EAST COAST OF AFRICA, 1774
Robert Courtney stalked his prey. He hardly made a ripple as he waded through the crystal waters of the lagoon. At seventeen years old, he was already over six feet tall and still growing. His skin was tanned deep brown from a life spent under the African sun, his muscles strongly deﬁned by work in the ﬁelds and long swims in the ocean. The ﬁshing spear he held over his shoulder was as light as an arrow in his hands.
Above him, a great promontory rose steeply over Nativity Bay, while to his left the water disappeared in a tangle of mangrove swamps. A balmy breeze blew in from the sea, so soft it barely tickled the hairs on the back of his neck.
He stared into the water, tensing the arm that gripped the ﬁshing spear. He ignored the small ﬁsh darting between his legs. He was after larger prey. Big kob and rock cod sometimes found their way into the bay to bask in the warm shallows. To spear them as they shimmered like mirages took speed and skill, but Rob had been playing in this bay since before he could walk. He could whip the spear down without a splash, instinctively adjusting his angle for the water’s distortion.
Even so, it needed an element of luck to make the kill.
He had seen a movement by the rocks on the south side of the bay. He approached slowly, gliding through the water so as not to alert his quarry. The water grew deeper. Now he could no longer wade, but ﬂoated on his stomach, pushing forwards with little kicks that barely broke the surface. A shadow caught his eye, dark against the white sandy bottom. It was too big to be a crab, too perfectly round to be a stone. He was intrigued. Forgetting the ﬁsh for a moment, he dropped his spear, letting it ﬂoat on its wooden shaft. He duck-dived down. Tiny ﬁsh scurried out of his path as two strong kicks propelled him to the seabed. He reached for the object one-handed and was surprised when it didn’t come away. Even with both arms, it took all his strength to lift it from the sand.
He broke the surface again and held his prize aloft, treading water. The moment he cupped it in his hands, he knew what it must be. Far heavier than you would expect for its size, with traces of its smooth iron surface still visible under the barnacles that encrusted it.
It was a cannonball.
He knew there had once been a battle in this bay. His grandfather, Jim, and his great-grandfather Tom had fought in it almost forty years ago. Rob had heard the stories so often he could recite them by heart. How the Caliph of Oman had brought his ﬂeet to punish the Courtneys, and how Tom had lured those ships into the bay only to burn them to the waterline with heated shot. For years the skeletons of the sunken ﬂeet had lurked in the bay like ancient monsters. But storms and tides had done their work, and the timbers had slipped out to sea or been washed ashore to be burned as ﬁrewood. The battle was disappearing from memory. When his grandparents died, it would be no more than a legend.
Rob wondered at the shifting currents and tides that had revealed the cannonball now. It was a long time since any gun had been ﬁred in anger in Nativity Bay.
He was so busy staring at the relic he almost missed the movement in the water. The powerful thrust, the ripple of a ﬁn piercing the surface. He looked up to see an enormous ﬁsh surging towards him.
Not a ﬁsh. A shark. A tiger shark.
It was so close, he could see every detail. The dark stripes down its ﬂank, the open jaws, the yellow teeth pointing sideways like the blade of a saw. From a boat, Rob had once seen a tiger shark bite clean through a turtle’s shell. This one was a juvenile, but it was already bigger than Rob. It must have swum in to hunt in the shallow waters of the bay.
Rob had no time to escape. The shark was the hunter, and the ocean was its element. His spear had drifted out of reach.
The jaws stretched wider. Rob could see its two eyes, dark and malevolent, homing in on him. He had one chance.
He lifted the cannonball with both arms and brought it down with all his force. It struck the shark a glancing blow on the nose, inches from Rob’s exposed stomach. The shark recoiled madly, slapping Rob viciously with its tail as it whipped around.
The impact knocked the cannonball from Rob’s hands. The shark turned again to make another attack.
Rob lunged for his spear, kicking out with all his strength. His splashing drew the shark towards him. It pressed forwards with great thrusts of its tail, as keen as a bullet through the water. Its jaws opened to swallow his leg.
Desperately, Rob threw out his arm and grabbed the shaft of the spear. He jack-knifed his body, snatching his legs from the shark’s mouth as it snapped shut, teeth grazing his ﬂesh. Blood clouded the water, driving the shark into a frenzy. It collided into him – a whirling mass of abrasive skin and ﬁns – with such fury that Rob almost lost his hold on the spear.
