Freedom’s Ghost

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The Baltimore Post-Examiner is pleased to introduce an excerpt from Eliot Pattison’s latest book Freedom’s Ghost, to be published by Counterpoint Press this October and available at Amazon.

As the drumbeat of the American Revolution grows ever closer, Scotsman-turned-American-patriot Duncan McCallum must navigate treacherous cultural and political waters if he’s to secure a fighting chance for the fledgling nation in this gripping installment of the acclaimed Bone Rattler series

After narrowly avoiding death in London at the hands of the king’s secret agents, Duncan McCallum returns to colonial America only to discover that his troubles have followed him across the Atlantic.

Chapter One

Late February 1770 Marblehead, Massachusetts Colony

“Dear Lord no, not the grinders!” yelled the elegantly dressed man at Duncan McCallum’s side. “Veer away, for the love of God, or all is lost!” Duncan could not recall if he had ever heard his companion so frantic, but the blood was rising among all the spectators of the race, and John Hancock’s desperate cries could be forgiven. It was his cherished personal yacht that was about to lose its keel to the notorious bed of submerged rocks and sandbars at the edge of Marblehead Harbor. “Too close, I say! Too close!”

Duncan, not sharing Hancock’s anxiety, watched through his pocket telescope as the women on board scurried on the deck and in the rigging, tightening one line, loosening another, while Sarah Ramsey kept her steady hand on the wheel of the sloop. Sailing had become a passion for Sarah ever since the day Hancock had taken them for an afternoon cruise months earlier. Duncan had commanded Hancock’s commercial ships on short runs to Bermuda and Newfoundland, and as their friendship blossomed the Boston merchant had generously offered the yacht with its crewmen for Duncan and Sarah to use on their own rare days of leisure. Knowing his fiancée’s questing ways, Duncan had not been surprised when she had asked if she might take the helm on their first such day, then asked him to name for her the sails and each element of the rigging. “A fair return,” she had quipped, reminding him of how she had once taught him the Iroquois words of her youth. Since that day she had become an adept sailor, and on the last harbor cruise with Hancock she had astounded Boston’s merchant prince by taking the yacht’s helm to thread a course through the outer islands.

No one, however, had expected Sarah to speak up days later at a dinner at Hancock’s regal Beacon Hill home to challenge the commander of the local revenue cutter to a competition. Duncan had often revisited that conversation, trying to navigate its many subcurrents. Sarah had no love for the British navy, especially the patrol vessels that enforced Britain’s onerous trade laws. Until that point she had adroitly guided the discussion among Hancock’s guests, avoiding the traps that seemed inevitable in Boston when the dinner company included both officers of the occupation troops and leaders of the Sons of Liberty.

Duncan did not recollect how, but the discussion had veered from the weather to the advantages of American-built ships in being able to sail closer to the wind than those from British shipyards. When the officers, at first surprised, then amused, that a woman could hold her own in such a conversation, had good-naturedly defended their shipwrights, Sarah had offered to prove her point.

“We must have a competition!” she ebulliently declared. “A match between boats of similar burden. Say the navy’s fast revenue cutter and one of the sloops crafted in Marblehead, ending of course in Marblehead Harbor.” The officers and Hancock had laughed but then leaned forward as she persisted. Sarah had turned to the youngest officer, who was well known and largely reviled in Marblehead. “Why, come to think of it, Lieutenant Oakes, isn’t that vessel under your command? Named for some archaic god, I recollect.” She knew perfectly well the name of the boat.

The lieutenant’s cool smile was close to a sneer. “I indeed have the honor to command the king’s revenue cutter Neptune. Bristol-built, and she can outsail any vessel she meets. But surely no captain of a comparable vessel would meet me, Miss Ramsey, since my nimble Neptune has already overtaken so many of them as they sought to evade the king’s customs duties.”

