Chapter Twenty-eight

Wherein, a small but critical error is discovered, leading to yet another change in plans.

Given the reverses of the past twenty-four hours, Jake felt somewhat relieved to make the edge of the woods without pursuit. He felt even better when he heard a familiar grumbling up ahead in a clearing.

Van Clynne had smashed his foot upon a log and was implying that Heaven had placed it specifically in his path. The squire’s mood lifted upon seeing Jake, whom he feared had been killed or at least captured by the untimely arrival of the British.

“ Thank God you’re all right,” said the squire, clapping him on the back and forgetting all about his injured toe.

“ Thank God for you, too,” said Jake. “You were a wonder in there, Claus. I really must admit I couldn’t have pulled this off without you. Wait until General Washington hears this story.”

Ordinarily, van Clynne would bask in the glow of such praise. In fact, it is hard to imagine otherwise, given the squire’s hopes for the restoration of his property.

But the Dutchman was a great student of odds. And though the average bystander would have computed the changes of his getting the right bullet into Herstraw’s boot at fifty-fifty, he knew that certain other laws came into play at a moment of crisis. Call it Van Clynne’s Law — the shoe will always be on the wrong foot when catastrophe strikes.

“ The wrong bullet!” exclaimed Jake.

“ Perhaps I am wrong,” said van Clynne. “You open the bullet and read the message.”

But of course he was correct. And none of Jake’s curses — nor van Clynne’s — could change that.

The troops had moved their tents to the front of Roelff’s property and doubled their guard. The windows were ablaze with light; no doubt van Clynne’s friend was now earning the extra money he’d been slipped by denying any knowledge of the rebels.

Much to his chagrin, van Clynne agreed with Jake that there was only one course open: return to New York City and carry out the exchange aboard Howe’s ship, while Jake arranged a reception for Herstraw in the city.

The prospect of crossing the water did not thrill the Dutchman, and he was silent the entire journey through the woods south of Roelff’s and down the road to Morisania. They had hopes of finding a boat there they might borrow.

The phony patriot raid had not only delayed Herstraw and his company, it had placed the entire countryside on high alert. Jake and van Clynne nearly ran into a pair of German soldiers, who fortunately were too angry at some slight from their sergeant to pay more than passing attention to the shadows diving for cover by the roadside.

When the mercenaries had passed, van Clynne gathered his bearings and led Jake through two yards and a path, down to the rocky shore. A canoe was tethered a short distance away. Alas, the path was treacherous and wet; the Dutchman soon slipped and only just managed to keep himself from crashing into the sharp stones.

The Dutchman’s fear of water had not abated, and so he may be excused for closing his eyes as he crawled forward on the rocks and groped for the vessel.

His eyes were quickly opened again by a series of excited commands, in German, to give up and get out of the boat. As van Clynne dove in, Jake leaped from the land into the canoe, a bullet whizzing by his head and plunking into the water not three feet away.

The other German was, fortunately, a worse shot, and Jake took advantage of the few seconds they needed to reload by paddling out into the current. All subsequent bullets whizzed harmlessly into the night, as long as you don’t count the one that struck van Clynne flat in the chest.

The musket ball is a curious projectile. Much of its potential force is lost in the gasses that escape around it in the smooth bore of the barrel. Still, it retains a considerable amount of oomph; while not particularly accurate at one hundred yards — or ten, for that matter — it can still blow a nice size hole in one’s chest.

Or in van Clynne’s

The Dutchman went straight over when hit, plopping with such force that the canoe bounced wildly on the waves, nearly causing them to swamp.

The plight of his friend gave Jake new vigor, and he soon made shore beneath the jagged heights of Harlem. It was difficult to haul the canoe up with van Clynne prostrate inside. Nevertheless, he managed; after securing it, he leaned back in the boat, wondering what he could do for the dead man.

“ You can help me up.”

“ Claus, you’re alive!”

