In the hostile wilderness of Colonial America, a young Native American warrior and a British officer are forced into a secret assassination mission. But when they learn their prey is more dangerous than they feared, can they complete their mission, protect a dying tribe, confront a madman, and still survive?
With war rumbling on the horizon, Lieutenant Hugh Pyke arrives in the Pennsylvania Colony hoping to prove himself against the French. Instead, he finds himself blackmailed into a dishonorable mission to assassinate the cousin of the woman he loves.
Wolf Tongue, a brash warrior of a dying tribe, volunteers to guide Pyke through the dangers of both the landscape and its indigenous nations. Even as he fights to protect his people from European and Native invaders, he struggles to earn the respect of those he would save.
An action-filled, old-fashioned adventure, Language of the Bear is the first novel in the Tomahawk and Saber series.
Available at Amazon.
One – An English Messenger
Wolf Tongue pursed his lips in a small, crooked smile even while his fingers tightened on his knife. He looked to his right through a gathered crowd to the young woman who stood beside her father and winked.
Fox’s Smile did not reflect his confidence. Instead of her usual, teasing grin, she stared back with a tightness around her lips that spoke more of concern than jovialness. Her eyes, darkened by lowered eyebrows, darted to the strange man who’d come to their village from the English before coming back to Wolf Tongue.
She was beautiful even when she was worried.
Wolf Tongue pushed the thoughts away and returned his attention to the old man standing beside her. Their village chief, Lifting Smoke, had wrapped himself in a deerskin and wore a tight, embroidered cap over a wrinkled forehead. A puff of white air hung before his face as he spoke to Wolf Tongue.
“You challenging for the right to go?”
Wolf Tongue nodded and fought to keep his lips from curling into a full smile. “This English messenger asks for a single scout to go with him? We should send our best. Not Red Hand.”
“My name is Kicks-the-Oneida,” came a man’s voice, deep and slow, though the tension in his jaw resonated in his words. Kicks-the-Oneida had seen perhaps eight years more than Wolf Tongue’s nineteen and stood half a hand taller than most of the hundred that gathered around. He seemed almost comically tall standing next to the English messenger at his elbow.
The messenger looked around with quick-flitting eyes as he scratched his chest through a woolen overcoat. Wolf Tongue guessed he didn’t speak Susquehannock.
Kicks-the-Oneida stared back at Wolf Tongue with a face of carved wood. He, too, wore a simple hide to fight the cold, though it hung open across his chest. Like many of the men in their tribe, including his seven-year-old son who stood beside him, Kicks-the-Oneida had shaved his head but for a scalplock into which he’d tied two splayed hawk feathers. He had been known as Red Hand until he’d led a war party against the Mohawk and Oneida and driven them back north. It was said he’d killed one with a single kick, though Wolf Tongue hadn’t seen it.
His narrowed eyes lingered on Wolf Tongue for a long moment before he turned back to the chief. “If he challenges, I accept.”
Lifting Smoke crossed his arms and nodded to Kicks-the-Oneida. Wolf Tongue thought he saw something strange in the chief’s eyes. Was that a hidden smile? Did he think so little of him that he’d mock him before he even began the fight?
In less than heartbeat, the look vanished and Lifting Smoke spoke with his usual gravity. “No weapons,” he said. “Our people are too few already.”
Wolf Tongue nodded and took a long breath. Kicks-the-Oneida was only slightly taller than him, but much thicker.
He glanced once at his uncles who had taught him to fight and his mother who stood by them. His uncles watched silently, seeming more curious than anything. His mother had her arms folded across her chest and her bottom lip in her teeth.
Wolf Tongue took his eyes from her and turned to his friend, Runs-in-Water, standing at his elbow. He smiled as he shed his cloak, pulled his tunic over his head, and passed them both over. Runs-in-Water watched him with wide eyes and nodded his encouragement.
With his chest bare, the air was frigid. Spring should be close, but Kaol, the wind, still carried winter and Wolf Tongue could feel it slip over his skin and rustle the dyed porcupine-hair roach in his scalplock. A shiver shook his shoulders.
The crowd shuffled away, creating a wider opening beyond the Ring of Ancestors. Twelve carved posts encircled a large open area with a fire pit at its center. Each post, as tall as a man, had the animal face of a clan ancestor carved in it—the twelve Susquehannock totems would observe the fight.
Across from Wolf Tongue, Kicks-the-Oneida squeezed his son’s shoulder and stepped forward. He had also stripped to his breechcloth and leggings. A particularly ugly vein of puckered skin ran down his left arm from his elbow to his wrist. A tattoo of twisted green lines wound around his neck and down his chest in the angles that represented the Bear Clan.
Wolf Tongue stepped forward and ran one hand across his own clan’s tattoo from his left shoulder down to his sternum. The wolf’s cunning against the bear’s strength.
Kicks-the-Oneida rushed in with his teeth bared. Wolf Tongue dove closer, ducking inside the punch and taking the meat of his arm against his shoulder. He shoved at the bigger man, hoping to unbalance him, but Kicks-the-Oneida twisted and pushed him away. As Wolf Tongue stumbled back, another punch swished past as he barely ducked beneath it.
“You should have stayed as Red Hand,” he said. “I’m no Oneida to just stand here and get kicked.”
He lunged in with a quick grab at his opponent’s leg. Kicks-the-Oneida shifted and slammed one fist into Wolf Tongue’s stomach. A flare of heat forced his breath from him in a gasp.
“Maybe it should be White Hand. I’ll see what color your blood is, quhanstrono,” said Kicks-the-Oneida. Wolf Tongue shuffled away, trying to catch his breath before engaging again. Kicks-the-Oneida stood and watched him with narrowed eyes, his hands dangling at his sides. He smirked and changed to English. “Understand your father’s language better? Let us fight.”
Wolf Tongue stood upright and took a deep breath. His stomach still ached from the punch, but he smiled anyway. In English, he said, “You have enough trouble thinking in your own language, I didn’t think you were smart enough to learn English, too.”
And with that, Wolf Tongue lunged. Kicks-the-Oneida grasped with both arms, trying to slow him down. Wolf Tongue slid past and slammed his elbow against his opponent’s ribs. He spun and kicked at the bigger man’s legs as he stumbled back from the shock of the first blow. One leg slipped out from under Kicks-the-Oneida and he pitched forward. A flailing hand slapped Wolf Tongue across the face, and a burning soreness exploding in his jaw.
Then the two were entangled. Wolf Tongue fought to keep from being crushed or thrown to the ground. His arms writhed like snakes against Kicks-the-Oneida’s, punching, shoving. He forced one palm against the other man’s chin, pushed as hard as he could. He could barely see or breathe for the hand pressing down on his face. It pulled away and air rushed back into his nose, followed suddenly by fist. The blow was from an awkward angle and it blunted the force, though it rose and hammered against Wolf Tongue’s forehead a second time.
Twisting, he wrenched his body down. Kicks-the-Oneida opened his arms, pulling back for a stronger, heavier blow. He stood for half a heartbeat with his arms wide, his right hand over his shoulder. Wolf Tongue, still crouched low, sprung from his knees and drove his elbow up underneath Kicks-the-Oneida’s chin.
Kicks-the-Oneida reeled backward. He stumbled once and swerved suddenly to his left and half-fell into the arms of one of his friends in the crowd. The other man struggled for a moment with the sudden weight before Kicks-the-Oneida righted himself.
He stared back at Wolf Tongue. Blood streamed down his forehead around his eyes. He seemed to ignore the wound on his head as he raised a hand to his mouth. It came away slick and red and he spat a gob to the ground.
“Enough!” called Lifting Smoke.
Wolf Tongue allowed his shoulders to relax, though he still stood staring at Kicks-the-Oneida. His stomach was sore to the point of nausea, his jaw ached, his face stung and his head throbbed. He brought a hand to his nose to see if it was bleeding. It wasn’t. He tried to steady his heaving breaths.