Duncan had suspected that Sarah had some hidden motive in openly taunting the arrogant Oakes, and her next words had removed all doubt. “Why, doesn’t Mr. Hancock have just such a Marblehead boat? Suppose we Americans give you an advantage. I will take the helm of the Hancock yacht myself and crew her with the doddering females of Marblehead. Shall we say Sunday, a week?” She fixed Hancock with a pointed gaze, and then the merchant’s face lit with understanding. Sarah wasn’t taunting the navy; she was trying to calm troubled waters. The tension be- tween the occupation troops and civilians was near the breaking point, and they desperately needed to find common ground, if only for an afternoon’s distraction.

Several of the officers had been aghast, but when Hancock had vigorously exclaimed “Brava! Brava!” and raised his glass to Sarah, they had joined in his gleeful toast, their vigor growing when he proposed to host one of his famous teas at the race’s end.

Captain Lawford, commodore of the navy’s inshore fleet, likewise embraced Sarah’s apparent intentions. “Why, that would be capital!” he exclaimed. “What say you, Oakes? I’ve no doubt we can arrange to have your cutter in those waters for a Sunday frolic with our American friends. What better way to celebrate the approach of spring!”

Sarah had shot a victorious glance at Duncan before raising her own glass. The women, he knew, would be from what she called her Nightingale Club, all from Marblehead sailing families. They would have cut their teeth on backstays, and all were secretly dedicated to Sarah’s increasingly bold efforts in support of the nonimportation cause, aimed at cutting off trade with Britain.

“But sir,” Oakes had protested, “we’ve had fresh intelligence that somewhere in the bay the traitor is at last going to—”

“Lieutenant! Have a care!” Lawford interrupted, then put on a more genteel expression. “Of course we shall defend the honor of His Majesty’s navy.” The commander of the inshore fleet raised his glass. “And fear not, Lieutenant. Surely you know the navy relies on the Heart of Oakes, eh?” he added, laughing at his wordplay with the familiar maritime fighting song.

Now, as Sarah guided Hancock’s boat through the maze of rocky shoals and sandbars, Duncan began to worry not about her motive but whether her rash decision was going to destroy Hancock’s elegant vessel.

“Thank God!” Hancock shouted with glee a moment later. “She’s cleared it!” Oakes’s Neptune was close behind, the lieutenant having decided to preempt Sarah’s advantage by following her into the narrow passage between rocks and shore for the final sprint to the end of the harbor.

“It is not over, sir!” Lawford crowed. “My man has decided that two can play at this game! I shall soon have your guinea in my pocket, John!”

“Damnation, Duncan,” Hancock quietly muttered. “He’s right. Look at how the cutter’s sails fill with the breeze. That foolhardy Oakes has laid on extra canvas.” “But the Neptune’s keel—” Duncan began. He had no need to finish his sentence as groans shot through the group of gathered officers. The sound of shuddering masts echoed across the harbor. The yard of the added topsail Oakes had hoisted snapped, tumbling to the deck in a tangle of lines. The cutter had cleared the rocks only to have one of the sandbars seize her keel. She lost all headway, and the furious shouts of her commander could be heard above the chaos. For a moment Duncan thought she would move no more until the tide came in; then, long seconds later she inched forward. But as she finally cleared the bar, the signal gun at the finish line fired. A cheer broke farther down the harbor, where townspeople had gathered in dinghies and on the town wharf. Sarah was victorious. With a gleeful laugh Hancock extended his palm toward the captain. Lawford good-naturedly dropped a heavy coin into it and looked over the assembly of officers. “Our redcoat has missed all the fun,” he added, referring to Lieutenant Hicks, head of the small army contingent temporarily stationed in Marblehead. “I fear I owe him as well, for the scoundrel had the nerve to wager against the navy.”

Lawford grinned as Hancock hurried down the dock to congratulate the crew of his mooring sloop. “The Boston papers will love this story. I will get no end of ribbing, I am sure. Oh my,” the commodore added as the winning crew assembled on the dock. Two of the women had stripped to their petticoats during the competition and the others, including Sarah, wore sailor’s breeches. All had been saturated by the bow spray.

