Authors: Robert McCammon
Tags: #Matthew Corbett, #colonial america, #adventure, #historical thriller, #thriller, #history
The Providence Rider
Subterranean Press 2012
The Providence Rider
Copyright © 2012 by The McCammon Corporation. All rights reserved.
Dust jacket and interior illustrations Copyright © 2012
by Vincent Chong. All rights reserved.
Interior design Copyright © 2012 by Desert Isle Design, LLC.
All rights reserved.
PO Box 190106
Burton, MI 48519
To kc dyer.
Thanks for the help, the encouragement, and for showing me the silver swan.
The Gray Kingdom
The crab that scuttled amid rocks in the liquid dark knew nothing beyond its shell. Born from what? Struggling toward where? It knew not. It tasted the cold currents, and within them the essence of flesh to be consumed, and so it changed its course to the direction of that call and labored slowly through the muck toward its prey.
Over more rocks again, into crevices and cracks, sliding down and clambering up in its sideways gait, its claws thrusting here and there as was the nature of the crustacean. On its passage over an oyster bed the crab’s presence sent a tremor across the field of plate-sized shells, as if in their moist senseless dreaming the mollusks felt the shadow of nightmare where no shadow could be. The crab went on, and whatever small panic had roused the oysters beyond their state of somnolence died in an instant, and life between the shells continued as before.
Whither it travelled, the crab stirred whorls of mud beneath its claws. The hard-backed and determined dweller did not know the full moon painted silver light upon the surface of New York’s harbor, or that the month was February and the year 1703, or that lamps glowed in the windows of the sturdy houses and well-seasoned taverns of Manhattan on a Saturday night, or that a cold wind from the northwest ruffled its roof. It knew only that it smelled something good to eat in this nightblack and muddy morass spread out before it, and so it went on hungrily and one might say clumsily, without forethought or plan.
Therefore when the mud beneath it opened up and tentacles sprouted forth and what appeared to be mud shuddered with voracious delight, who was to blame but itself? When the tentacles wrapped around the crab and flipped it over and the beak of the octopus began to gnaw into the underbelly, what thought flashed like a scent of dead herring through the crustacean’s nerves? For truly the crab struggled to escape, but of chance for this there was none. In bits and pieces the crab began to come apart, to lose itself to biting beak and impartial sea, and as the smaller fish darted in to seize these little floating shreds of meat the octopus pulled its prey closer like a jealous lover and squeezed itself down into a hole where two rocks kissed. Thus very soon the last of the crab was down in an even darker place than before, and so farewell to the solitary traveller.
Having completed its meal, the octopus sat in its hole. It was old and slow, and in its own way it seethed and fumed against the indignities that time had laid upon it. But it had been lucky, to feast so well. Very soon, though, the feelings of hunger began gripping its innards again. So it pulled itself from its crusty den tentacle by tentacle and ventured forth upon the battlefield once more, and drifting hither and yon like a speckled cloud it searched for a nice plain of mud and weeds to sink itself into. There it would wait for the next hapless denizen of the deep to cross its path, and woe to the crabs and small fish of the night.
The octopus, dedicated to its own progress and appetite, floated past a cluster of rocks upon which was jammed the rusted remains of an anchor torn from a Dutch ship in a storm many years before. The creature whose home and refuge these rocks and anchor had become immediately woke from its stupor and, sensing the presence of food in a tingle of its inner ear, thrust its tail from side to side and propelled itself outward. Thus the grouper’s mouth seized the bulbous head of its prey. As the alarm of black ink jetted forth—far too late—the octopus was pulled into the grouper’s maw and crushed by the heavy tooth plates within. The flailing tentacles were ingested in a gulp. It was such a clean dinner that not a shred was left for the little beggars. The grouper swam in a kind of victorious trance, its belly grazing the bottom and its tail sluggishly moving water.
Presently a new smell of food beckoned the grouper, which changed course like a barnacle-blotched frigate. Searching high and low, it came upon an oily piece of meat suspended in the water, there for the taking.