Kicks-the-Oneida spat again and then turned to face Lifting Smoke. Wolf Tongue did the same. The chief looked briefly to his side where his wife, Sits-by-the-Tree, had sat quietly since the messenger had arrived. There seemed to be some unspoken communication between them, and Wolf Tongue glanced quickly to Fox’s Smile. She watched him with a strange, tense look on her face. Was that pride? Concern, perhaps. It did not seem to be the relief Wolf Tongue had hoped for.
“It’s settled, then,” said Lifting Smoke. “Tell him.”
Kicks-the-Oneida faced the Englishman. The stranger stood off to the side of the gathered circle, his hands tightly clasped on his musket that was planted in the dirt before him. With a bitter twist to his mouth, Kicks-the-Oneida spoke in English, “You see, quhanstrono? We send our best warrior with you.”
Kicks-the-Oneida hissed to Wolf Tongue in Susquehannock, “I hope it was worth it.” With that, he paused only for a moment to gather his tunic and cloak from his son and then shouldered his way through the crowd.
The English messenger spoke. “Chief Lifting Smoke, both King George and Colonel Bennett thank you for your support. We know your people have suffered much recently, and your friendship is much valued by your English fathers.”
Fox’s Smile translated into Susquehannock.
“They’re not my fathers,” said Lifting Smoke.
Fox’s Smile translated. “Thank you.”
A small chuckle escaped Wolf Tongue and he marveled at the woman’s straight face. She flicked a sly glance his way.
“The matter’s of utmost importance, and I would hope we could leave immediately. Is that amenable?” asked the Englishman.
“I need only to gather my things,” replied Wolf Tongue. Fox’s Smile translated for her father. “We’ll leave before midday.”
The Englishman nodded and his long hair swung in the breeze like a woman’s. “I’ll wait for you on the road outside your village and escort you to Jenkins Town. Colonel Bennett will have more information for you there.” He turned again to Lifting Smoke. “Chief, thank you again. May God guard you and your people.” Taking his musket in one hand, he turned and walked through the tangle of bark longhouses out toward the fortified outer wall of the village.
Wolf Tongue stifled a snort. The white god was as unsuited for the wilds as the English were.
“Let us speak,” said Lifting Smoke in a quieter voice. Most of the crowd began to disperse as the spectacle had ended and the strange English man left.
The chief narrowed his eyes. “I do not know what the English want with you. But they have been friendly to us, and our village needs more friends than enemies.”
Wolf Tongue looked over his shoulder at the back of the English soldier. “If he’s looking for a scout and warrior, I don’t think it’s to help him make us more friends.”
Lifting Smoke made an ill-humored sound and Wolf Tongue turned back. The chief wore a mask of annoyance mingled with sadness. Despite his words, Wolf Tongue agreed with what he assumed the chief was thinking. The Susquehannock had once been so powerful that even the six nations of the Iroquois feared them. But lately, after the Mohawk and the Oneida had pushed them so far south and so many had died of fever and the pox, their once overwhelming numbers had dwindled. The two hundred villagers here were some of the last of their tribe.
Lifting Smoke was right. The Susquehannock needed more friends than enemies, and the English could be strong ones.
Wolf Tongue stretched his aching jaw, then, with as much seriousness as he could gather, said, “I know. They’ll ask something dangerous of me. But I’ll bring honor on our people and show them the strength of the Susquehannock is still here.”
Lifting Smoke grunted again. “It’s good that you go. Perhaps you’ll do well among your father’s people.”
Wolf Tongue grit his teeth as the chief turned his eyes on his daughter, who still stood at his side. He squeezed her arm as he turned, and then he and his wife stepped away toward their lodge.
Fox’s Smile watched her parents go for a handful of heartbeats, then whispered, “Meet me by the entrance to the village.” She paused long enough for him to stare into her eyes, a glossy brown of polished walnut. Wolf Tongue nodded. She forced a small, hesitant smile, and then she turned and followed her parents.
The wind, Kaol, rolled past and Wolf Tongue felt his sweat like icy fingers trailing down his chest and back.
Wolf Tongue rummaged through the supplies in the longhouse and loaded a bundle of tobacco into his bag.
“You should have been the one to go without the challenge,” said his mother.
He turned to her and paused. She sat on a pile of robes on her bunk with her hands folded atop a plain, woven dress. River Mist’s hair was smooth and black with only a handful of gray strands pulled back into a braid. Even in the gloom of the longhouse, her ears glistened with silver hoops Wolf Tongue’s father had given her. She looked down and smoothed the fur beside her leg for a moment before she turned her eyes back to her son.
“You don’t look like your father in the least,” she said. “But there’s more of him in you than anything else.”
Wolf Tongue set his bag aside and sat next to her. “You miss him.”
She smiled and wrapped her arm over Wolf Tongue’s shoulders. It seemed as if it were an uncomfortable position, to reach so high for her, but it was a familiar gesture and Wolf Tongue said nothing.
As if she hadn’t heard him, she continued. “He came to us because he wouldn’t be held to the quhanstrono laws. He would have been a slave, even though his skin was as pale as the snow.” She turned wide, knowing eyes on him. “He didn’t like to listen to his elders, either.”
“I listen. I just don’t agree sometimes.”
“That’s why I had your father deal with you when you were young.” She shook her head. “Now your sisters, they’re different. They’ve got more of his looks, but their spirits are content.”
“They’re still young.”
“And girls, too. Maybe it’s just men who need to find trouble for themselves.”
“I know of a young woman who caused a bit of trouble when she married the quhanstrono living in the woods instead of a respectable Susquehannock.”
His mother smiled. “I could choose my own husband. Besides, that was a good kind of trouble.”
She squeezed his shoulder and stretched to kiss his cheek. “It’s good that you go,” she said then, her voice going subdued. “You know the English better than any. And you know enough to be wary of their laws and promises if you ever listened to your father.”
She smoothed one hand along the back of his head as she took a breath through her nose. “Remember to pray. All thejogah beyond the village do not know you, and can be tricky.”
“Yes, mother,” he said with a smile.
She huffed, but smoothed her hand along his shaved scalp again. “Then may Hahgwehdiyu clear your path and bring you home soon.”
Wolf Tongue rose and adjusted his bag on his shoulder so it wouldn’t catch against the tomahawk tucked into his belt. “Now go,” she said. “I’m sure there’s a young woman who wants to make some trouble with you.”
Wolf Tongue offered her one more smile and kissed her forehead.
When he stepped from the shelter of the Wolf Clan’s longhouse, he again adjusted his bag. He’d packed the necessities, including food that would last four days if he rationed himself, and the leather bag was heavy against his shoulder. He didn’t know exactly what he would need, so he’d also stowed away extra wadding and balls for his musket.
As he walked through the village, musket held in one hand, others stepped out from their homes and stopped their work to wish him off. A woman and her three children paused at their hide-scraping and he nodded and smiled. Smiling still hurt in his jaw where Kicks-the-Oneida had struck him and his lip had swollen slightly.
He flexed his jaw and increased his pace as he thought of Fox’s Smile. He didn’t want to keep her waiting, though there was one more person he wanted to see before he could meet her.
As he came to the longhouse he sought, he stopped outside to rest his musket against the bark exterior. Above the arching doorway, the family had painted designs of the turtle in stark white against the gray bark. Wolf Tongue pushed aside the heavy blanket in the entrance as he slipped inside.
Long rows of bunks and racks for tools stretched twenty strides ahead. Drying meat hung by the fire in the center of the lodge, and its smoke hung like a mist through the entire building. Runs-in-Water sat on a pile of robes just beside the fire and he motioned to Wolf Tongue to join him.
Runs-in-Water was younger than Wolf Tongue, and not nearly as tall. He still wore his deerskin cloak over his shoulders even by the warmth of the fire. His hair was fashioned in the usual Susquehannock style, shaved but for a tuft at the crest of his skull. Today, Runs-in-Water hadn’t tied any decorations in it and it hung limp, like a streak of black paint down the back of his head.
“I thought you’d spend your last moments in the village with Fox’s Smile,” he said as Wolf Tongue sat.
“I will. So I don’t have much time. I just wanted to say farewell before I left.”
Runs-in-Water smiled. “I’m flattered. The man who bested Kicks-the-Oneida wants to see me.” Then, his face hardened slightly. “Listen, I don’t know why you even wanted to go.”