His feet touched ﬁrm sand. Only for a second, but it gave Rob enough balance to hurl the spear around in a savage arc, just as the shark attacked again. The tip punctured its rubbery ﬂesh and sank deep into its body.
The beast convulsed and writhed, churning the water red as its blood spilled out. A killer to the last, even in its dying moments the taste of its own blood drove it mad with hunger. Rob swam a distance away, watching and breathing hard. He felt no sympathy for the beast. His little sister often came to swim in this bay. Rob shuddered to think of her delicate body caught in those jaws.
Eventually the shark stopped moving. It rose to the surface and ﬂoated belly-up in the sea. Rob thrust the spear deeper into its ﬂesh, then looped the rope over his shoulder to drag it to the beach. They would eat shark meat that night.
At that moment, the thunderous explosion of a cannon echoed across the water. Rob looked up and saw the prow of a ship sailing around the cape into the channel at the mouth of the bay. Quickly, he let go of the shark and kicked towards the sheltering rocks at the edge of the lagoon. Few captains knew the hidden entrance, and fewer still would risk their vessels through the treacherous passage without a pilot. But there was always the worry that one day a pirate or a slaver might chance upon it.
This ship was none of those. Rob gave a whoop of delight as he recognised the bare-breasted ﬁgurehead arcing forwards under the bowsprit. He clambered onto the rocks to watch her pass, shouting and waving at the crew.
She was a handsome vessel, a trim schooner with gunports picked out in black on white-painted planking. Her patched canvas told of the rigours of her ocean voyage, but her heavy-laden hull said she had done good business. Any deeper, and she would have grounded herself on the bar that guarded the mouth of the channel, but her captain steered her expertly past the hazards. Her topmen reefed the sails, while a gun crew on her foredeck secured the bow chaser which had ﬁred the salute. As her stern swung around, Rob saw the name ‘Dunstanburgh Castle’ across her transom.
Rob loved ships. They had fascinated him all his life. How many times had he climbed to the top of the bluffs with his father’s spyglass to watch a distant sail scudding past? He had made his father tell him all the names until he knew them in his sleep: proud Indiamen and stout brigantines, Arab dhows from Zanzibar, and Bermuda sloops with their triangular sails. Most of all, he loved the men of war, the frigates and line-of-battle ships he occasionally saw beating up the coast from Cape Town, the red ensigns streaming from their sterns. Once – the most thrilling moment of his life – he had witnessed two frigates trade broadsides for nearly three hours, just a few miles off the coast. He had never forgotten the sight of the guns running out like rows of teeth, or the wall of ﬂame as they ﬁred in perfect unison.
The Dunstanburgh Castle was smaller than those warships, with only four guns on either side to discourage pirates. But even before her anchor touched the sandy bottom, Rob had swum over to the vessel, swarmed up her ladder and was peering through the gangway.
‘Permission to come aboard,’ he said.
‘Who on God’s earth are you?’ A balding man with a flushed red face strode towards him across the deck. He had drawn a long, vicious knife. ‘Damn me!’ he swore. ‘Is there no corner of this coast that is safe from pirates and savages?’
He stared at Rob, ready to gut him in an instant. With his skin tanned as brown as a walnut, dripping wet, smeared with shark’s blood and naked as Adam, Rob looked like some kind of hideous sea sprite.
The man’s anger slowly dissipated as memory came into focus. He returned his knife to its sheath, clapped his arms around the boy and embraced him.
‘Robert Courtney. You have grown so big I barely recognised you. It is good to see you.’
‘And you too, Captain Cornish.’
‘Call me Tawny. Your grandfather always does.’ He stepped back to get a better look at Rob. ‘What is that blood on your leg?’ Rob looked down. The shark’s teeth had left a row of red cuts from his knee to his ankle. If he had hesitated for a split second longer he would have lost the leg.
He gestured over the side, where the shark was floating towards shore.
‘I caught us some dinner.’
He said it casually, but Tawny could see the effort it had taken.
‘You have become a man,’ he said gruffly. Then: ‘You look a true pirate.’
‘All I need is a ship.’