Sarah was shaking the water from her auburn curls as Duncan reached her. “I’m soaked!” she protested as he spread his arms to embrace her, then laughed as he ignored her warning.

“You laid a trap for Oakes,” he whispered as he held her close. “You knew he would scrape.”

“I seem to recall the very first advice I received from my sailing master,” she said with an impish smile, “was to always know the lay of my keel. Can I help it if the lieutenant doesn’t know the cut of his own boat?” Then “That’s good of John,” she added after a moment.

Duncan pulled away to watch as Hancock distributed coins to each of her crew members. The jubilant merchant then led them toward the long brick build- ing that was his Marblehead warehouse. At the far end, men stood at trestle tables, serving ale, fresh loaves, and boiled mussels to the townspeople who had gathered for the finish of the race. In the yard paved with crushed oyster shell at the near end of the building were other tables, draped with linens, where more robust offerings of lobster, oysters, pies, cakes, and wine awaited Hancock’s invited guests.

“Where is that scrub Hicks?” Lawford asked one of his subordinates as he heaped oysters onto his plate. “Not like him to miss a taste of the famous Hancock larder.” The aide leaned into the commodore’s ear with an apparent explanation. “Oh that,” Lawford said with a wince. “Damn the deserters,” he groused. “They should swing just for keeping a zealous officer from our frolic.”

Duncan caught the anxious glance Sarah aimed at the ridge that jutted into the harbor entrance. She had been so insistent on the place and time of her little competition that he could not shake the suspicion that she had other reasons in mind. But if she had intended to distract all the officers in the town to divert them from one of her smuggling operations, her plan had not been entirely successful. She turned to the captain. “I must beg your leave,” she announced to Lawford. “Allow us a few moments in the sloop’s privacy before we catch our death,” she said, indicating her wet clothing. The sun had begun its descent, and what had been a providentially mild day was cooling.

“Of course, my dear,” Lawford replied. “But make haste, for we can hardly celebrate these heroics without our heroine.”

Hancock’s guests energetically attacked the stacks of food. Only Hancock and Duncan noticed that Sarah paused at the foot of the wharf to speak with one of her crew, sending the woman up the street at a run. Hancock’s gaze shifted to the town’s two magistrates sitting farther down the table, and then he cast a worried glance at Duncan, who shrugged. Sarah did not share all her secrets with Duncan and fewer still with Hancock, who engaged in the delicate balancing act of maintaining close relations with the government despite being a leader in the Sons of Liberty.

The secret that most troubled Hancock, Duncan knew, was not one of Sarah’s but that of the dead infantry officer they had found floating off Marblehead ten days earlier, killed by a stab wound in the back. He and Duncan knew the presence of so many high-ranking officers from Castle William, the island headquarters of the military, was unprecedented. They, too, he suspected, had come for more than the sailing match. There had been no official reaction to or even notice of the officer’s murder, which made Duncan all the more uneasy. If they had kept the killing secret, so too might they conceal their retribution.

Hancock collected himself and turned to the table. “Gentlemen,” he announced as he reached into a case of wine and extracted a dusty bottle, “I give you the claret of sixty-four, I daresay the first case to arrive on American shores. Best of the decade, I’ve been told.”

“Have you the duty slip?” the port commissioner asked playfully. Hancock, who had had a ship seized by the government for failure to pay duties less than two years earlier, winced but then pushed a smile onto his face.

The guests enthusiastically gathered around the case as Hancock filled and distributed glasses, not looking up until Sarah reappeared, wearing a hunter-green dress that set off her auburn hair. That at least two of the officers reacted coolly toward her did not surprise Duncan, though he could not tell if it was because she had bested the navy’s cutter or simply because they resented a woman who presumed to command a sailing vessel. But the others at the table cheerfully joined in when Captain Lawford raised his glass for a toast to “Miss Ramsey and the distaff navy of Marblehead!”