Wolf Tongue’s brow furrowed. “What?”
“I don’t know. It’s almost like Lifting Smoke wanted you to go. No one knows what the English want. Usually, when they come, they come to trade or steal or beg for a thousand warriors to help them fight. But this time?” He blew a long breath through pursed lips. “Who knows what Lifting Smoke is sending you off to. And you want to go?”
Wolf Tongue cocked his head. “It’s got to be cheerier than conversation with you.”
Runs-in-Water’s frown deepened. “I’m serious. The English and the French take slaves and send people back across the water. What if that’s what he wants?”
“Well then, I’ll kill him, escape and come back to marry Fox’s Smile.”
Runs-in-Water’s eyes widened. “Ah. Is that what this is about?”
Wolf Tongue squirmed. The ground was hard without a blanket to sit on. Farther down in the longhouse, Runs-in-Water’s sister coughed.
His friend leaned in closer. “You think this will prove you enough to Lifting Smoke and Sits-by-the-Tree so that you can marry their daughter.”
Wolf Tongue shrugged. “Lifting Smoke just doesn’t have a sense of humor. Besides, if that does happen? There are worse things I could win.”
Wolf Tongue leaned forward to clasp one hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Be well. When I return, I’ll bring you fortunes and three English wives to give you sons.”
“White women are ugly.”
Wolf Tongue rose. “Then they’re your only hope.”
Runs-in-Water shook his head and waved his friend off, and Wolf Tongue ducked out the door.
Even after the interior of the longhouse, the daylight seemed weak. The clouds had formed a gray dome over the earth and the wind rolled back and forth like a petulant child. It was as if the village tottered on the edge between winter and spring and might yet fall back into Gohem’s frigid grip before the flowers began to bloom.
The village was surrounded by a waist-high earthen mound with a deeper ditch on the far side. On the east side, the fortification opened to allow one main road out of the village and down the slope of the hill. To either side of that entrance, they had recently built wooden palisades that stretched fifteen strides in either direction. It was there that Fox’s Smile waited.
She wore her hair long and unbraided today so that it mingled with the fur on the hide cloak she pulled tight against her shoulders. A wrapped skirt with a beaded hem peeked out from beneath her buckskin overdress.
Wolf Tongue pulled her tight against him and kissed her. After a moment, she pushed at his chest. He pulled away slightly and brushed her hair back off her shoulders, letting his hands rest there. He felt her sigh.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
She folded her arms across her chest and looked out at something down off the hilltop. “You shouldn’t have to do this.”
Wolf Tongue shrugged. “We don’t even know what this is.”
“That’s even worse,” she said, looking back at him. “What if you don’t come back?”
“That’s going to make it hard for you to marry me, then.”
Her eyes hardened, her jaw clenched. Wolf Tongue sighed and let his hands fall from her shoulders.
“I need to do this,” he said.
“Why? To prove that you’re Susquehannock? Or to earn some glory for yourself?”
“It’s not glory I need.”
Fox’s Smile shook her head. “You think you need to prove that you’re one of us because your father was English. But you don’t.”
“No? Your parents certainly don’t like my mixed blood.”
“No one cares. I don’t even think my father cares.”
Wolf Tongue shook his head. “What would you have me do?”
Fox’s Smile licked her lips. “Come with me.”
Wolf Tongue’s forehead crinkled in confusion. “Go with you where?”
She took a breath as if to steady herself. “We’ll leave. Be married elsewhere. Go live with the Lenape or the Seneca like the others.”
Wolf Tongue stared at her in disbelief. Did she think his task so dangerous that he certainly wouldn’t return? They’d never spoken even in jest of fleeing the Susquehannock to start their life together. It should be here, in this village, that they began their family.
When he didn’t answer she took his hand. Her fingers were strong and she gripped it as if for support as much as to offer it. She ducked her head to catch his eye. “I’m not a little girl who wants to run away when she can’t have what she wants. We’d still be close enough to our people that we’d deal with them and come for the celebrations. I won’t pretend that it will be easy or that we won’t anger a few people by leaving. But I’m a grown woman and can choose my husband, and if leaving will make that easier, then let us do that.”
Wolf Tongue clenched his jaw and looked away. The wall of wood and bark behind her loomed stark and solid, while on either side the land opened to fields of green-brown undergrowth and the bony arms of trees of the forest to the east.
“Or,” she said, “we can stay here and you can live with me in my mother’s longhouse.”
His eyes snapped back to her and she watched him with a shade of a grin pursing her lips and lightening her eyes. A small chuckle escaped his lips and her smile widened.
How beautiful would life be? To leave and live with Fox’s Smile? To forget the craziness of this secret task the English came begging for. What did he need to prove? He’d just bested Kicks-the-Oneida, shown that he was as much a warrior as any man in the tribe. He looked down the road, a winding path of packed dirt with lumps of snow still clinging to the earth in places. At the bottom of the hill, the English soldier huddled beneath a bare tree.
Fox’s Smile squeezed his hand and brought his attention back to her.
“I can’t,” he whispered, and it hurt to say it.
She sighed, released his hand and then caressed his forearm with her fingers.
“I thought you would say that.” Her voice was sad and low. “I just …I worry for you. You don’t need to go and I’m afraid you won’t return.”
He set his musket on the ground, then took both her arms in his hands. “I do need to go. For you. You say you would make things easier, and so would I. If I do this thing, whatever it is, we can stay here in the village when I return. With our families and friends, where we belong. That will be much easier for both of us.”
Then he shrugged and said, “And don’t be afraid. I can handle anything they want. My father was English, so dealing with these crazy people is in my blood.”
Fox’s Smile blew out an exasperated laugh. Wolf Tongue cut her off with a kiss. She pulled at him, holding him tighter and closer. He inhaled her scent and tasted her and for those moments he wondered how he could ever refuse her anything. Then, their lips parted and they rested their foreheads against one another.
“Come back soon. And whole,” she said. “Hurry, before I get bored and wander off.”
“If you left it’d only be to track me down because you can’t live without me.”
“I like more of a challenge. Following your stench would be too easy.”
Wolf Tongue chuckled and twisted to nibble at her ear. She turned and his lips met hers again.
Without another word, they parted. Wolf Tongue bent to retrieve his musket from the ground while his left hand still held to Fox’s Smile. Then, with one more glance, he stepped off past the border of the village.
Two – Code Duello
Under the skeletal branches of the trees, the wind played. The air smelled of snow.
Lieutenant Hugh Pyke inspected his pistol in the grey light, while his second, Sergeant Davies, stood by his side scratching at his scraggly beard. Some fifteen paces away stood Rider Thornwood and his second, a man Pyke didn’t know with the last name of Button.
From across the way, Button called out, “Though Mr. Thornwood is, um, indeed prepared to defend his honor, it is my, um, noble obligation to inquire once more … is there no other way that the demands of honor can be satisfied?”
Pyke said, “The gentleman should know of the other way.”
Thornwood stood there defiantly, his arms folded over his belly and with one foot jutting out. From what Pyke knew, Thornwood was no soldier but rather a pampered government official who’d lived off the public teat for most of his career. When the man wasn’t busy filling some sinecure or other, he was attempting to seduce some poor girl who didn’t know enough not to swoon over his affected pomp.
Pyke let Button’s question hang in the cold Pennsylvania air. As a gentleman, he was supposed to consider the prospect. So he maintained a momentary, thoughtful silence for the sake of appearance.
Sergeant Davies cleared his considerable throat and, with the slightly off pronunciation Pyke had noticed among the colonials, said, “Sir, it’s my duty to ask you. Can we settle this without using the barking irons?”
“The man’s a back-biter, and the worst kind at that,” Pyke said.
“Couldn’t agree more, sir, but he’s also a government official.”
“If he’s dueling, he’s no Quaker.”
“Ain’t just Quakers anymore that run things in the Province,” Davies said uneasily. “You could be in for a world of trouble with this one.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. I’m well aware of who—and what—this man is.”
“Um, perhaps you—” Button began again in his weak voice.