Rob hadn’t stopped grinning since he came aboard. Even at anchor, he loved to feel the rhythm of the ship. The creak of the rigging; the gentle sway of the deck beneath his feet; the boatswain’s shouts; the smell of tar and rum: the sensations were intoxicating.
Cornish studied him. He could read the look on the boy’s face, the same yearning he had felt himself at that age.
‘I could use some extra hands. Perhaps I will speak to your father.’
Rob’s grin spread into a beaming smile. ‘Would you?’
‘I will. Now get your drawers on, and let us go ashore to see your family.’
By the time the pinnace reached the beach, a party had gathered to meet them. Robert’s father and grandmother had turned up, with his little sister Susan running between them, her golden braids flapping. Servants and workers crowded around them, for the Courtneys employed many of the local tribespeople on their estate. Most had served the family for decades and were treated more like family than staff.
Rob’s father, George, gave Cornish a stiff handshake. His grandmother, Louisa, was less formal: she flung her arms around him and gave him a great kiss on the cheek.
‘It is so good to see you,’ she exclaimed. She brushed a strand of grey hair from his temple. ‘What is this? It seems like only yesterday it was your father standing on this beach, after we had defeated that monster Zayn al-Din.’
Cornish doffed his hat. ‘We are all older, ma’am. But you look as beautiful as ever.’
Louisa tutted and brushed the flattery aside. But there was truth in the captain’s compliment. Though nearly sixty, she had lost none of her looks. Her creamy skin was supple, with only the faintest lines betraying her age. Her long blond hair had faded to white, but was still as fine as Chinese silk. And the blue eyes that smiled at Cornish were flawless, the colour of the deep ocean on a summer’s day.
They narrowed with concern when she looked at Rob.
‘What has happened to you?’
Cornish had had his surgeon salve and bandage the shark bite on Rob’s leg, and given Rob a pair of canvas trousers to cover it.
‘Do not tell my father,’ Rob had begged him. But now when he looked down, he saw a dribble of blood had escaped and was trickling down his ankle onto his foot.
‘It is only a graze,’ he muttered.
In fact, there was a throbbing ache in his leg, and he felt light-headed. It took considerable effort to stay upright. But he gritted his teeth, and tried to stay on his feet.
Louisa’s eyes missed nothing. She glanced at the shark, which the servants had pulled in and begun to butcher on the beach, then back at Rob. Three dark spots were spreading across the leg of his trousers like an outbreak of measles, where blood had seeped through the bandages into the cloth.
‘Did you fight that shark?’
‘Yes,’ Rob admitted, unable to keep the pride from his voice. His father scowled. Though twenty years younger than Louisa, he seemed older. His face was grey, his hair white. His back was bent forwards from years leaning on his stick, which he needed because his left leg was made of wood below the knee. He seldom smiled.
‘You were supposed to be seeing to the cattle herd out at Dutchman’s Creek, not playing at the seaside.’
Rob felt a flash of anger. A ship had arrived, and all his father cared about was farm chores. Rob bit his tongue. He knew if he tried to defend himself, it would provoke another quarrel. In his father’s eyes he was still a boy to be ordered about, not a youth on the cusp of manhood.
‘The boy is growing up,’ said Cornish. George’s scowl deepened; Cornish hastily changed the subject. ‘Where is Jim?’
A shadow crossed Louisa’s face. ‘He is waiting for you at the house. He is not as strong as he was. But it will do him a world of good to see you.’
Cornish gave her his arm, and walked her up the beach. Rob’s father fell in behind them, struggling to keep up as his wooden leg sank into the sand. Rob followed, wincing with every step but too proud to show it.
At the top of the beach, the shore opened out into flatland between hills and jungle. A river wound through it towards the sea, and on its bend stood the Courtney family compound. It had been built by Rob’s great-grandfather, Tom. He had been running for his life when he reached Nativity Bay, and the home he built reflected his needs. It had been constructed like a fort, with the river for a moat and gun emplacements covering every approach. A glacis and a stockade wall completed the defences, and they had been enough to repel his enemies.
But that was forty years ago. The wooden stockade still ran around the perimeter, but now it was more to keep the cattle and goats from eating the flowers in the gardens Louisa had planted. The raised earth gun platforms at the corners had been turned into vegetable patches, while the only cannons to be seen were sunk upright into the ground to form gateposts. The buildings were white and unsullied, sparkling with the seashells that had been crushed into the lime.
