Chloe Helton | Historical Fiction

The Red Pearl: Chapter 11

Chapter 11


I woke with an uncomfortable tingle. The thought of seeing my brother that afternoon, which I’d looked forward to so eagerly since a few days ago when the idea struck me, now made me feel sick. It was a rash, thoughtless thing to do.

But he had come that next night, that Tory. He had sneaked into the shadows again like he did that first night, waiting for me, knowing I couldn’t stop him from taking what he wanted, knowing I was helpless. I couldn’t continue to pour a round of rattle-skulls for him and his friends and do nothing in retaliation, a helpless little bird that was easy prey for whatever hungry wolf deigned to hide in the shadows and come out at night. I would turn my little knife to my wrists before I let that happen.

“You’re going to see Betty again?” Jasper asked that morning. “That’s, what, the fourth time this week? Sometimes I wonder if you’re my wife or hers.”

“This is the last time,” I said. “I just have something I forgot to give her.”

“I won’t even ask. I hope it’s the last time; Robby’s had to do extra work with you running off every afternoon, and you know that boy doesn’t always do things the way I like them.”

Apparently I didn’t always do things the way he liked, either. I supposed that didn’t matter.

After Jasper had fallen asleep, I’d written the note in the lemon juice. Later this week or early next, a ship called Columbus, the goods packed in bales of hay. I hoped it would be enough; it had to be enough.

The camp, as I understood, was just outside town. On the way out, I caught a stage-wagon and paid the fellow fifteen cents out of the pocket change I’d scrounged lately, which would be enough to get me to the camp. It had to be off the main road, or at least close by. I had no plan in case I failed to catch sight of it and had to find a way back to the city.

“Where are you headed, madam?”

“I have a meeting at a camp off the road.”

“A camp?”

I nodded without further explanation. “Will you make your way back to-day?”

He shrugged. “Probably I’ll be back by sunset; I have some goods to deliver. But I know a few fellows who take this route back and forth just to ferry passengers, so I’m sure you’ll catch a-one or two of them if you wait.”

The fare back to Boston would likely be more, then, but that was fine. I didn’t have much else to spend my small allowance on, anyhow.

Not a few moments later, a handful of tents was visible in a little clearing far out from the road. “Stop,” I said, scrutinizing them for a moment to be certain. Yes, there were too many for it to be a band of thieves. It had to be them. “It’s here.”

The driver clearly didn’t see it, but he shrugged. “If you say it’s so.”

I dismounted easily, getting a bit of dust on the bottom of my skirt, and the driver whipped on his horse. I was alone.

Stepping carefully, I tasked the dewy grass toward the tents, which swelled bigger by the second. As I got closer, I noticed men trickling about near the fire and the wash bins, where a handful of women slaved away with the laundry and the cooking. It was as primitive a camp as ever, yet it seemed decently equipped.

A few men were leaning against a tree passing around a bottle of brandy and playing cards, and they were the first to notice me. “Oy!” someone shouted. “New blood!”

The others turned. I cleared my throat, determined not to look nervous. “I’ve come for Jonathan Rader. You know him?”

They grinned. “Sure we do. But if you’re looking for a good time, miss, I can assure you I can entertain your fancy much better -”

“He’s my brother,” I replied evenly. “Can you direct me to him?”

The wolfish grin ceased only a little. “He’s milling around here somewhere, sweetheart. Might be near the river, if he’s not in the camp.”

I nodded a thank-you. As I walked away he called out, “Let me know if you need more help.”

With a shudder, I persisted to find Jonathan, pulling my cloak closer as a breeze tickled my arms. I neared the fire-pit, where a small group of men roared as they threw dice, and my brother was among them. Not something our mother would like to know, that he was gambling, but it wasn’t my business. One of his fellows noticed me, and it must have been clear that my intended target was Jonathan, because the man elbowed my brother, who twisted his head back at me.

My brother greeted me cordially, despite his surprise, and sat me down next to him on a log beside the unlit fire-pit. He immediately rose and led me down to the river, upon which he turned on me and hissed, “You shouldn’t be here.”

I was taken aback. “I just came to visit. Is that wrong?”

He crossed his arms. “I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I came to tell you something to pass to your captain.”

“Such as?”