They ate with a camaraderie unusual for such an assembly of officials and citizens, and although the good humor of Lawford and his officers was sometimes forced, Duncan concluded it was because of Oakes’s defeat. Halfway through the meal, however, Hancock came up behind Duncan and gripped his arm, directing his gaze to Lawford. The commodore had gone silent and was staring at one of the larger fishing boats anchored across the harbor. The boat was painted a distinctive mustard with green trim, her net raised to dry along her backstays.

Hancock bent low to top off Duncan’s glass. “Good God!” he whispered. “He recognizes it!”

“Marblehead has the colony’s largest fishing fleet,” Duncan murmured. “It should come as no surprise that the boat would be here. It just triggered an un- pleasant memory.”

“Unpleasant?” Hancock rejoined. “A nightmare!”

Duncan saw now that the color had drained from Lawford’s face. He wasn’t seeing a fishing boat; he was seeing a ghost. Only the week before, that vessel had arrived at Castle William with the waterlogged, bloodless body of a British officer hanging in that very net.

Ten days earlier Hancock had invited Duncan and John Glover, one of the town’s leading shipowners and an able mariner, to join him on his coastal packet boat to help inspect the decrepit channel markers leading into the harbors of Lynn, Marblehead, and Salem. The governor was not shy about asking Hancock, as a prominent member of the legislature, to perform such duties, knowing his appetite for asserting authority and his willingness to personally pay for improvements to public property. It had been mere coincidence that they had spied the desperate waving of the crew of the mustard-colored boat. They had eased the packet close and accepted the line tossed to bring the boats alongside each other.

The fishermen’s net had been pulled to the opposite side of the boat. At first Duncan saw only the densely packed herring, but then a crew member shook the net and the silver flickers began to alternate with snatches of scarlet. The mate in command of the boat called for the crew to pull the net higher, and the body surfaced, shedding the crabs and eels that had been nibbling at its flesh.

They had laid the pale soldier out on the deck. He had been dead only a few hours, his flesh largely intact, not yet found by the larger predators of the bay. No one spoke, no one moved, aghast not simply at the gruesome death but also at who, or rather what, the man was. Judging by his once elegant uniform, he was a captain in the Twenty-Ninth Regiment of Foot, one of the hated regiments occupying Boston.

“Toss him back in, I say,” the mate suggested. “No one the wiser. Marblehead don’t need it.”

Hancock stared at the dead man, clearly confused, and then his eyes went round. “Captain Mallory! Dear God, he has dined at my own table! A most genteel officer! He and his fiancée were expected at the governor’s ball and never made an appearance.” Duncan took a deep breath and knelt beside the corpse. The officer had been a handsome, fit man in his forties and had been wearing his dress uni- form as if planning to attend an official function. Duncan quickly examined the limbs, then unbuttoned the tunic. Finding nothing suspicious, and fervently hoping he could declare the death a drowning accident, he straightened, then shook his head, knowing he had not completed the task. He bent and pressed down on the dead man’s abdomen. Only air escaped from his lungs. “Help me turn him over,” he asked with foreboding.

No one stepped forward until finally Glover bent and lifted the man’s feet. The compact, muscular mariner helped Duncan twist the man onto his stomach, then muttered a low curse. The back of the officer’s waistcoat had a slit in it, just to the left of his spine and over his heart. The blood had not been entirely washed away.

“Murder?” Hancock gasped. “My God, a senior officer murdered? No, Dun- can, we can’t . . .” His voice trailed off.

Glover wore a grim but more collected expression. “If he was out of Marble- head we’ll feel the wrath of the governor. He already lends an ear to those who say our town has become a den of murderers and thieves since last year. This will be their excuse to square accounts with us.”

“Marblehead don’t need it,” the mate repeated. Now Hancock understood his words.

The people of Marblehead hated the customs duties and other trade restrictions imposed by London but reserved a special loathing for the navy’s press gangs, which often detained their vessels at sea to seize men for involuntary service on their warships. The year before, a Marblehead man had been charged with harpooning the officer leading a gang that had cornered him on his own ship with drawn weapons. Although the court had ultimately ruled the killing justified as self-defense, rancor over the incident still simmered on both sides. Since then, when a naval vessel sailed close to a Marblehead boat, crew members usually taunted it with raised harpoons.