It was a peaceful place, now: the only home that Rob had ever known.
His grandfather, Jim, was waiting for them on the veranda of the big house. His broad frame was stooped from a lifetime of working the land. His hair had turned white and he leaned on a cane. But the strength in his green eyes was undimmed, and it was an ageless smile that lit up his face when he saw Louisa approaching with Cornish.
He kissed Louisa and clapped his arms around Cornish.
‘It seems a long time since our fathers fought Zayn al-Din and Uncle Guy in this bay,’ he said.
‘It is a long time,’ Cornish agreed. ‘God rest their souls.’ Tom Courtney had died ten years before, at the great age of ninety-one. His wife, Sarah, had survived him by a day and then she, too, had passed away. They were buried together on the headland at the top of the bluffs, in the red earth of the continent they had made their home.
‘I will pay my respects before I go,’ said Cornish. ‘But life is for the living, and we are not done yet. Let me show you what I have profited on my latest voyage.’
Cornish told them tales of his travels, while they dined on the shark that Rob had killed. He was returning from India, and he had brought gifts for everyone: a bolt of fine silk for Susan, a jewelled box for Louisa, a painted miniature for George and a curved dagger for Rob. As he spoke of the great trading cities he had visited – Calcutta, Madras and Bombay – the pictures he conjured made Rob’s eyes go wide with excitement. Jim leaned forwards, tapping his cane with delight to hear of Cornish’s adventures.
‘Did you ever go to India, grandfather?’ Rob asked.
Jim shook his head. ‘My father went often on his trading voyages, as did my cousin Mansur. But I have always preferred the plains of Africa to the open ocean.’
‘Mansur settled in Madras, did he not?’ Cornish asked Jim. The light in Jim’s eyes dulled. ‘He did, after he and my father quarrelled. Some years ago, I heard that he had died when the French attacked the city. I sent letters to Madras to find out what had happened to his children, Constance and Theo, but all I heard was that they were living with a relative in Calcutta. I never learned what became of them afterwards.’
‘It broke our hearts,’ said Louisa softly. ‘Mansur and Jim were like brothers.’
‘And what of the rest of the world?’ said Rob. As exciting as his family history had been, he had heard the stories so often they could not help but become dulled. He did not want to live in the past. ‘What wars and battles and great contests now do they talk about in the coffee houses of London?’
Cornish puffed on his pipe. ‘You forget it is almost two years since I left England. So far as I know, the country is at peace. But I cannot think it will last long. The colonists in America are making an almighty fuss about their liberty. I guess they mean to fight for it.’
‘What is wrong with that?’ Rob asked. ‘All men deserve their liberty.’
‘If you saw the blacks toiling in their fields,’ said Cornish, ‘you would wonder how deep their love of liberty runs.’
Rob didn’t understand. ‘We have blacks working in our fields.’
‘And you pay them for it, and at the end of the day they go back to their homes and families, and if they do not like the work they go elsewhere.’
‘It is different in America,’ Louisa explained. ‘They work as slaves.’
‘I was moored in Cape Town harbour next to a Yankee slaver once,’ Cornish said. ‘All I heard was chains and wailing. And as for the stench – Hell itself could not smell so terrible. In the mornings, we used to watch the crew dump the bodies of those who had died in the night. Many were children no older than your Susan. They tossed them overboard and left them for the sharks.’
A distant look had come into Louisa’s eyes; she was haunted by pain and sorrow.
‘I came to Africa on a ship like that. We were convicts, not slaves, but they treated us the same.’ She shivered. ‘No human being should ever have to suffer that.’
Cornish nodded. ‘The Yankees complain that King George treats them as slaves because he asks them to pay their taxes, but they’ll beat a man to death for not working hard enough. That is how much they love liberty for any but themselves.’
‘It will come to nothing,’ said George confidently.
He hated talk of conflict, of anything that might intrude on the peace of Nativity Bay. In that, as in so much else, he was the mirror opposite of his son. Rob loved tales of war, battle and adventure. Many times, George had found Rob sitting at his grandfather’s knee, listening to stories of the great exploits of the Courtneys of old. ‘Why aren’t you brave and strong like the other Courtneys?’ Rob had asked once, speaking plainly as only a child could. He had grown up since then and learned tact, but the question always lingered unanswered, an unbridgeable chasm between father and son.