“Information. Men talk, especially when they’re drinking in the tavern, and I’ve heard things that might be of interest.”

“Tavern gossip is not our concern, Lucy. It was good to see you.”

My lips pursed. Jonathan had never been the most friendly of us, but this was rude. “No. I paid fifteen pennies and took a whole day to come here, which my husband would have my hide for if he knew of, by the way, and I won’t let you pass me off. As your sister, I deserve to be listened to, at least.”

He looked away, then sighed. “I regret my rudeness. You may speak.”

Tempted to clench my jaw - you may speak, how patronizing of him - I launched into the story immediately, my enthusiasm spiralling with every word, and when I finished I glanced at him proudly, anticipating his astonished and impressed smile.

His fingers twitched. “Thank you,” he said flatly. “I’m sure it will be taken care of.”

That didn’t sound right. “You’re not going to do anything about it?”

There were a few other soldiers on the other side of the empty pit, and they perked up for a moment at my urgent tone.

“We get dozens of tips like this,” my brother informed me quietly. “The colonists never have a problem foiling British shipments.”

“You don’t understand. They’ve gotten away with it so far; they said they’ve never had a ship that didn’t pass through.”

He considered this. “Okay.” It wasn’t a rejection, but it wasn’t a promise, either. It was less than he would have given Thea, who had married a good patriot, whose first love had not been so wild as to scare our father into marrying her to someone so absurdly sensible as my husband.

“I promise you, I am speaking truth,” I told him. “I wouldn’t bring this to you if I didn’t believe it.”

He knew that. I supposed the fact that I believed it wasn’t enough assurance that it was true, not to him. Perhaps he thought me an agent of my husband, who did not take a side but to someone like Jonathan he was as good as a loyalist. These days, I was starting to wonder if Jonathan wasn’t right about that.

The fact that Jonathan had sent me no such letter as the one he wrote to Thea stung even more now, as I sat next to him, remembering all the fond memories of our childhood and wondering if I had ruined it all by a marriage that had been our father’s bidding, not my own.

I handed my brother the note, and he squinted. “You’re telling me there’s something written on this?”

Luckily, the men had a day of leisure when I came; Jonathan said he might have had to turn me away otherwise. When I found them, they were playing cards, and when my brother recognized me he gave me the strangest look, like there was something he wished to say but didn’t.

“If you hold it up to light, you’ll see it,” I explained. “It’s the details of a British shipment coming into the harbor on Sunday.”

“Well, I’ll pass it on,” he said, but I lived with him for seventeen years and I knew when he was lying.

“This is serious, Johnny.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Well, then listen to me.”

He hesitated. “We get a dozen tips like this a week, just as there are a dozen ships out there. They’ll all be foiled, Luce, they always are.”

“Not this one,” I said. “It’s disguised as a colonial ship.”

“I’m sure they’ll catch it. The only goods that get into the harbor are hay and wheat.”

“John, just trust me on this. You have to pass it to your captain.”

“I’ll try.” I had learned, over many years, that those words were a cheap promise. But I knew it was the best I’d get out of my brother. “How are things at The Red Pearl?”

“Good,” I said, the word catching a little. “Fine. How’s life here?”

“Boring. When there’s not battle, which there hasn’t been for a while, we just sit here and play cards.” He shrugged. “I’ve won a lot of money from rummy. I’m the best in the camp.”

“Mother would have your skin for gambling.”

He shrugged. “She’ll never know.”

We caught up for a few minutes longer, him telling me all about his winnings at rummy and asking me about Jasper. He hadn’t known much, my brother, when I married Jasper; he had known about Sam, who’d been a friend of his, but he didn’t know that it was because of Sam that I was locked in my room for eleven days and suddenly married off, faking a smile and exchanging my vows in a voice that cracked with grief. Of my siblings, only Thea knew the whole story, because during the week before my wedding when I went to bed with wet eyes, sobbing into my pillow and trying desperately to get Sam’s face, his lips, his touch out of my mind - during that week Thea had slept next to me, as always, and she begged me to tell her what was wrong. To my brothers, it was a secret they dared not ask.

When a stagecoach passed by that afternoon, I fished out a few pennies and climbed aboard, feeling something unfamiliar as we sailed back into the city. Something new, a strange sort of hope.