the city had fled as the British approached, they’d brought double the number of soldiers with them. Nearly twenty thousand, some said. The room was rife with redcoats. He tossed back the liquor and threw some coin onto the table, then dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief as he rose to go. “Meet me at the shop. After supper.”

 

He pulled me into the shop just as soon as I put my hand to the door. Locking it behind us, he retreated behind his counter, frowning. He unfolded a length of material, put a hand up to his queue and fiddled with the bow that secured it, then refolded the material once more. Finally he placed his hands atop it and sighed. “The thing of it is, I can’t do this anymore.”

I had been hoping that I hadn’t understood him correctly earlier. “You can’t—? But . . . if you’re not going to do it, then who is?” That was the question, wasn’t it? Who was going to do what he had been doing?

The tailor shook his head and unfolded the material once more. Then he put his shears to the fabric. “I don’t care. They’ll figure something out. They always do.”

“You’re just going to abandon your position?”

“Too dangerous.”

Too dangerous for a man who stayed hidden inside his tailor’s shop for most of every day?

He let the shears rip into the fabric, pulling the material through the blades.

“At least tell me who your contact is.”

“You are.”

“I mean the other one. The one you pass my information to.”

The tailor’s apprentice walked into the workshop, arms filled with colorful lengths of fabric. He dumped them onto a table and brushed off his hands on his apron.

The tailor sent a look of consternation my direction before addressing the boy. “I need you to run down to the wharf and see if our ship has come in. I’m anxious to receive those trims I ordered.”

The boy nodded and ducked out of the shop, leaving the door to bang shut behind him.

“It’s a country girl. Comes into the city to sell eggs. That’s one of the problems.”

“Eggs?”

“When is the last time you saw eggs at the market?”

When was the last time there’d been milk or butter? The cost of food for my tavern had increased steeply since the occupation. If I hadn’t developed contacts among the occupiers themselves, I doubted I would have been able to obtain flour of any quality. Or cheese or meat either. Effectively, Philadelphia no longer had a market. It had mercenaries who crept in through the lines before dawn and sold their wares for a fortune.

“I don’t have the nerve anymore to skulk about the market waiting for her. You know what they do to you if they catch you?”

I’d heard.

“What she sells me are quail’s eggs. That’s where the general hides his messages. Do you know how much a quail egg cost before this infernal mess? And I haven’t been given any money for my expenses in months.” He folded the material he had just cut and swept the scraps into a basket. “Though I
am
partial to a good quail’s egg.”

If truth be told, he was partial to a good many things that cost an extravagant amount of money. Being the best-dressed man in town couldn’t come cheaply, even if one had the ability to make the clothes oneself. But he was going to let good intelligence go undelivered for want of egg money?

Had I had another hand I might have used it to strangle him. As it was, all I could do was clench the hand I had and shove it straight to the bottom of my coat pocket. Useless and ineffectual. That’s what I’d become. “
I’ll
give you the money.” The one thing the redcoats knew how to do was drink. And they were willing to pay handsomely for the vice. I figured they owed me. It hadn’t bothered me a bit to change the name of my tavern from Patriot’s Arms to King’s Arms to lure them to my business.

“Even if I had the money . . . it’s not that. It’s what they want. What
he
wants. General Washington.”

I raised a brow.

He shook his head.

“If you’re going to abandon all this, the least you can do is tell me what the general wants. I might be able to do it.” In any case, from time to time I heard useful information. It would be a shame not to have the means to pass it along.

“There’s no one could do this.” He shut up the blades of his shears, placed them into the basket, and clapped the lid down on top. Poking at the bottom of the basket, he pulled a scrap of parchment from a hole. Handed it to me. “He wants to get this message into the jail.”

A message into the jail? That’s what the general wanted? No wonder the tailor had decided to quit the cause. He was right. There was no one who could do that.

 

I returned to the tavern in low spirits. Though I hadn’t actually ever spied for General Washington, I had been able to provide helpful information now and then, helping the cause in my own way. But now, all that was finished. My support for the war effort had just been reduced to squeezing shillings from the soldiers who frequented my tavern. It might add to my fortune, but it wasn’t nearly so satisfying. I drew the door open and walked into the smoke-shrouded public room.

“Jeremiah Jones!”

I blinked. As I tried to block that too-familiar voice from my ears, the years fell away. I was transported back to Devil’s Hole. I’d been a colonial in Gage’s Light Infantry then. We’d been dispatched to rescue an ambushed wagon train that had been bound for the fort near the falls. But the Indians had surprised us, attacking from the high ground, under cover of the brush. Everything had happened so quickly.

“Jeremiah Jones!” John Lindley had yelled across the road at me. Lieutenants both, we were sworn to protect the men we led. But he was pointing his musket behind him, appearing as if . . . as if he wanted to retreat?

The way of battle wasn’t backward, it was forward!

I don’t know who got off the first shot, but suddenly the air was filled with the pop of musket fire. The drift of smoke began to obscure my vision. Beside me, I heard the terrible thud of bullet penetrating flesh. One of my men crumpled onto my feet.

“Jeremiah—retreat!”

The haze had enveloped my platoon. We were fighting in a world where there was no sight. There was only sound. The whine of bullets, the groans of the wounded. And there were smells. The peculiarly pungent smell of terror. And the musty scent of fear.

I kicked at the dead weight of the fallen soldier and freed my feet. Turned, cupped a hand to my mouth, and shouted a cry. But no one answered. No one rallied to my call. It was as if the entire world had fallen away. And without the advantage of sight, I no longer knew which way was back and which was forward.

In that swirl of smoke and nightmare, a bullet found my elbow. The pain was so fierce that I lost hold of my musket. So piercing I fell to the ground.

When the shooting stopped and the smoke had dissipated, I found myself face-to-face with a dead man, staring into a pair of eternally startled blue eyes. Trying to scramble to my feet, I put out my arm. Biting back a scream, I fell to my knees as a web of darkness threatened to envelop me. When my vision cleared, I beheld a scene of carnage. The whole of my platoon had fallen around me. Good men all.

Stumbling, I made my way through the forest back to the fort. At least that’s where I hoped I was headed. But nothing in that forlorn and desolate place looked right. Despite the warmth of the day, my arm was cold. I put out my other to cradle it and encountered a tattered, sodden mess of a coat sleeve.

Somehow I managed to lurch to a tree stump before I collapsed.

Eventually they found me, two privates looking for survivors. They rolled me onto a blanket and then dragged me through the wood. Endless tree branches waved above my head.

Daggers of pain.

Teeth gritted against the agony.

Fingernails digging hollows into the flesh of my palm.

Less trees, more sunlight, followed by blue sky, clouds . . . and finally the smells of the fort. First woodsmoke and then the latrines. Even worse, the surgery. The sounds of the army echoed around me. The grunts of men at work. The clatter of tin and pewter ware. And the rasp of the surgeon’s saw. They dragged me toward that sound, toward those terrible smells. Paused in front of an open tent.

“Bring the lieutenant in.”

I felt the warmth of relief wash over me. If the surgeon could get the bullet out and bind me up, then I could collapse in my tent. Sweat out the pain for a while in privacy.

The blanket began to move once more.

“No! Not that one.”

They stopped.

“That one’s come up from the colonial militia. Take this other one: he’s one of the British regulars.”

My head banged against the ground as the privates dropped the corners of the blanket, pitching me onto my wounded arm before I passed out. When I came to, I was lying in front of the hospital tent, with bloody rags piled beside me. As I lay there, an opossum slunk out from the forest’s edge, tugged a severed hand from the pile, and returned to the brush with it, fingers waving from its mouth.

BOOK: The Messenger
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