Saturday, September 8, 2012
Saturday's Chapter - Courting the Devil - Kathy Fischer-Brown
July 10, 1777—Near Argyle, NY
Inside MacPherson’s Tavern just off Dead Creek east of Fort Edward, the old men sitting around tables in the taproom squirmed in their chairs and stared into their mugs of cider and ale. Whispered words, “Hubbardton” and “Ticonderoga,” along with the sounds of rattling dice sputtered into silence. Clouds of tobacco smoke hung thick in the dank air, combining with the sour smell of beer and the warm, yeasty scent of baking bread, as three officers, newly arrived in once smart-looking blue and buff, haggled with the proprietor over the price of a hogshead of rum. Their voices and manner increased in volume and contentiousness.
The loudest and angriest of the three, his left arm in a bloody sling, addressed the indifferent assembly with angry passion, competing against the rumble of thunder outside. He motioned with his good arm toward the window. Just beyond, through the distorting glass, a knot of spectral soldiers, dressed in homespun and buckskin, huddled under the streaming eaves.
“Those men out there,” he shouted. “What's left of ’em … gave their blood and their lives fightin’ for you, my friends …for your homes and your families…keepin’ you safe from Burgoyne and his Indians.”
The old men peered over their tankards, exchanging looks, but daring not to acknowledge the presence of the haggard officers.
“We ain’t askin’ for much,” the young lieutenant pleaded, concentrating his efforts on the proprietor. “Just a little rum to put some fire in their bellies. God knows they deserve it!”
Robert MacPherson, secure behind the portcullis window of the bar, put down the pewter tankard he’d been wiping dry and looked the young man in the eye. “How d’ye ’spect to pay, I ask ye? Don’t get me wrong, but I gotta make a livin’ ain’t I? I gotta live. How d’ye ’spect to pay?” He glanced at the cask on the floor behind him. “That there’s good West Indian rum. Cost me sixteen Spanish dollars the barrel!”
“Sixteen dollars!” The smallest of the three officers whirled on the proprietor. “It ain’t worth but three pence the gallon!”
“Was!” MacPherson thumped the counter with his open hand. “Before them committees in Albany begun settin’ prices. Short, they tell me. Rum’s gone short. So’s salt and other necessaries. Who’m I to question? We do without, same as you!” He picked up the tankard and resumed wiping it dry.
The three bedraggled officers looked at each other in frustration. The oldest—a tall, rangy man with a gaunt, pockmarked face and tired eyes—pulled a crumpled wad of paper money from his coat pocket and stuffed it through the slats in the grill. “Tis all we got!” he grumbled.
“Continentals!” MacPherson pushed the pile back at the pock-faced man. “I’m sorry …” The bills fluttered to the floor around the officer’s feet.
“Sorry?” The young lieutenant lunged at the grill and would have torn it from the window had the older man not restrained him with a hand on his arm. “Says he’s sorry. I’ll show him who’s sorry!”
“What would you do in my place?” MacPherson pleaded, his hands outstretched. “Think about that! Take it up with the Committee. Take it up with Congress. That money ain’t worth a piss in the ocean. Is it my fault? How’s a man to make a livin’?”
“Devil take you,” the gaunt officer grumbled, as he turned on his worn boot heel. The other two remained a moment longer, glaring in anger before following their captain to the door.
“Put yourself in my place,” MacPherson called after them.
Three men turned as one, their faces stolid, impervious to his appeals. The old men stared into their mugs.
“Put yourself in their place.” The lieutenant jerked his head toward the window. He added quietly, but loud enough to be heard, “Tory bastard! Traitor!”
Rain pelted the window panes, underscoring the groaning chairs under the fidgeting old men.
The captain laid a heavy hand on the lieutenant’s shoulder. “We’re wasting time,” he said softly. “We’d best be going if we’re to reach Fort Edward by nightfall.”
But nobody moved. The angry lieutenant glared at MacPherson, who met his gaze with fearful eyes.
A flash of light flickered in the windows. Shadows quivered across the floor, rising and falling along the walls in response to the blast of wind in the chimney. A crack of thunder rattled the silence. Wind shook the window panes and door hinges, before the force blew open the door and sent a chilling gust, laced with spray, moaning through the room.
All eyes turned on the man standing straight and tall, rain dripping profusely from his tricorn hat and coat in the open doorway. A slender apparition dressed in black from head to toe, he stood motionless against the slug-like movements of the men milling behind him under the eaves. His dark, piercing eyes scanned the assembly before settling on the proprietor, who withered under the scrutiny. The newcomer turned his gaze on the three officers, summed up the situation, and without a word, made his way with slow, determined steps toward the bar.