With as much bravado as possible, Pyke shouted, “Does thegentleman recant what he said about Miss Bennett?”
He still couldn’t believe he’d overheard the man in the tavern, detailing what were his obviously fictional conquests of Miss Bennett in the bedroom.
Davies muttered something under his breath. Pyke knew why: he was giving Thornwood no respectable out. No gentleman would ever admit to speaking out of turn. Pyke was forcing Thornwood into the duel.
“Mr. Thornwood cannot recant what he did not say,” Button responded.
“So then the gentleman again questions this Officer’s honor? I heard the words spoken myself.”
“Sir,” Button continued, “I do not doubt that is what you, uh,thought you heard. But consider the setting in which you think you heard these words: a rowdy tavern filled with music, a place where things not even said are often heard, and, uh, if I may be so bold—”
“You may not be so bold. If there is no other business, we should proceed with the matter at hand.”
Then Thornwood surprised him: the man laughed. It was not the nervous laughter of a schoolchild being caught out by the headmaster for not completing his Latin conjugations the night prior. No, it was the laugh of a confident man well at ease in any situation.
Under his breath, Davies said, “Be careful, sir. This bloke’s a government dandy alright, but he’s got right experience with a pistol. I could tell by how he was handling it a moment ago.”
“The only man who needs to be careful around here is Mr. Thornwood.”
“Quite right, sir. Quite right.”
The two parties advanced and met halfway. Above where they stood, the canopy of trees opened and admitted weak, murky light into the forest. The sky was a dome of grey, promising rain or snow. All this talk of more temperate weather in the colonies was hogwash, as far as Pyke was concerned.
Thornwood was a tall man with a roguish smile that must have charmed the ladies, but he walked with an affected air and seemed to bounce on his heels, so he was fooling no soldier. Still, though, Davies’s words of caution echoed in Pyke’s his mind. Thornwood knew how to handle a pistol. And a duel against any man was no laughing matter.
The setting of the duel hadn’t been trifled over: the seconds had agreed to this spot, some two miles from Jenkins Town in the middle of Penn’s Woods, far away from prying eyes.
Dueling was not specifically outlawed, but it had been increasingly frowned upon; and under the technical eye of the law, it was tantamount to murder, though Pyke had never heard of a dueler being charged with a capital crime.
“If there’s no other business, then, we’ll mark the points,” Davies said.
“The usual twenty paces?” Thornwood asked.
“The usual with pistols is ten paces,” Pyke said.
If Thornwood were afraid, he showed no signs.
Davies said, “Very well, then. Mr. Button, if you will.” Davies handed a saber to Button. The two seconds, without another word, began pacing ten yards in both directions, leaving Pyke and Thornwood alone. Over Thornwood’s shoulder, Pyke kept an eye on Button to make sure Button paced the requisite ten yards and no closer or farther before marking the point with the sword. He wouldn’t put it past Thornwood or Button to play fast and loose with the code duello.
The corner of Thornwood’s mouth curled in a mischievous smile. “Listen, old boy, we don’t have to do this you know. We’re gentleman. I will delope if you will. Honor will still be satisfied.”
“A lady’s honor has been tainted.”
“By the lady herself.”
“By a man calling himself a gentleman.”
“You don’t understand. I’m not merely repeating what I was told, Pyke.”
Pyke nearly drew and fired at that provocation.
“I am telling you, man to man, that I know firsthand of Miss Bennett’s honor. You are not fighting a just war.”
Pyke grinned but was boiling on the inside. The man was trying to weasel his way out of the duel. There was no way Damaris Bennett, that beautiful young woman, had …. He let the thought die. “You have the effrontery to lie to my face?”
The soft, pudgy skin of Thornwood’s neck flushed. But Thornwood kept himself composed. “You’re about to give your life for a girl who—”
Pyke held up a hand. “That will be quite enough, Thornwood. I won’t countenance any more lies about Miss Bennett. She is a dutiful daughter, a God-fearing Christian, and an innocent whose good name you decided to besmirch. Now you’ll pay for your sin in this life as well as the next.”
Thornwood shook his head in disbelief. Then he stepped closer so the two men were mere inches apart. “Very well, Pyke. But you are no gentleman, sir. Your pig-headedness makes it quite obvious to me that you are not of noble stock. It does not surprise me, the misfortunes of your family of late. It is God’s way of punishing you and putting your family in its proper place.”
Pyke’s rage nearly boiled over, but he checked it. No doubt Thornwood was goading him so he would not have his wits fully about him for the duel. He needed a clear mind, especially if Davies was correct and Thornwood knew a pistol. But how did this man know of his family and of their circumstances? The ocean separating England from the Province was apparently not wide enough.
“After hearing you speak ill of my family, I’m glad I didn’t let you weasel your way out of this duel.”
Thornwood ignored the gibe and said, “But remember, as you go to your Maker, that I offered you the opportunity to walk away.”
“I will remember that, when I’m meeting the good Lord in fifty or so years.”
The seconds returned, and Thornwood resumed his place. Despite his confidence, Pyke felt that familiar lightness in his stomach and that twitchiness in his limbs. It had been this way for him at the last duel as well.
Pyke offered his pistol to Button. “If you care to inspect it, Mr. Button. I will have Sergeant Davies inspect Mr. Thornwood’s—”
Pyke instinctively retracted his pistol and brought it to bear, not expecting anyone else. A man came riding hard through the trees and reined his horse in before reaching them. The snow and soft underbrush of the forest must have muffled the sounds of his approach.
Pyke recognized Lieutenant St. John Smith, the sandy-haired officer three years his junior.
“Mr. Smith,” Pyke began, “you are intruding upon a private affair. What is the meaning of this?”
Smith dismounted easily and carried himself with light feet to the group. Over his uniform, a leather satchel wrapped around his shoulder. He was fully armed as well: musket, pistol, sword, and dirk.
“Lieutenant, Mr. Thornwood, forgive me, but I am here on Colonel Bennett’s orders.”
How did the Colonel know about the duel? The offense had occurred late last night at the tavern, and Pyke had only spoken of it to Thornwood and Davies, swearing the latter to secrecy. He couldn’t see why Thornwood would have said anything—after all, Thornwood had insulted the Colonel’s most lovely daughter of all people.
But he’d have to figure that out later. “Very well, what is it?”
Though they shared the same rank, Pyke was senior officer to Smith, having earned his commission first. The Colonel, however, favored Smith, whose family had ties to the Colonel. If Pyke were a gambling man, he would have wagered that he’d be calling Smith “sir,” in short order.
“The Colonel has asked if there is any other way to satisfy the aggrieved party,” Smith said, giving Pyke his full, insubordinate stare.
“There is not,” Pyke said before Thornwood could answer.
Smith unslung the satchel and untied it. He reached into the bag and produced two pistols. “In that event, the Colonel requests you gentleman use these. They are of the same make, practically identical.”
Smith offered the pistols. Thornwood took one and examined it, but Pyke didn’t accept the other.
“Begging your pardon, sir,” Davies began, “but these men have got their own irons, so there is no—”
“You will not beg my pardon, Sergeant. I am here under the Colonel’s orders and the Colonel’s orders are that these men will use these pistols. It is so there are no unfair advantages afforded one party versus the other through the mere vagaries of manufacturing, usage, age of the instrument, et cetera.”
“Sir,” Davies said, snapping to attention momentarily.
Pyke didn’t care for the idea but was at a loss. All pistols had their nuances, and he’d be firing this one blind if he used it. The Colonel’s pistol hung from Smith’s hand.
Thornwood said, “Is the gentleman having second thoughts?”
Pyke snatched the pistol out of Smith’s hands. “Thank you, Mr. Smith. Now if you’ll excuse us, we have a private matter to attend to.”
Smith’s smile could not be contained. “I’m awfully sorry, sir, but the Colonel has ordered me to watch over the proceedings to ensure fair play.”
Thornwood and Button had no objection. Pyke could tell that Davies had something to say about it, but Davies had the good sense to keep it to himself.
“And if you determine there is unfair play?” Pyke asked.
“Let us pray it does not come to that,” Smith said evasively.