“ My purse seems to have saved me,” said the squire, reaching inside his clothes and coming out with a large leather bag filled with paper and coins — and one half-squashed led ball. “Now if this had been a Dutch bullet…”

With Jake and van Clynne busy gathering their horses, tied a half mile away, now might be an appropriate time to sketch out the general environs of Manhattan island for readers unfamiliar with it. Trust that we will return to our heroes before anything of note occurs.

The northern portions of the island are wooded and hilly, not much different from Morrisania and East Chester across the shore. The Post Road — alternatively called the Road to King’s Bridge — runs south from the north-eastern corner a ways, then takes a sharp turn to find the center of the island, a kind of noose at the base of the long neck of Manhattan. Fort George and Fort Washington, not to mention a large Hessian encampment in the middle, cut the head off.

A battalion of ghosts haunt the grounds below the star-shaped walls of Fort Washington on the west side of the island. The fort had been the scene less than a year before of the patriot’s greatest loss in the war, a terrible and needless strategic blunder.

After How had taken the city with a strike from the East River, General Washington retreated and held the Harlem Heights, a strong ridge about halfway across Manhattan. Following a brief but fierce and victorious battle, General Washington once more thought it prudent to retreat, taking up positions in White Plains and the Jerseys.

And leaving behind a contingent at Fort Washington. These battlements consisted of redoubts on a position that commanded the battery above Jeffrey’s Hook. Among those who declared they could be held was Jake’s mentor Nathanael Greene, who had come from a sickbed to assist Washington in the final stages of New York’s defense.

Combined with Fort Lee directly across the river and the assistance of some purposely sunken vessels between them, the Americans sought to block British shipping north. But the British had already shown that the river defenses were no more than a passing nuisance to their boats, and given both the strength and disposition of the English, trying to hold the makeshift fort was a fool’s mission.

Unfortunately, those who perished in its defense were brave soldiers, not fools; among the dead were many members of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Knowlton’s Rangers. Those who weren’t killed were captured, for all but the officers, this was mostly worse than death.

Knowlton himself had been killed earlier during the action at Harlem Heights; in fact, Jake could see the spot as the dawning sun began extending its rays through the trees. Though never assigned to the colonel’s troop, he had always considered him a role model. His loss cost the patriots dearly.

But enough sadness. Jake and van Clynne pushed south quickly, hoping to gain as much time for their operations as possible. As they passed James Delancey’s farm on the outskirts of the city proper, Jake held out his hand for Van Clynne to slow down; they trotted onto Grand Street in an almost leisurely pace.

“ Hungry?” Jake asked van Clynne.

“ Famished,” said the Dutchman. “But is it wise to venture onto the seas with a full stomach?”

“ You’re only going into a harbor.”

“ Is not the harbor an arm of the sea?”

“ I think you need a tall mug of ale, despite the early hour,” said Jake.

“ Rum, answered the Dutchman. “Strong rum.”

After showing van Clynne inside a small inn where he was on good terms with the proprietor, Jake ran across the street to the shop of a purveyor whose name will be recorded here as William Bebeef. Bebeef was a man valuable to those whose politics coincided with Jake’s, doing good service by them. He was, unfortunately, suspected by the British of being a member of the Sons of Liberty, but as of yet he was free to come and go without apprehension. A large part of the reason for this was his fame as a supplier of various apothecary potions — and a few formulas that went beyond the usual cures for measles and love sickness.

Bebeef’s encyclopedic knowledge of medicines and chemistry went far beyond Jake’s own, and the agent had some hope that the old man could conjure a temporary cure for van Clynne’s water phobia. But Bebeef was not in the shop; as a precaution, he’d taken to staying nights with his sister in Brooklyn. The lad he’d left in charge — woken with a discreet shake of his cot — was a mere apprentice who had hardly progressed beyond simple cures for dog distemper. Jake did not have any time to spend cobbling together concoctions himself, much less send for Bebeef. By way of compensation, he borrowed a package the chemist stored against contingencies, figuring his own might prove more urgent.