“Harris,” MacPherson gasped. He mopped his face with his sleeve. “I wasna expectin’ ye till next week.”
“Then it’s fortunate for you I’ve come early.”
Harris gathered up the slips of paper from the floor and arranged them in a pile before placing them into MacPherson’s sweaty hands through the grill. “How careless you’ve become, MacPherson.” He focused a penetrating gaze on the man. “You’ve taken money from these gentlemen and neglected to turn over the goods.”
MacPherson made a throat-clearing sound. “How careless of me! Thank you, friend.” He called into the back room and a fat, dirty-faced young boy, dressed in coarse homespun, appeared in the doorway. “Nathaniel,” he said, forcing a smile as he wiped the sweat from his face with his apron, “help these gentlemen with that barrel…there’s a good lad!” He swung open the gate and watched, crestfallen, while the three officers, with Nathaniel’s inept assistance, rolled his precious barrel of West Indian rum across the floor.
Outside a great shout rose up over the sounds of the storm. In a few moments, the cheerful strains of “Yankee Doodle” swelled above the rain and the thunder, and faded away down the road.
Inside MacPherson’s Tavern, the proprietor ushered Nathaniel into the back room, wringing his apron in distress, as the old men, without finishing their drinks and games, edged their way toward the door.
Having hung his sodden cloak and hat on the peg by the stone fireplace, Harris sat with his back to the empty hearth, his arms folded across his narrow chest, his long legs stretched out, and waited until the last of the old men had grunted his farewells.
“I’m disappointed in you, MacPherson,” he said softly, staring in annoyance at the tear in his mud-spattered black silk stocking. “I thought we had an understanding.” He pulled a small purse from his waistcoat pocket and tossed in his hand. The rattled coins inside when he tossed them to the table.
Wringing his apron, MacPherson edged his way through the open gate.
“I was depending on you,” Harris turned his scowling gaze from his stocking, “and now I find you can’t be trusted.”
“A man’s gotta live,” McPherson demurred, his eyes on the leather bag. “How’m I to—”
Harris turned his dark eyes on the man. MacPherson glanced down at his feet, at the dull brass buckles on his shoes. “I got a wife and five children …”
“Then I must ask you to think, man, or you’ll be leaving behind a widow and five orphans.” The tension in Harris’s face abated. His wide mouth bent into the semblance of a gloomy smile. “But we needn’t go into all that again. We have an understanding, haven’t we?” He picked up the bag of coins and shook it.
MacPherson tore his eye from the payment and met the dark, eyes of Lucius Harris. He mopped his brow and inhaled deeply. “If tis names ye be wantin’,” he said, his voice choked, “I got ’em.”
Harris nodded like a benevolent school master whose most mediocre student, having utterly tried his patience, had finally mastered his lesson. “You surprise me, MacPherson! Yes, I’ll have the names. But that is not what brought me here. I’ve come for a letter.”
“One addressed to Fuller, Aaron Fuller.”
MacPherson’s pale face grew whiter. “I canna be turnin’ over another man’s—”
Harris leveled his piercing gaze on the trembling man. “You did receive it, did you not?”
“I…I did. ”
“Then bring it here. And bring me a mug of ale and a candle.”
MacPherson trudged over to the large desk on the other side of the hearth, where he rummaged through the numerous cubby holes and draws until he withdrew a battered, folded document from a pile of similarly mishandled papers. His hand shaking, he extended the letter to Harris.
“The seal’s been broken,” Harris remarked, eyeing the man with distrust as he unfolded the paper. MacPherson swallowed hard.
Harris removed the missive from its empty cover and, without looking at it, squeezed the letter into a ball, which he tossed it over his shoulder into the hearth. “Where’s the candle?”
MacPherson dashed behind the bar through the open gate and into the back room. He emerged a short time later, panting and sweating, with a half-burned taper in a pewter candlestick. He set it down, twisting his apron as Harris held the empty cover to the flame and quickly read the words that emerged from the onion juice writing:
As you are aware, it is Uncle’s intention to attend us in Albany by summer’s end. It is time now to begin earnest preparations for a thorough House cleaning. Most vital that you ascertain the whereabouts of those of our Cousins in the vicinity who wish him well in order that we might have them safely assembled prior to his arrival. Uncle is aware of our devotion. I await news of your progress. Your brother, A.F.
As soon as Harris finished reading, he held the paper over the candle flame until it blackened and curled, then he dropped it into the hearth. He hung his head in silent thought and rubbed his eyes.
It’s come to this!