All the men stood silent until Davies said, “Alright, then, Mr. Button, we must work out the very particulars now.”
Button’s voice squeaked. The man, barely able to keep still, looked more nervous than his principal. “Yes, Sergeant, thank you. Twenty paces—”
“Ten,” Pyke reminded him.
“Yes, of course. Ten.” Button swallowed through what sounded a very dry throat. “The parties will walk till they reach the sword points. They will turn and face one another. They will then advance upon one another and fire at will. At any point in time, the offended party may deem his honor satisfied.”
“How many shots?” Thornwood said casually, as if he were asking a hypothetical question.
“Any more than three is barbaric,” Pyke said.
“I won’t need more than three,” Thornwood said, his voice low and menacing.
“In the Province, the duel is typically to first blood,” Davies said.
“Agreed,” Pyke and Thornwood both said.
“It’s settled,” Davies said.
“Unless there is no other business, Mr. Thornwood,” Pyke said through gritted teeth.
“There is none.”
“There is one … uh … one other matter, the matter of seconds, and uh, if they should … if the principals …”
Button appeared ready to pass out, and Davies spoke before he did.
“I believe the principals agree that the seconds have no role in this business other than what duties we have already discharged. There will be no need for the seconds to continue the duel should one or both of the principals become incapacitated. Ain’t that right, sir?”
Pyke didn’t care for how forward and presumptuous Davies was being, but he should have been used to it by now. This was, apparently, the colonial way. Pyke said that was fine—there was no reason for Davies to risk his life. Thornwood nodded agreement and kept his steady eyes on Pyke.
“Thank you, Lord,” Button said, unable to mumble his relief under his breath.
A commotion of noise came from Smith’s direction, and Pyke saw more horsemen approaching. No one from the regiment he could recognize, but these strange men were armed. They took position behind Smith and stayed in the shadows.
Pyke didn’t care to have witnesses about and he narrowed his eyes. Thornwood was untrustworthy, which meant his friends would be too. Pyke didn’t want them making up stories and claiming he hadn’t followed the code duello.
But short of calling off the duel, he couldn’t do anything about the small crowd. And to call off the duel would be unacceptable.
Davies turned away from the crowd, when it was clear none would approach any closer. “Right. Gentleman, back to back if you will.”
Thornwood gave him another irritating smirk before they both turned, their backs only inches from each other. He could smell the stench of Thornwood’s sweat. So Thornwood wasn’t as collected as he made himself out to be. He was just a man, after all.
But so was Pyke. Now the nerves went to work on him. A slight tremor in the hand, a feeling of lightness throughout the body, a rise in the breathing.
In his mind, he spoke the Lord’s Prayer: Pater noster, qui in caelo est …The voice of Reverend Cornwell echoing in his mind, speaking in that sing-songy Latin which he could still hear so clearly, as if he were again a young boy across the sea in Kensington.
The seconds positioned themselves near Lieutenant Smith and the other spectators, angled well away from the action so as to avoid any stray shots. Davies nodded encouragingly at him, while Smith watched silently, not betraying his sentiments. Button watched with eyes wide open and a sickly, yellowing face.
The preternatural calm of the forest. Thornwood’s breathing heavy, as if he’d just run some race. Pyke’s own limbs now jittery.
… sanctificetur nomen tuum; adveniat regnum tuum …
Then Davies gave the sound, and they paced.
… fiat voluntas tua sicut in caelo et in terra …
He focused on the sword point. Ten paces now seemed so close: at this range, first blood could just as easily be a mortal wound. He’d let his anger get the better of him. Never again. Never again. He’d been a fool. Thornwood could get lucky with one shot. That was all it took to kill most men so close. But he knew he was in the right, and surely God would protect him in His infinite wisdom.
… panem nostrum supersubstantiatem da nobis hodie, et dimitte nobis debita nostra…
He reached the sword … as we dismiss our debtors …
He turned to face Thornwood. The steel of the pistol was slimy in his grip now. His undershirt drenched in sweat, despite the cold of the forest and late afternoon.
Thornwood had just reached the sword and was beginning to turn.
… and lead us not into temptation, sed libera nos a malo …
Thornwood faced him.
Twenty paces separated the two men.
In the scarce light, he could not make out the expression on Thornwood’s face. The next thing he knew, his thumb cocked the hammer, his arm rose as if controlled by someone else, and he was leveling the pistol at Thornwood.
And Thornwood did the same.
With a steady hand, he squeezed the trigger. The pistol jumped on him, but he had been expecting it, so he held his aim true. He kept his sights squarely on Thornwood’s breast.
He expected the man to topple over.
But instead, a spray of mud shot into the air behind and to the right of Thornwood.
In the dizzying thrill of the moment, he didn’t even hear Thornwood’s first shot, but he felt the rush of hot air as the ball whizzed by his head.
To his right, Smith’s horse jumped at the sound of the pistols. One man in the impromptu crowd shouted something, but Pyke had no ears on him.
Instinct took over. Two shots left, and he advanced a few paces while he reloaded. It took him what felt an eternity to load his next shot—yet another reason why he hadn’t wanted to use a foreign pistol.
To his surprise, Thornwood had advanced as well. He’d expected the man to remain at the point.
Thornwood was having a hell of a time reloading his pistol. Pyke brought the pistol to bear before Thornwood was ready.
He put the man in his sights and waited. Technically, Thornwood was an unarmed man until he’d loaded his weapon. And Pyke was a gentleman.
Thornwood finally loaded and brought the pistol up.
Pyke fired again, this time aiming lower down the sternum.
Thornwood fired as well, but it was a hurried shot and Pyke knew it would probably miss its mark.
He waited for Thornwood to fall.
But he didn’t. Again, the bullet sailed wide left, blasting tree bark into the air.
Thornwood frantically loaded his third shot.
How had he missed again? Icy fear gripped him, and quickly he went to work loading his third shot.
Thornwood had his pistol up quickly. It was clear he wasn’t going to give Pyke the same courtesy and wait for him to reload. Pyke heard the click of Thornwood’s trigger, and the rush of air as another ball zipped by his head again.
He brought the gun to bear and this time aimed to the right of Thornwood. Despite the heat of the moment, he’d figured out what was going on. His first two volleys had missed wide left.
He wouldn’t miss for a third time.
He squeezed the trigger, and this time, Thornwood was hit.
The next few moments were a whirlwind.
Thornwood was hit, but how badly Pyke could not tell. Davies started over to check Pyke for injury, but Smith interceded: “That’ll do, Sergeant. Hold your ground.”
Smith hurried over to Pyke. Three other men came out of the shadows of the forest, aiming their own pistols at Pyke. Defensively, he scrambled to load the pistol he’d been using, but he had no other shot on him.
Smith said, “Lieutenant Pyke, I’m afraid I’m under orders to take you into custody.” If he was truly afraid, his gloating smile didn’t show it.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Pyke said. His anger seeped in, replacing the out-of-body numbness created by the duel. “This is a private matter, both parties acted honorably, and the offended party has been satisfied.”
Davies shouldered his way past the three men and came to Pyke’s side. “Sir, it was a fair fight, I saw it all for myself. Mr. Button will say the same thing.”
Button would be no help, for he had passed out next to Thornwood, who was busy clutching his flank and howling. Some other men from the crowd were tending to him.
“Sergeant, I told you to hold your ground. And Lieutenant, need I remind you I’m here under the Colonel’s orders?” Smith said.
Colonel Bennett would have him arrested for dueling the man who had … Pyke was too baffled to figure out this carriwitchet and too dumbfounded to argue his way out of the arrest. Surely this had to be a misunderstanding. There was no other explanation. But he was certain that once he had the chance to explain himself to Colonel Bennett, everything would be fine.
“Very well, Lieutenant, as you are under orders.”
They rode to the Indian trail, where three more men were waiting on horses. So Smith would treat him like a common thief by surrounding him with an escort on their way back to town.
“If you’re quite ready, Mr. Pyke,” Smith said.
Pyke spurred his horse forward without answering. The other horsemen did the same and came up alongside Pyke, one to his right the other two to his left. They rode hard down the Indian trail, which was barely wide enough for them to ride four abreast.