The bundle was a special type of bomb shaped like a miniature keg, bound of a very light fire wood. A short fuse ran off each end and was twisted in the middle; there was a space of perhaps three seconds between lighting and ignition of the explosive.

The powder at the center of the weapon was packed very tightly and shaped into an odd series of curlicues, held in place by starch-stiffened baffles, which, Bebeef had explained to the boy, acted like a magnifying lenses, except they worked on sound, not light. The effect of his meticulous engineering was to produce an explosion so loud that it could literally stun anyone within fifty feet into a temporary state of shock. Jake had seen one of these “noise kegs” stop the advance of a British column up Long Island last fall. While awkward to use, it was just the thing to cool a hot pursuit. Jake placed the bomb in his saddlebag, intending to reserve it for their escape from the city this afternoon, and then went inside the inn to retrieve his companion.

The Dutchman was on the point of ordering a piece of pie to go with his run.

“ I thought you weren’t hungry,” said Jake.

“ The good woman tells me the pie here is made according to an ancient Dutch recipe, and it would be a shame to pass it by.”

“ Take it with you then,” said Jake. “We have to go.”

The Dutchman grumbled, but otherwise offered no protest as Jake called for a bill. “I was thinking,” he said, tugging Jake’s sleeve. “Perhaps I should take some of that sleeping powder with me, in case I have trouble aboard ship.”

“ I have no more,” said Jake, “and there isn’t time to prepare any. Besides, if you’re caught with it, Howe will realize something’s up.”

“ Only after he wakes.”

“ The operation depends on his never suspecting a thing. Here,” said Jake, reaching into the scabbard at his belt and producing the assassin’s knife. “Carry this with you.”

“ That skinny thing?” Van Clynne pushed the dagger aside on the table. “I have my own knife, thank you.”

“ It’s not just a knife. You see this?” Jake pointed at the ruby.

“ I rather doubt the general will be bribed by such a bauble.”

“ The knife is used only by members of the British Secret Service Department. The fact that you have it will signify to Howe that you’re a special agent. It will make him trust you.”

“ Really?” Van Clynne picked the knife up and examined it carefully. “The Secret Department?”

Jake nodded solemnly. Van Clynne turned the weapon over in his hand.

“ Will they believe a Dutchman is part of their army?”

“ I don’t see why not,” said Jake quickly, trying to boost his companion’s morale. In truth, the higher ranking officers might. He hoped van Clynne wouldn’t have to put it to the test. “The British are not given to asking questions where the department is concerned,” he added truthfully. “Generally, their agents have only one mission — to kill someone. They’ve assassinated princes all over Europe. Supposedly, they’ve even killed a pope or two.”

“ And who should I say I’m supposed to kill?”

“ You don’t say under any circumstances. If you do, they’ll have to kill you.”

The reader will be left to imagine the conversation as it proceeded, with van Clynne continuing to question the contingencies and Jake continuing to assure him that it would not matter. The discussion continued in hushed tones as they rode amid early rising British soldiers and local residents to Pearl Street, where the boat to take van Clynne to Howe would be waiting.

The masts of the British Navy, along with the various commercial vessels in port, formed a hedgerow across the front of Brooklyn Heights. Admiral Lord Richard Howe’s flagship the Eagle, where his brother General Sir William Howe was staying, was a good distance out, near Staten Island. It was a heady, proud ship of the line, and while far from the biggest in the British fleet, nonetheless it was a leviathan here.

Van Clynne tried not to look at any part of the water, not even the seafront before them as they approached the port. Instead he conjured the vision of his pleasantly landlocked homestead. He could see himself staring up at the long gabled roof, admiring the smart windows, the small roof over the door. All he had to do was close his eyes, get across the water, and give Howe his bullet.

“ Oh my God!” said van Clynne suddenly. “I don’t have the bullet.”

“ I’ve got it right here,” said Jake. “Relax.”

The admonition was answered by a sharp smack across the back that sent Jake flying into the dust. It had not come from van Clynne — the sergeant of the guard and three of his minions stood before the portly Dutchman.