‘Britain has the mightiest army and navy in the world,’ George said. ‘A few thousand colonists will not dare to defy them.’
‘Maybe so,’ Cornish allowed. ‘But France has not forgotten how Britain bloodied her nose a few years back. France lost an empire in North America, and she would dearly love to get it back. If the colonists fight, the French may join them. And then King George will have a fantastic war on his hands.’
George shrugged. ‘We are well out of it here.’
Rob was unable to check his emotions. He had glimpsed another world, and he was hungry for more of it.
‘How can you say that, Pa? If there is to be a war, I would want to ﬁght in it.’
George was about to make a sharp retort, but Jim spoke first.
‘I remember how it was when I was your age. To ﬁght for a cause, for a family or your honour, is a noble purpose. But perhaps when you have seen something of war, you will understand why your elders are less eager to embrace it.’
‘It is a waste of time,’ said George harshly.
Rob knew his father had been adventurous in his youth.
He had heard the stories from his grandparents. He had dim memories of being a small boy, sitting on the tip of the cape searching the ocean for the first sight of his father’s sail returning. He remembered the sand between his toes as he ran down the beach to meet the jollyboat rowing his father ashore. He was so excited he could not wait on the shore but waded out, until his father reached over the side of the boat and scooped him out of the water. They would go up to the big house, and Rob would sit on his father’s knee while the family gathered around to hear the stories of his latest voyage.
Nothing was the same after George lost his leg. It had been a minor incident, a scuffle with pirates off the coast of Madagascar. The Courtneys had chased them off easily, and the musket ball that had ricocheted into George’s calf barely seemed to have broken the skin. But the wound festered. The rot spread, and soon the only way to save his life was to amputate the limb. Rob would never forget sitting outside the house, listening to the screams as Jim sawed off his own son’s
leg. Neither man had recovered fully from the experience. George had never gone to sea again.
Cornish saw the look on Rob’s face. ‘Your son is grown up,’ he said to George. ‘It is time he made his way in the world.’
‘Maybe,’ said George. ‘In a few years, perhaps.’
Rob could not keep his news to himself any longer.
‘Captain Cornish has offered me a berth on his ship,’ he burst out.
George’s face darkened. ‘Then I am sorry he has misled you. He had no right to make that offer.’
‘I want to go,’ said Rob.
‘I cannot allow it. I need you here, Rob. There is much work to do on the farm. And if any danger threatened, who would defend your sister and your grandmother?’
‘All the local tribes are loyal to us,’ Rob protested. ‘If there were any troubles, they would protect you.’
‘If you will not think of me, at least think of your grandfather. Will you break an old man’s heart to go off on some foolish adventure?’
Jim stirred. In his old age, he fell asleep in his chair so often the others sometimes forgot he was there. But now he rose, gripping his cane with iron determination.
‘You know nothing,’ he said to George. ‘The only thing that would break my heart is seeing my grandson kept here against his will. He must go out, explore the world and make his own fortune. As you did, once.’
George tapped his wooden leg bitterly. ‘Look what it got me. Do you want the same for Robert?’
‘I want him to live.’
‘So do I.’
‘No! You want him to stay alive – and that is very different.’ They glared at each other. Rob looked between them, the two men he loved most in the world. His father, and the grandfather who had been almost a second father to him. He hated being the cause of a quarrel between them. But above all – and the feeling was growing stronger – he hated these two old men telling him what to do.
‘Did you ever think I should have some say in my own life?’ he shouted.
Before either man could reply, he stormed out of the house. George glowered after him. Jim made to follow, but Louisa put her hand on his arm.
‘Let him be,’ she counselled. ‘He needs time to cool down.’ Tawny Cornish stood awkwardly. ‘I should return to my ship.’ ‘I will walk you down,’ said George.
After they had gone, Jim and Louisa sat on the steps outside the house, as they had done so many times, looking at the sky and picking out the constellations. The bright band of the Milky Way lit up the heavens, while around them fireﬂies glimmered among the bushes.
‘If we had not conceived George in a thousand miles of uninhabited wilderness, I would start to worry you had been unfaithful,’ said Jim grufﬂy. ‘How can he be a son of mine?’
Louisa put her head on Jim’s shoulder. ‘Do you remember when he was a boy? Always on his feet, always prying into everything. Every stick he picked up was a sword or a gun.’