He had hoped it would never happen. But who would have thought Ticonderoga, ‘the impregnable fortress of the north’ to have fallen so easily? Without a fight! It had been their one hope to contain the British, at least for the remainder of the season, at least until winter, at least until General Schuyler had an army with which to do battle. Damn Congress and their infernal procrastination! Now there was nothing between the British general Burgoyne and Albany. Nothing to stop him. The cause had begun to look hopeless indeed.
MacPherson shuffled his feet. “I’ll get ye that mug of ale.”
Even after MacPherson had set the tankard before him, Harris continued to brood. He drank, but without enjoyment or awareness.
“Will you be needin’ a bed for the night?” When Harris remained silent, a trace of hope crept into MacPherson’s voice, “Or will ye be returnin’ to Albany?”
Harris turned to him. “The names of those Tory bastards,” he said darkly. “I’ll have them now.”
* * *
The late afternoon sun hovered above distant hills, as shadows stretched along the wooded path that ran along the Moses Creek. A light breeze wafted through dense foliage carrying the sweet fragrance of damp earth and pine. Rain drops plunked into puddles from glistening leaves.
Lucius Harris stared through the twitching ears of his mount while the sounds of evening swelled around him.
“Damn MacPherson!” he said through his teeth. The sound startled his horse; he tightened the reins against her pull. “I shouldn’t have trusted him, lying son-of-a-bitch! I shouldn’t have paid him!”
But of course, MacPherson could not have known. He simply acted as he did to keep his Tory hide free of tar and feathers, and add a few Spanish dollars to his coffers. How could he have known that the information he furnished would prove to be so disturbing?
Harris closed his eyes, as the memory of MacPherson’s voice rang painfully in his ears. “…then there’s a fellow name o’ McKenna … Likes to be called Major McKenna, one o’ them Night’s Watch what served against the French… Has a farm down on Moses Creek west o’Argyle. Just last Tuesday Colum Alexander said he heard McKenna say he’d burn his wheat rather’n sell it to a buncha farm boys who should be home farmin’ their own fields. He was sittin’ right over there, with the Gordon brothers. Said he’d sell the crop to Johnny Burgoyne before he’d see it burn. Then there’s old Isaac Dunn…runs a tannery east of Fort Edward… Ain’t you takin’ this down in your book, Harris?”
He had been scribbling names and notes with a pencil in his small black bound book, as the blood pounded in his ears. A burning desire to question MacPherson further rose in his breast, but he could not utter a sound. Major McKenna. The memory sent him back to a time when he was hardly more than a boy. Loud, boisterous Uncle Fergus rousing him and Seth from their snug bed in the cold dark before dawn. The smell of apple blossoms in May. The taste of cornmeal mush sweetened with maple sugar. The sounds of laughter. The boys who had become like brothers to him during those few brief years in Albany before they left for the wilderness. And the little girl who had made him laugh on a summer day so long ago. She’d called him ‘Wooshus,’ and he laughed so hard his sides ached.
“You’ll be going back to Albany now, won’t you?” MacPherson had asked hopefully when Lucius pulled his hat and cloak from the peg.
Harris stared hard at MacPherson, and strode out of the tavern as the sun broke through the clouds. How could MacPherson have known? He, himself, could not have guessed that he would be spending his time at the McKenna farm. But the prospect was a welcome one, and too perfect to ignore. No one would think to look for him there.
* * *
By his pocket watch the hour had gone past six when Lucius Harris came upon a familiar bend in the Moses Creek. Just beyond, if he could trust his memory, was the swimming hole where he had passed many a hot summer afternoon with the boys, Seth and Archibald. From there, it was a short walk up the hill through a wooded path to the house nestled in a clearing on a hill bordered by tall sycamores and pines. Or he could follow the cart path from the creek around to the back by the corn crib, barn and slave cabins, to the enclosure at the rear of the large gambrel-roofed dwelling, where chickens, pigs and geese roamed free and where he and Seth once tormented the geese with willow rods. How they had laughed when the angry birds chased them willy-nilly across the enclosure until, from their safe haven on the other side of the rail fence, he and Seth continued their assault with pebbles and sticks.
On the heavy, humid air he could almost smell Aunt Fiona’s johnny cake baking in the stone hearth. He could almost taste it! He had not realized how hungry he was…or how thirsty. A sudden pang squeezed his heart when he reckoned it had been years since his last visit, five years since Fiona had died.