The trail narrowed at places, so that tree branches seemed to reach out for them as they rode past. More than a few times Pyke had to duck out of the way of some massive limb drooping low overhead. They called it Penn’s Woods for good reason.
In his mind, Pyke prepared what he wanted to say to the Colonel: that dueling had a long, noble tradition through which gentlemen settled their matters privately and honorably, and without involving the government or the Crown so they could be left to more important matters. Additionally, Mr. Thornwood had willingly entered into the duel of his own accord and had accepted the risks attendant thereto.
They reached the outskirts of Jenkins Town. Pyke saw his boarding house and the tavern next to it. The roar of the pub reminded Pyke of last night’s scene, where he’d overheard Thornwood speak the offending words: “Calling her a demirep would be a flattery! But whore might be too harsh.”
The mere memory of the words stirred his anger, as if he had just heard them for the first time. They also made him think of that sweet young woman, Damaris Bennett … her, earning an inferior reputation? Upon his arrival in the Province, he’d spent much time in Philadelphia, being introduced to several different families by a solicitor his father had known back in London. He’d expected to meet some young ladies, but nothing had exactly blossomed in those first few months.
But then he’d been assigned to Colonel Bennett in Jenkins Town, and he’d met her.
He’d seen her outside of the schoolhouse on a late wintry afternoon. She’d wrapped herself in a shawl against the weather, but a rebellious strand of her golden-red hair had escaped from under her hat. It was too late when Pyke realized he was staring at her. She had felt his eyes on her and brought her own to meet them. Pyke’s heart seized in his chest as he neared her. He knew full well he was being impolite by staring. But he couldn’t help it, and she didn’t seem the least offended. She raised a gloved hand in greeting.
He halted his horse so he could properly introduce himself, kissed her gloved hand, and tried his damnedest not to sound like a fool. When she explained she was the Colonel’s daughter, he secretly rejoiced because it meant he’d get the opportunity, first-hand, to show her father he was a good man. But the Colonel had never warmed to him. At least, not yet.
Their procession now passed the magistrate’s shoebox of an office and the grainery. Pyke looked behind them to see if Davies was following. He wanted his sergeant present to take the Bible Oath and corroborate his account of the duel.
But Davies was not following. The only horseman behind was Smith.
He and his escort galloped down the muddy, grooved road. Most of the snow had been cleared from the dirty thoroughfare. They pushed on till they reached the other end of Jenkins Town. The main road degenerated back into the pathetic Indian trail, and Pyke was able to make out Colonel Bennett’s home. He told himself to relax. Once he explained everything, especially the fact that he’d been dueling on behalf of Miss Bennett’s honor, the Colonel would understand. Everything would be fine.
Smith went into the Colonel’s drawing room alone, while the Colonel’s liveried footman waited with Pyke in the parlor. The Colonel’s hound, Cerberus, sniffed his riding breeches and slobbered down his leg. The footman said nothing and maintained a glassy stare, belying his military background. Pyke didn’t try to engage him in conversation. Finally, Cerberus padded away on the hardwood floor.
Smith and the Colonel spoke for some time before the drawing room door squeaked open. Smith emerged with that cocksure smile of his. He said nothing to Pyke and proceeded out of the house.
The footman said, “The Colonel is expecting you, sir.”
Pyke went in and shut the door behind him.
The Colonel sat at his desk, which was covered in documents. For a military man, he was rather slovenly. The walls of the drawing room were lined with books, a collection of local foliage, and colonial maps. The Colonel fancied himself a naturalist and amateur cartographer.
Pyke came to the desk and snapped to attention. “Sir.”
Colonel Bennett ignored him. The man was cribbage-faced from the small pox. He was busy reading some correspondence or other. Pyke figured it was all for show and that the Colonel was stretching out the silence to unnerve Pyke. At the sight of Miss Bennett’s portrait, hanging over the fireplace, his mind wandered to the Colonel’s daughter. Was she sitting down to supper now, or out in town? She was deluged by invitations to balls and could be found at all odd hours doing something or other. Her impetuousness and fire intrigued Pyke. Just thinking about her was more intoxicating than taking a bottle of belch. That fiery hair that sparkled in the sunlight. Those dark eyes. She must have favored her mother, for Pyke saw no resemblance between her and the corpulent man sitting before him.
The Colonel put his letter aside, found his pipe, and puffed at it until it flared and belched smoke it. He did not glance in Pyke’s direction as he took a long draw and blew out a nebulous chain of smoke that coiled to the ceiling.
Finally, he glanced at Pyke. “At ease.”
“Sir.” Pyke relaxed into a parade rest.
“You’re a bloody nuisance, Mr. Pyke. Two duels in eight months is absurd.”
Pyke was immediately caught off guard. How did the Colonel know about the other duel? It had occurred before Pyke was brought into the Colonel’s service at Jenkins Town and there had been no witnesses. “Sir, I was in the right in both, and if the Colonel would indulge me—”
The Colonel held out a palm. “I don’t care to hear your Canterbury stories, Mr. Pyke. Do you know how much trouble you’re in? Do you know how much trouble I’ll be in if I don’t do something about this? You damned, bloody fool.”
“Sir, I was defending your daughter’s honor. Mr. Thornwood said—”
“I know what you thought he said, Mr. Pyke. Do you know who this man Thornwood is?”
“He is a liar and a government dandy.”
“He belongs to Thomas Penn.”
Pyke’s stomach bottomed out like it had so many times during the long trans-Atlantic voyage when there were heavy storms. Thomas Penn, he thought, had returned to England, but still had his grip around the Pennsylvania colony. He was not a man to be trifled with.
“Murder is a hanging offense, Mr. Pyke.”
Murder? Thornwood had appeared clipped. There was no way the wound could have been mortal. “It was a duel. The code was followed, sir.”
“Try telling that to one of Penn’s magistrates in Philadelphia.” The Colonel walked to a window and peered out of it into the dying afternoon light. “Bastard hypocrite calls himself a Quaker, but his father is no doubt rolling in his grave right now.”
Pyke knew little of political affairs and found them rather distasteful. “Sir, would you not support me if this should come to a trial?”
The Colonel said nothing.
“I was only doing what you would have done.”
The Colonel whirled. “You presumptuous twit, how dare you tell me what my duties are!”
“The man was speaking ill of your daughter, sir.” Pyke’s anger was rising again. Why was the damned old fool not coming to his side? “It was a matter of Miss Bennett’s honor.”
“I don’t care for words that may or may not have been spoken in a tavern. They mean nothing to me.”
“But your daughter’s good name—”
“Miss Bennett takes care of herself. You should learn how to do the same, Mr. Pyke. You’ll live much longer. It’s the way of the New World. You are no longer in England with the full support of your family and their title to back you.”
Pyke spoke with a confidence he didn’t feel. “Nevertheless, sir, it was a matter of honor. I am in the right. I will stand before the magistrate and speak the truth.”
The Colonel went to his desk and sat. “You will do no such thing. Do you think I would let you repeat the words Mr. Thornwood spoke of my daughter in a court of law, for all the world to hear? For shame, there would be a public spectacle!”
“But there is no truth to Mr. Thornwood’s words, as would come out during a trial, so there is no shame in repeating them.”
“Would you have me parade my daughter into court so she could testify about her private life? Did you ever think about her well-being for one fleeting moment before you allowed your delicate sense of honor to be offended?”
In fact, Damaris Bennett was all Pyke had been thinking about recently. He had done this for her. He couldn’t brook the thought of anyone speaking ill of her. She was a strong young woman, but still she needed looking after. The world could be a cold, dangerous place, and it was a gentleman’s responsibility to serve those who needed help. Now the Colonel was twisting his well-intentioned actions and noble deed into something selfish and ill-advised?
“Sir, I was only standing up for a good woman for whom I have a great deal of affection.”
The Colonel laughed ruefully, then said, “Sit down and shut your bone box, Mr. Pyke.”
Pyke did. The Colonel consulted some papers on his desk for a moment before looking back up. “I will have to trade all the political favors I have left to deal with your situation. You can avoid the magistrate, but in return you must do something for me.”