“No,” Duncan said as he contemplated the body. “The senior officer in Marblehead is a lieutenant. And he was going to the ball in Boston. The tide will have brought him from the inner harbor.” He looked up at the merchant. “Meaning they will think the Boston radicals are behind it.” Duncan glanced at Glover, and the men gathered around the body with new worry. He knew Glover was fiercely committed to the Sons of Liberty but did not know the political leanings of the others.

Glover instantly understood. “Committed patriots to the man here,” he said of the fishing crew.

“As are my lads,” Hancock murmured.

Duncan surveyed the men standing around him, then gazed at the steeples of Boston, just visible across the bay. “He goes back in the water,” he said, “back in the net. And the boat goes to Castle William.”

“Like hell!” the mate growled. “I’m not offering myself up to some mob of angry lobsterbacks!”

“I’ll go,” Glover said and turned to the mate. “Duncan’s got the measure of it. I’ll tell them it’s my boat, that as soon as we snagged the poor soldier we knew we had to take him to his comrades at the Castle. We never touched him, never raised him out of the water. They’ll identify him and know that he was from Boston. As a top officer he will have been missed by now. We’ll just be doing our duty to the king, ye see,” he said to the crew, who answered with mocking grins.

Duncan saw that Hancock was not convinced. “Otherwise, John, they’ll be turning Boston inside out to find him. The magistrates will give the army leave to search the house of every radical. Especially the leaders of the Sons,” he added. “They wouldn’t dare!” Hancock exclaimed. “There’s such things as bonds of


“In Boston?” Duncan rejoined. “Where there’s an angry soldier for every four citizens, half of whom are equally on edge? I daresay we are beyond bonds and honor. Massachusetts is an uncharted land these days. And there are those on both sides who would be happy to transform it into a bloody battlefield. We can’t give them an excuse for doing so. You never saw the body, know only that Mallory missed the ball.”

Hancock grimaced, then slowly nodded.

Duncan turned to Glover. “Fix this as the position of the discovery, mark your chart, note the time. The navy well understands the flow of the tides here, knows that if he had been killed on the north shore he would have been swept far out to sea. Meanwhile,” he added to the crew, “bring in the herring. And this is a fishing boat. She’s too tidy. Cut up some fish and scatter the remains. Let some seagulls follow you in to soil the Castle’s wharf. Do what you can to make her stink so the Castle won’t want you to linger.”

The crew looked to their mate for direction. After several heartbeats he nodded, then kicked over a basket of fish. “Stink it up, boys.”

As the crew worked to fill the oversized baskets on deck with their catch,Duncan more fully examined the dead officer, finding no other signs of injury but also no sign of a purse or personal effects. Glover and the mate then restored the dead man’s tunic, placed him back into the now-empty net, and lowered him into the sea. As the boats drifted apart, Hancock stood at Duncan’s side. “Once again, Duncan, we may need you to protect us.”

Duncan gave no voice to the question on his tongue. Was Hancock referring to Duncan’s skills as a physician or as, in words Hancock sometimes whispered, the “master of secrets” for the Sons of Liberty?

While Sarah’s freshly attired crew mingled with the officers, Hancock lived up to his repute as a generous and attentive host. Duncan suspected his other guests would ascribe his nervousness to his compulsion to keep every cup filled and every empty platter quickly replenished. The merchant prince had warned all in advance that given the exceptional weather the tea was to be alfresco, in North Shore picnic style, meaning he had brought only one servant and, at Sarah’s urging, had attired the man in simple brown waistcoat and breeches instead of his usual brocaded livery.

The company was turning its attention to the stack of cakes and pastries at the end of the table when the gaze of the port’s senior customs official fixed on the point of rock Sarah had been watching.

“The infernal savage is lighting up again,” the commissioner muttered.

Heads turned toward the solitary figure who tended a smoky fire on the tongue of land that jutted into the mouth of the harbor. They were not close enough for Duncan to make out details, but he recognized the man’s slow, methodical dance and shoulder-length gray hair.