The sun had sunk low on the horizon when he found himself standing before the house, its windows dark in the cool shadows, its door shut fast. Amid the honking of geese in their pen, he tethered his horse to the top rail of the fence, and strolled around through the clusters of fat chickens pecking at insects in the damp soil. He peered through the thick, distorting glass. By all appearances, no one was at home. By the look of the rooms—with their neat and orderly arrangement of furniture and other accouterments—the family’s departure seemed only temporary and not inspired by the fear of imminent catastrophe. All along the Moses Creek, people were fleeing the route of a great army’s advancement. Such seemed not the case here.
He squinted through the kitchen window. A fire burned unattended in the hearth, a blackened pot suspended on its jack high above the flames. He jiggled the latch on the Dutch door, but it was locked from within.
As he turned away from the door, a sound directly behind him—like that of a flintlock hammer snapping into firing position—froze him in his steps.
“Stand where you are!” A woman’s voice.
Despite the command, he turned, astounded to find himself staring through the blinding sun into the muzzle of a fowling piece trained on his chest.
“Raise your hands above your head.” Even as her voice trembled, the woman braced the weapon with steady hands against her shoulder.
“State your business, and be quick about it!”
He shaded his eyes with one hand against the glare of the low hanging sun, but shadows obscured her face. Her shape, though, intrigued him–slender, and softly curved. “I’m looking for Fergus McKenna. If I’m not mistaken, he used to reside here. I’m an old friend. I—”
“This is the home of Major McKenna.”
He tried to smile, but his face would not accommodate. “That is comforting. For a moment I thought I’d come to the wrong place.”
“What business have you with the major?”
“Forgive me, but I find it difficult to speak with…” He cast a glance at the weapon. She fixed her sights on him with renewed purpose. He sighed then spoke quickly. “My name is Harris…Lucius Harris. I’m an old friend of the family…from Albany. Perhaps you’ve heard mention of me? I can’t say I have any business to conduct, save to pay my respects and—”
“An odd way to pay your respects, Mr. Harris! Sneaking around like a thief!”
“Believe me it was not my intention.” At last he found himself able to form the semblance of a grin.
Shivering, she said nothing.
He smelled her fear. “I beg your pardon, madam,” he said softly. “I seem to have forgotten that these are troubled times that would force a gentlewoman to take up arms…but I assure you, there is no need…” He motioned with a wave of his hand at the weapon. “My intentions are honorable.”
She braced the rifle more firmly against her shoulder. “As you so aptly observed, these are troubled times. One must be wary of thieves and vagrants.”
“Tell me, madam…” He opened his arms wide, a show of his helplessness. “Do I look like a thief?” Warily, he stepped toward her.
She took a step back, then held her ground. “That’s far enough!”
From his new vantage point, he could better make out her features. The sun, no longer directly at her back, caught her at a slightly more favorable angle, casting its harsh light over the side of her face, revealing her to be a young woman with a pleasing countenance framed by wisps of dark, unruly hair tumbling from the confines of an unbleached linen mobcap. But what caught him off guard was the fleeting glint of her eyes—violet in color, set like gems against the tint of summer in her skin.
Those eyes remained fixed on him along the line of the fowling piece.
“Very well. “ He crossed his arms over his chest and smiled fully. “I’ve no wish to cause you any further distress. But tell me, how long before the family returns?”
“I expect them shortly.”
“Before supper is ruined, eh?”
She made no response to his attempt at humor.
“Is it your intention to stand there like that, guarding your virtue against me until their return?”
She adjusted her aim against the weight of the weapon dragging its barrel down. “I warn you sir, do not trifle with me!”
He laughed quietly. “It would appear we’re not starting off on the right foot, are we? I’d hate to think my stay here was ruined by what you’ll soon discover to be an unfortunate misunderstanding.”
“I wouldn’t trouble myself over which foot we start off on. It is of no consequence to either of us.”
All at once, the precariousness of his situation seemed but a minor inconvenience as he found himself rapt in the young woman’s presence and the need to know more about her. He fixed his gaze upon her. Despite her effort to assume a protective stand, the angle of light caught the look of dispassion in her eyes. But before he could bring himself to speak, the sound of voices raised in some sort of hymn of thanksgiving and the creaking of wheels disrupted the uneasy silence.
She glanced up in the direction of the cart path, where a wagon drawn by two lumbering oxen emerged from shadows into the clearing. A large, burly man on horseback rode alongside the cart, driven by a young man with sandy colored hair sitting beside a girl, her head covered with a blue scarf. A line of black slaves–men and women–with rakes and shovels on their shoulders, marched behind like a troop of well-trained soldiers, their faces gleaming with sweat, as they sang their song celebrating an end to the day.
Lucius exhaled quick puff of air and his whole body relaxed. “It appears our wait is over.” He winked and smiled, and moved past her.