Pyke felt like he was being manipulated, but he couldn’t puzzle it out. He needed a few minutes to collect his thoughts and put everything together, but the Colonel had not afforded him that opportunity.
“Of course I am yours to command, sir.”
The Colonel puffed at his pipe and watched Pyke as if he were studying some new species of colonial mammal. “It is an unfortunate business and would require the utmost discretion and secrecy.”
He was certain of it now: he was being manipulated. “What is the unfortunate business, sir?”
“We have little military presence here in Jenkins Town, but I’m to oversee those in the area for the moment and properly settle this area. Not all the local savages are friendly. The French are causing problems in the Northwest. And now we have another, more local, more personalproblem. One that must be dealt with immediately before it gets out of hand.”
The Colonel’s jaw worked at the stem of his pipe. “Azariah.”
Pyke had heard the rumors. After disappearing some six months ago into the wilderness, Azariah had taken up with a band of savages. He was supposedly now seducing other whites, Indians, and runaway slaves to join him in his pastoral utopia free of British rule. With promises of equality and prosperity and no war, he tried to lure more and more to him. The idea, and the rumors as well, seemed preposterous to Pyke, but there must have been some truth to them, for now the Colonel was involved.
Pyke had only seen him a handful of times but remembered him well. Azariah was a tall, dashing man who craved and commanded attention. Whenever Pyke encountered him, he was always surrounded by followers and hangers-on, deep in a conversation that always threatened becoming a heated argument.
Despite the fact that Azariah was the Colonel’s grand-nephew, the two looked nothing alike, in part because Azariah’s mother had been Indian.
Pyke waited for the Colonel to continue, but he didn’t. Instead, he poured himself a brandy and offered one to Pyke, who accepted. “Thank you, sir. Would you like me to track the man down and bring him back?”
“No, Mr. Pyke. I do not want him brought back.”
“Then what, sir?” Pyke took a sip of the brandy. It burned his throat. He didn’t like the dark mood of this conversation.
“He is to be relieved of his command.”
Pyke nearly dropped his brandy but managed to control himself. “Sir—”
The Colonel consulted his papers again. “We have conflicting reports, but our most suggest he was recently in Millers Town and also that he was trying to recruit some Delaware to his cause. You should begin there.”
“He is an Englishman.”
“He’s gone mad.”
“He’s of noble birth.”
“He’s turned into a bloody savage.”
Pyke knew he was going too far, but it needed to be said: “Sir, but he is your grand-nephew!”
The Colonel’s fist slammed his desk. “He is an embarrassment!”
Pyke stood and went to the unlit hearth. “This is no work for a British officer. Assassination.”
“The man has plundered, murdered, and raped. He is hell-bent on acquiring power over the Province. He has stirred up trouble with tribes that were previously allied with the Crown. He has disrespected the Crown, he has disrespected me, and soon his actions will enrage the French. There are rules one must abide by in this world.”
Pyke agreed that there was a social order to all things, but still, the thought of assassination was unpalatable. “Sir, I cannot in good conscience do this. I will arrest him, bring him to trial, and let him hang. But not this. It’s murder.”
“And what did you to Mr. Thornwood less than an hour ago?”
“That was different.”
The Colonel guffawed. “Your principles will one day damn you, Mr. Pyke. You are young, so it is somewhat pardonable. But one day you must learn how to work in the real world.”
Pyke, disgusted, said nothing. The Colonel was a dissolute man, as far as he was concerned. Who was he to look down on Pyke? Yet another reason he wanted to be with Damaris: to protect her from this old man.
The Colonel continued, “I do not want this mission to turn into a public spectacle. It must be kept clandestine. We cannot haul this man into a court of law. He must be dealt with, swiftly. I have my own position to consider. And Miss Bennett’s.”
So there it was. The Colonel was looking out for his own interests. The Crown wouldn’t let him continue in his present capacity while his grand-nephew was wreaking havoc in the wilderness. If this mission were only for the Colonel’s sake, Pyke would have considered turning him down and facing the Philadelphia magistrate on the murder charge.
But it was not just for the Colonel’s sake.
What would Damaris do if her father were removed from this office, possibly out of his pension, and forcibly retired? That was what the Crown did to old soldiers who were no longer useful. Damaris would be humiliated and without prospects. There was no other family for them in the colonies that Pyke knew of, aside from Azariah. Her future would be in jeopardy.
He could not allow that to happen.
“For Miss Bennett’s sake then, sir, I will do this.”
The Colonel let slip a grateful smile, and Pyke immediately regretted not driving a harder bargain. The Colonel was in as difficult a position as he was, he now realized.
Suddenly, the idea struck him. He’d been intending to ask for the Colonel’s blessing anyway, but the time had never been right. It wasn’t exactly proper, what he was considering, but what the Colonel had asked of him wasn’t exactly proper either.
The Colonel said, “I have arranged matters for you. You are to leave immediately. I have secured an Indian guide from the Susquehannock.”
“Sir, I do not require the use of a savage to find this man.”
“You will take this guide, and you will take him gladly. You are only eight months in the Province, so you do not know the geography, and you cannot speak any of their languages. Your antiquated Latin won’t do you any good out here. Not even your French will help you with some of the Indians here. Now then, you will have a week’s worth of supplies. If you require anything else, you will get it from the quartermaster before you leave. Smith will see you off at the grainery with the Indian. That is all.”
“Who else will be going with me?”
“Aside from the savage, sir.”
“No one else, Mr. Pyke. I thought I had made it clear that this mission required the utmost discretion and secrecy. You are to speak of it to no one. Not even Smith knows the details. And the less the Indian knows, the better.”
The Colonel pulled a piece of paper off his desk. “Now then, here is my seal. You may say you march under my orders, but you may not disclose what those orders are.”
Pyke took the parchment and rolled it up.
“Azariah wears a locket around the neck. It is a family heirloom and as such holds some sentimental value for me. I would most appreciate it if you brought that back.”
Pyke understood the Colonel to mean the locket would be proof of the killing.
“And that will be all, Mr. Pyke. Dismissed.” The Colonel went back to the maps on his desk.
Pyke put the glass of brandy down on the Colonel’s desk and steeled himself. He hadn’t been expecting to do this right now, but the opportunity was there and he had to seize it.
“Sir, there is something else I’d like to discuss with you. A private matter.”
The Colonel turned an impatient eye on him. “This had better be quick, Mr. Pyke.”
“Sir, it concerns Miss Bennett.”
The Colonel sat there impassively.
“I have only known her for a short while, since I’ve been in Jenkins Town, but I have gotten to know her quite well. She is a fine young woman, of whom I have grown very fond.”
The Colonel pursed his lips and squinted one eye.
“I would like to ask the lady for her hand in marriage, sir, with your permission of course. As you know, I come from a good family and, despite my excesses of late, I do have excellent prospects here and at home. After my service, I plan to sit for the bar or—”
“Mr. Pyke, are you quite serious?”
With the Colonel sounding incredulous, Pyke’s resolve began to melt. Quickly, he added, “Yes, sir, I am.”
The Colonel stared at him, his expression unreadable. “Mr. Pyke, it is my understanding that your family estate is all but bankrupt. How would you be able to provide for Miss Bennett?”
“There have been some nasty rumors spread about the estate that are distortions of the truth, sir. And, I have my pay and a yearly allowance from the estate. If we stay here, land in the Province is cheap. If we return to England, my family has some smaller properties, one of which I could manage.”
“My daughter does not wish to live in England. She is happy here, though God knows why.” The Colonel leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling. “Forgive me, Mr. Pyke, but I would require some proof of your holdings before I consented.”
Pyke fought to keep a smile off his face. The Colonel was not opposed to the union!
“You would have it.”
The Colonel stood and tapped some ash from his pipe. “Then, on your words, I would allow it.”
Pyke couldn’t believe it. He hadn’t expected the Colonel to capitulate so easily, but he had! He could marry Damaris Bennett, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen!
“Sir, you honor me.” He smiled but had to fight to keep from yelling in excitement.
“This is all provided you are successful in your mission, Mr. Pyke.”