When the mighty maw closed over the meat, there was a sudden jerk upon the line that rose up forty feet to the surface. The fishhook set. The grouper, mildly annoyed, pulled back and intended to return to its den, yet was stopped at this attempt by an admirable resistance from the upper regions beyond which the grouper had no knowledge. Hook, line and grouper began a test of wills, and if anything the grouper was strong and stubborn. Still, the grouper was pulled toward the surface little by little over the following few minutes, and try as it might the fish could not shake the hard spiny thorn that set tight in its throat. On its way up from depths to heights its eyes caught sight of strange shapes in the world beyond. A round light shone down in a most beautiful silver glow that nearly transfixed the grouper. The fish shivered in its attempt to escape this nuisance of being pulled where it did not wish to go, and its gills swelled with the flush of anger.
In another few seconds it would be up through the surface. It would be in the clutches of another realm, for better or for worse. It would know, in its own way, a secret. And yet it resisted this knowing, and it thrashed and thrashed yet the line still pulled and it yet rose upward. The surface was about to be broken, and the grouper’s eyes would see a world foreign and alien and wholly fantastic in its being, just before it perished.
But before that could happen the blue shark that had been observing this situation and circling the picture darted in and tore most of the lower portion of the grouper away in its teeth, so that only the grouper’s head emerged on the end of the line. The fisherman in his little rowboat, who had been reeling in his catch for the better part of six minutes, saw the grouper’s dripping head and the white wake of the shark’s fin. He threw his rod down in an expression of rage and in his raspy wind-weathered voice gave a shout likely to roll across the waters and waken the sleepers in the graveyard of Trinity church.
“For sakes of Almighty Jazus!” hollered old wild-haired Hooper Gillespie. “T’ain’t fair, you hard-hearted robber! You wicked piece a’ God’s spite! T’ain’t
But fair or not, that was life both above and below the surface.
After a few more choice morsels of twisted lingo had been flung at the since-departed shark, Hooper Gillespie gave a heavy sigh and pulled his tattered coat tighter about himself. His thick white hair stood out from his head in bursts of cowlicks and circular whorls, an untameable field that had once broken his mother’s best brush. But his mother was dead now, long dead, and never would anyone know that he kept a small ink drawing of her face in a pewter frame in his cabin, done from memory. It was perhaps the only thing he valued in life, besides his fishing rod.
He reeled in the mangled head. He removed the hook. Just before he threw the mess over the side, he caught the gleam of the moon in the sightless eyes and wondered what fish knew of the world of men. But it was a passing thought, like a shadow without substance. He turned in his boat to regard the bucket of the night’s catch, three small mackerel and a nice-sized striper. The wind was getting colder. His arms were tired from his recent efforts. It was time to head for shore.
The sound of fiddle music drifted to him across the bay. It was joyous and lively, and it made a hot surge of fresh anger rise up within old Hooper. “Good for
!” he growled in the direction of people and dances and candlelight and life in general. “Yessir, go on about y’selves and see what I care!” He stored his rod away and began rowing toward the dark shape of Oyster Island. “I
care!” he said toward the world. “I’m my own self, is what I am! Thinkin’ they can get away with it, and me down in a puddle. No sir, that ain’t the half of it!”
He realized as he rowed that he’d begun talking to himself quite a lot lately. “Never no mind to that!” he said. “Done is done and is is
!” He paused to spit bitter phlegm over the side. “So
!” he said.
Back in the summer, Hooper had been running the ferry between Manhattan and Breuckelen. But the river ruffians, the ‘bullywhelp boys’ in his opinion, who kept waylaying the ferry and robbing its passengers had put paid to that effort, at least for Hooper. He had no wish to be the bearer of a cut throat. In fact he’d complained about the situation at Governor Lord Cornbury’s first meeting with the citizens at City Hall and insisted that High Constable Gardner Lillehorne should be doing something to clean up the river trash.
“And look where that got me!” he hollered to the stars. “A-rowin’ out here in the cold like to catch a death and what’s it all the better for?”