“Every few days we must suffer the aged fool, sir,” the customs man explained to Lawford. “One of those pathetic old natives, no doubt reliving some memory conjured from his barbaric youth.”

Duncan noticed the smile that flickered on Sarah’s face. The figure was their close friend Conawago, and the fire, Duncan knew, was a signal.

“Not at all,” Duncan quickly countered. “He is performing a blessing for the harbor and the town. The fishing fleet leaves soon for the Grand Banks on its first sailing of the year, what they call First Fare. He asks the favors of his gods for the First Fare mariners.”

“His gods?” one of the younger officers snorted. “Surely they are all deaf and dumb by now!”

As the words brought a round of guffaws, Duncan shot a worried glance at Sarah, who stared down into her plate without expression and, he suspected, was biting her tongue.

The commodore stifled the laughter with a raised hand. “You can recognize this as a tribal blessing?” Lawford observed with a lift of inquiry in his voice, then contemplated Duncan a moment. “Ah, I forgot. You and Miss Ramsey have a settlement adjoining the native lands, in the New York wilderness. That must breed certain”—the captain searched for a polite word—“certain awareness.”

“The Iroquois,” Sarah replied in a careful voice, “have generously accepted us as neighbors, yes. And you may be surprised, Captain, at how many natives live in this very town. Responsible citizens, mostly employed on the sailing vessels. Valued seaman, every one.”

“I have several on my own ships,” Hancock confirmed. “Fearless fellows. Always the first to scramble up the shrouds in a storm. I’m surprised the navy hasn’t—” Hancock caught himself, glancing awkwardly at the naval officers who sat across from him, many of whom would have commanded impressment parties. “Surprised they haven’t fully recognized the skills of such men,” he awkwardly amended.

One of the officers, well known for commanding bullying impressment squads, responded with a bitter expression. “Our coppery friends may hate what the Americans have done to their people,” he haughtily observed, “but put them in earshot of one of my press gangs and they become the most loyal of colonial residents, damn their eyes.”

Impressment had become such a source of friction that the navy had agreed not to seize any man who could prove an established Massachusetts residence. That proof could be hard to come by for the native mariners, many of whom lived wandering lives, but Marbleheaders were quick to support the natives, if just to spite the navy.

Out of the corner of his eye Duncan caught movement on the hill above the warehouses. A man was walking at a fast, determined pace toward the harbor. Sarah, too, took notice, studying him for a moment, then glancing uneasily at Conawago, who raised and lowered his arms through the thick, fragrant smoke of the burning juniper.

“One of your tidesmen, I believe,” Hancock observed to the customs commissioner as the port inspector approached their table. Sarah cast a nervous glance at the approaching tidesman. She had made a point of inviting all the local customs officers to the tea, but apparently at least one had declined. The commissioner rose and turned to receive a whispered report. Hancock offered the man a glass of claret, which he gulped down before departing. It was, Duncan knew, the mer- chant’s ploy to pry loose the news delivered by the man. “I daresay one of yours, Mr. Hancock,” was all the tidesman offered before leaving.

The commissioner, however, was all too happy to share the report. “Brig from the West Indies has dropped anchor,” he announced to the table. “Sugar and mo- lasses. In the outer harbor beyond the Neck. A bit odd given that we have ample berthing closer to shore.”

Hancock did a creditable job of hiding his surprise, but Duncan could see he had not expected the ship, at least not at Marblehead. His larger ships all ended their ocean voyages at Hancock Wharf in Boston. “Her captain is a God-fearing man who no doubt does not wish to disturb the Sabbath,” the merchant offered.

“But is he a king-fearing man?” the customs commissioner shot back with a thin, needling smile. “We shall see at first light tomorrow.” He would reap a rich bounty if he could prove another Hancock ship was engaged in smuggling.