“Of course, sir.”
“As you said, you would be doing it for her as much as for me.”
The Colonel came around the desk and patted Pyke’s shoulder paternally. Pyke could still not believe this was happening, and the thought he was being manipulated flitted through his mind again. But he pushed it away and allowed himself to be happy.
Davies handed him his musket and patted Pyke’s horse. “Where are you off to then, sir?”
“None of your business, Sergeant, but I thank you for your assistance this afternoon.” Pyke pulled his gloves on, hoping to warm the nine fingers he had. The pinky of his left hand he’d lost to frostbite on patrol, along with two toes. He hated the damp coldness of the Province.
Evening had come on, and an icy wind blasted down the street. Someone was petitioning to call it “York Road,” and the name was beginning to stick.
“Quite right, sir. Quite right. Then good luck and Godspeed.” Davies patted the horse’s nose, while Pyke packed his things.
“Is there something else, Sergeant?”
“Yes, sir. Forgive me for speaking out of turn here—”
“You seem to be good at that, Sergeant.”
“A man’s got to be good at something, sir.”
Pyke couldn’t help but laugh. Davies scratched his beard and continued. “I was wondering that, since I did you the favor, you could do me one as well.”
“Sergeant, I am most grateful for your assistance today. You comported yourself with real class. Though I can’t say this is related in any way, it just so happens that your name has disappeared from my black book. I can’t remember why I had written it down in the first place.”
“Oh, uh, I can’t remember either, sir.”
“Well then. Maybe I had written down in error. Whatever the reason, it is no longer in there.”
“Thank you, sir. Thank you.”
“Good man, Davies. You keep an eye on Smith, will you?”
“Always do, sir.”
“I’ll see you in a week or so.”
Pyke rode away from his lodgings, and Davies waved once. The man had gotten into a drunken brawl a week ago and had been insubordinate while inebriated, but Pyke was willing to overlook that. No one else had offered to be his second in the duel with Thornwood.
He was halfway down York Road on his way to the grainery when he saw her. Damaris was outside of the makeshift schoolhouse with the headmaster, and she waved at him. She had never shown this kind of excitement toward him, and he wondered if her father had already given her the news. His heart leapt at the prospect.
He met her as she was saying goodbye to the headmaster. She was wearing one of those London society hats, a long dress, and carried a tiny umbrella in one hand.
“Lieutenant Pyke, I was desperately trying to find you earlier today. I pray you are well?”
“I have never been better, Miss Bennett.” A look of relief washed over her face. “I trust you yourself are well?”
“I wanted to speak with you privately, Lieutenant.”
He dismounted. In the distance, the rowdy din of the tavern carried.
“Miss Bennett, let me just say—”
Hastily, she cut him off. “I didn’t want you to risk yourself for me. You didn’t have to do that. I would never have forgiven myself if you were hurt.”
He was shocked by how forward she was and couldn’t fathom how she had heard of the duel. Women were not supposed to know of such things. “Miss Bennett … I was only doing what any gentleman would do.”
“Any gentleman except my father.”
Her harsh tongue surprised him. He didn’t particularly like the Colonel, but that didn’t mean the man’s daughter should be speaking about him like that. Before he left England for the Province, his father had had a long talk with him about a good many things. Regarding women, his father had told him that the best way to measure a woman was by how she talked to, and about, her father. So would she act toward her husband later in life.
Pyke said, “If I hadn’t gotten involved, I’m sure your father would have.”
Damaris laughed ruefully, in the same way her father had earlier. In that moment, he realized she was much older than her seventeen years. “I do admire your antiquated form of chivalry, Lieutenant. It suits you.”
The words were complimentary, but they didn’t sound it. “Thank you, Miss Bennett.”
“It is the least I could do. And please, in the future, do not duel for the sake of my honor, I beg of you. It is silly for men to kill each other over words.”
“Maybe over words, but not over lies.”
Pyke had never seen Damaris’s cheeks blush before, but her face turned a shameful crimson. He worried that he’d spoken of too delicate a matter.
She quickly recovered herself. “I’m afraid I must be so impertinent to ask you what you and my father discussed today. I know I am intruding, but I only do so for the best of reasons.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Bennett. It was a private matter, and the Colonel has sworn me to secrecy.”
Her eyelids fluttered, and she tilted her head to the side, an almost mocking grin touching her lips. “Surely you can trust me, Lieutenant. My father doesn’t speak to me so much any more, and I am trying to look out for him. He is sixty-one years old and doesn’t think so clearly, I’m afraid. You can understand a daughter’s concern for her father?”
“I most certainly can, but I have sworn an oath to him.”
“I see.” Damaris inched ever closer. If polite society had permitted it, he would have put an arm around her shoulders. “Let me share something with you and be blunt. After all, it is the colonial way, is it not?”
Pyke agreed and normally he didn’t care for it, but he was more than willing to make an exception for Damaris.
She continued, “There is a man very dear to my heart. He is an intelligent, peaceful man, but also misunderstood. My father and a good many others despise him. I fear that my father is going to deal with this man in the, um, harshest possible way.”
Pyke said nothing, though the words flooded his tightly-sealed mouth and threatened to burst through the weak dam of his lips. As her husband, he could share all sorts of things with her.
“I have always had a great affection for you, Hugh. I wouldn’t want to see you become embroiled in one of my father’s foolish plans.”
His head was swimming. “Miss Bennett—”
“Hugh, call me Damaris when we are alone. For goodness sake, you just fought a duel for me.”
“As much as I would like to tell you, I cannot. I am a man of my word.”
“And that is one of the reasons why I respect you so much. But let me warn you: Azzy is not a man to be trifled with. He may sound mad, but I assure he is not. He is a beautiful man with a beautiful dream of peace and harmony.”
Pyke was taken aback. “Azariah Bennett is a murderer and a good number of other things I cannot repeat to a lady.”
“Oh, Hugh, you have fallen prey to that ugly beast called Rumor. Because he is different, because he dares to challenge authority, he is branded all sorts of false things. It is done this way to discredit him.”
Still in a swoon over her proximity and familiarity, Pyke tried to recover himself. Before speaking again, he reminded himself that, while she was old beyond her years in many ways, she was also still very young. Azariah’s ideas of peace and equality would no doubt appeal to her adolescent mind and romantic nature. “I do not know why we are speaking of your cousin, but I can assure you my mission has nothing to do with him.”
“Oh my, it’s a mission now, is it? That sounds so intriguing!”
He’d been hoping to throw her off the trail, but then he’d used the word mission. Already he was saying too much. This woman had an unnaturally powerful effect on him.
“I must bid you adieu, Miss Bennett. But when I return, I hope to speak to you privately of a personal matter.”
“Hugh, you are such a mysterious man! Can you give me a hint as to what this private communication will be about?”
He was very tempted. But the Colonel’s agreement to the marriage proposal was only conditional: Pyke had yet to provide the man with proof of his family’s holdings and of course had yet to complete his mission.
“I’m afraid I cannot.”
“You tease me so, Hugh!” Her gloved fingertips touched his forearm. But even through the fabric of her gloves and his cloak, he felt the electricity in her touch.
Before he did something rash, he got back on his horse. “I will return in a week or so, Miss Bennett.”
“Bon voyage, Lieutenant. I will be waiting here for you.”
His horse galloped down York Road, taking him to the grainery. Smith was there waiting. Next to the Lieutenant stood the a man Pyke assumed would be his guide.
“Lieutenant, this is your man here,” Smith said with a sneer.
The savage stood a head taller than Smith, who himself wasn’t short. The Indian wore a cloak over a tunic, and his hair was ridiculously shaved, exposing much of his scalp. He wore the hairs of some animal in what little hair hadn’t been shaved off his head. Pyke caught a glimpse of that strange and barbaric weapon, called the tomahawk, on the savage’s person.
“I am Wolf Tongue,” the savage said.
The audacity of the Indian! Speaking before being spoken to! Pyke grit his teeth and reminded himself that the Indian’s ways were different. Though lessons on proper bearing would be in order. “I am Lieutenant Pyke. Now, we had better make use of what little daylight we have left.”
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