The truth was, in November Lillehorne had found the robbers’ hidden cove and broken up that merry little band of nasties, and yet the job of ferry master had gone to a younger man. The closing of many doors in Hooper’s face had made him think complaining about the high constable in front of the gown-wearing Cornbury—the queen’s cousin and, it was fair to say, a little queenly himself—was not something a sane man ought to do.
“But I ain’t crazy!” Hooper muttered as he rowed. “I am as fit in the head as a new nail!”
Circumstance found him now nearing Oyster Island’s rocky beach. Circumstance and, of course, the cold hard fact that no one else wanted this task. The island was mostly a tangle of woods and boulders, but for the small log cabin built to house the watchman. That was Hooper’s job, and had been for three weeks. Watchman, climbing the watch tower on the southern end of the island and mostly watching the tide roll in and out, but also alert to masts on the horizon. If his spyglass picked out an armada of ships flying Dutch flags, he knew it would be Holland’s oak-walled men of war coming to take back New York, and he was to scurry down to where the cannon faced the harbor and fire off a warning blast before the invaders made landfall.
“Hell if I know ’bout firin’ a damned cannon,” Hooper said quietly as he thought about it, his oars moving water. Then he heard the drift of fiddle music again, and he turned his face toward the lamplights of the town and hollered, “I ought to blast ye all, right out a’ your dancin’ shoes! Go on with ya!”
But, as always, no one bothered to answer.
Something caught his squinty eye.
He saw a red light flash.
It was up in the darkness, up maybe a half-mile or so from the town proper. Up at the edge of the woods that still held the crisscrossing of Indian trails. It was a red light, blinking on and off. On and off. On and off.
“That there’s a signal lamp, I’m be thinkin’,” Hooper told himself. It was likely a flame behind red glass, and somebody’s hand or hat moving down to obscure the glow. “Now that’s the question,” Hooper said. Then he realized he hadn’t asked the question yet, so he did: “Who’s it signallin’ to?”
He looked out to sea, out beyond the rough rocks and wild forest of Oyster Island.
Far out there. Out in the dark.
A red lamp blinked on and off. On and off. On and off and…gone.
He turned his head again toward Manhattan and the dark edge of the untamed woods. That red signal lamp had also been extinguished.
It came to Hooper Gillespie that whatever the message was, it had been delivered.
The bottom of his rowboat scraped oyster shells and stones. His heart had jumped and stuttered and was now beating wildly, for one thought had invaded his unbrushed noggin.
For Hooper, thoughts were to be spoken as loudly as possible. “No they
!” he shouted. “Comin’ over sea swell and mercy knows to bleed us to pieces, no they ain’t!” He leaped from the boat, stubbed his right boot on a rock and went for a face-first splash. Then, spitting and cursing in a language not fully English nor fully understood by any other human being but his own self, Hooper struggled up and ran through the little wavelets that washed upon the gritty earth. He ran past the cannon along a trail that led to the watch tower, and at the base of the tower he paused to flame a torch from the tinderbox there. With torch alight, he climbed the rickety wooden steps to the top. On the upper platform he leaned forward as far as he dared against a worm-eaten railing with the torch held high. “Liberty’s blessin’ ain’t to be took!” he shouted toward the unknown and unseen ship that sat out there in the dark. Of course the torch showed him nothing, but at least the Dutchmen would know they’d been seen. “Come on in here, ya blue-hinded rascals!” he hollered. “Let’s see the shine a’ your greedy eyeballs!”
His voice pierced the night but the night swallowed it up and gave nothing back.
The red lamp at sea was gone, and did not return. Hooper looked toward Manhattan’s woods. That lamp, also, was a goner. Whatever had been said, it was not to be repeated. Hooper chewed his bottom lip and waved the torch about, throwing sparks. “Seen ya good, ya traitorous bag a’ crooked bones!” he yelled. He didn’t expect to be heard at this distance, but it felt good to unload. Then the idea of
came to him. If what he thought was about to happen, and all the Dutchmen in their ships were about to sail right into the harbor with cannons and cutlasses ready to crash and carve, then he had to do his duty and warn the citizens. He scurried down the tower’s steps again, torch gripped in hand, and near the bottom almost tripped and put paid to not only his heroic plan but to the way his head sat atop his neck.