Sarah, sensing the tension between the two men, lifted her glass. “Our noble competition arrives!” she announced, indicating the sullen file of sailors who had finally cleared the wreckage from the cutter’s deck and were now approaching their table. The face of Lieutenant Oakes reflected the ignominy of his defeat, but then he spotted Sarah and her crew and halted. He collected himself, straightening his uniform and ordering his men into a less ragged line. They advanced at a jaunty pace and upon reaching Sarah, the young lieutenant removed his hat and bowed to her.

“’Tis far better to have raced you and lost, Miss Ramsey,” the lieutenant declared, “than to have never raced you at all.”

“Hear, hear! Well done!” Lawford exclaimed. “A noble sentiment!”

The cutter’s men did not entirely share their skipper’s graciousness, for Dun- can heard one mutter something about “the vixen leading us into a trap,” but the tension melted as Sarah’s crew approached the sailors, holding mugs of ale. Fifty paces down the waterfront, where the townspeople were gathered, someone started playing a fiddle.

Duncan grinned as the women stepped into the open yard and began dancing a jig to the distant tune, pulling the chagrined sailors out of their line to join them. He felt Sarah tug at his arm and turned, thinking she was inviting him to dance, then followed her gaze toward a man stumbling down one of the side streets, running at a gasping, uneven pace in the direction of their table. His face was so pale, his long hair so disheveled, that Duncan did not recognize him at first. The man staggered to Hancock’s chair, bracing himself on its back as he struggled to catch his breath.

It was Simon Pollard, a retired schoolteacher who watched over Hancock’s operations in the port. His mouth opened and shut, but only a stuttering groan came out. Hancock hastily poured his deputy a glass of water. Pollard’s hand shook so badly that half the glass’s contents were lost before reaching his mouth.

“The belfry, sir! It’s . . . it’s . . .” Pollard glanced at the military men who lined the table and lowered his voice. “That lieutenant who runs the army patrols, he . . . Oh dear God . . .” His voice trailed away, and his head slumped. One more word escaped his lips, in a frantic whisper. “Crucifixion!”

Hancock leapt to his feet. Duncan was out of his chair an instant later and followed Hancock toward the long building that was fronted by the belfry, the name given to the tall structure at the end of the long rope walk Hancock had built to supply his merchant fleet. The tower’s latticework of timbers was used to suspend shrouds and special rigging in their finishing stages. Duncan last visited the belfry just three days earlier. He had watched in admiration as workers scrambled over the scaffolding, twisting and knotting fibers into a heavy backstay for a ship that was being refitted in the harbor.

As they reached the building’s door, Hancock halted Duncan. “There is trickery afoot, Duncan! They somehow know we were with that dead officer, I swear it! Did you not see the knowing gazes, the slippery glances? And now they surprise me with one of my own ships! They weren’t here for the race; they were here to beat down the leaders of the Sons of Liberty! It’s a plot to seize another of my ships! I’ll be ruined!”

“Steady on, John,” Duncan cautioned. “Something is afoot, but it’s still unfolding. Don’t indulge them by overreacting.” Duncan looked over Hancock’s shoulder. Lawford was bent over Pollard, and as Duncan watched, the captain spun about and hurried up the hill, followed by several of his officers. He took a deep breath and put a hand on the door, which was ajar. “Let us see what new trouble Lieutenant Hicks has brewed for us.” He stepped inside and froze. The timber scaffolding had not been used for its usual maritime magic this day.

“Blessed Jesus!” Hancock gasped as he entered the chamber, then retreated a step, stricken by the sight before them. Moments later Lawford and his companions arrived. One of the young officers made a croaking sound and doubled over, staggering to a corner as he retched onto the stone flags.

Duncan had taken Pollard’s muttered Crucifixion! to be just the expletive of a pious man, but now he saw the terrible truth.

Ropes had been tied to Hicks’s wrists, then strung through the pulley blocks fastened eight feet high on the side walls and fed through the overhead center block used to raise heavy rigging. The lieutenant had been hoisted six feet into the air, his arms stretched tight toward the opposite walls so that he was splayed against the scaffold. His face was drained of blood, his open eyes unseeing. His mouth and nostrils were sewn shut.

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