‘When did he become such a coward?’
Louisa stiffened. ‘Do not say that. You do not have to prove yourself in battle to be brave.’
‘I sometimes think when I amputated his leg, I accidentally cut off his balls as well.’
Louisa had never heard him speak like this. She supposed that as Jim’s strength waned, he felt his own impotence more keenly.
‘George was as adventurous as you ever were,’ she said. ‘When he quit the sea, he did it for Rob and Susan. He did not want to risk making them orphans.’
Jim was silent. He knew she was right, though his pride would not let him admit it. He remembered the screams as he wielded the saw.
‘In any event, he should not stand in Rob’s way. It is time the boy took charge of his own destiny.’
‘Of course,’ said Louisa. ‘And George will realise that in time. Having you shouting in his face will only make it harder. He is stubborn, like all you Courtneys.’
Jim’s expression softened. ‘You are a Courtney, too, my love. You became one the day you married me.’
‘And did you wait for your father’s say-so before you whisked me away from Cape Town?’
‘As I recall, we were too busy galloping away from the whole Dutch garrison to ask his approval.’ Jim’s voice was hoarse, but his eyes were bright with the memory. ‘You did not complain at the time.’
‘And I have never regretted it.’ Louisa stood and helped Jim to his feet. ‘But we cannot control what our children do, still less our grandchildren. We must trust to God.’
‘I would rather trust to a good horse and a gun in my hand.’ Louisa kissed him. ‘Jim Courtney,’ she murmured, ‘you will never change.’
Cornish stayed a week. In happier times he would have remained longer, but he could see that his presence only deepened the rift between Rob and George. Father and son barely spoke to each other, and if they did it always ended in shouts and slammed doors. When Cornish announced he would leave, he could almost feel his hosts’ relief.
The Courtneys walked down to the beach with Cornish – all except Jim, who complained of a headache. Rob felt as if he was following his own funeral. At the shore, Cornish clasped Rob’s hand, and looked at him with pity in his eyes.
‘Perhaps next time I call, lad,’ he said gruffly. ‘It is a hard life on this continent. You must not grudge your father for wanting you by his side.’
There was nothing Rob could say. He watched the pinnace row out to the Dunstanburgh Castle, the topmen running along the yards to loosen the sails. He imagined how the world would look from that height, balanced on a thin spar with nothing except a hundred feet of air between him and the ocean. The crew fitted the spokes to the capstan and began hauling up the anchor. As the ship prepared for departure, it seemed as if his whole future was about to sail away.
Rob refused to look at his father.
A howling rose from the compound behind them. For a moment, Rob thought it was the dogs. Then he realised it was their African servants, wailing in melancholy. It must be a song of farewell for Cornish and his crew, yet it sounded so heartrending it made Rob’s pain seem small by comparison.
One of the servants came running down the track from the house. He came to a halt and dropped to his knees on the sand. The look on his face told Rob it was something much worse than Cornish’s departure.
‘Massa Jim is dead.’
Without a doctor present, no one knew what had caused Jim’s death. Perhaps it was a sudden heart attack, an instant extinguishing of life. Rob hoped he hadn’t suffered, that death came quickly, like a candle being snuffed. It was all so mysterious and troubling. They buried him on the headland, in a simple grave beside his mother and father. Cornish, who had returned from his ship, said the funeral service; George delivered a short eulogy. Rob did not know what to say. He had been almost too young to remember his mother’s death. Since then, he had lived a blessed life. The only loss he had known was when his dog, Samson, had been killed by a snake bite. Now, grief was a new and terrible experience for him. He did not know why he felt such despair. He had to ﬁght back the tears that threatened to ﬂood his cheeks, for he knew his father would not approve.
The day after the funeral, Rob visited the grave. Freshly turned soil rimmed the stone slab they had placed over the cofﬁn, the inscription still dusty white from the marks of the chisel.
1711 – 1774
Rob’s father stood at the grave, his head bowed. He looked different: shrunken somehow, as if the loss of his father had removed an essential part of his soul. He was diminishing; ﬁrst there was his physical injury, and now his spirit was eroding. Rob sensed the changes, as if day was turning to night. He saw him not as an omnipotent authority ﬁgure but as a lonely, frail, greying man.
Rob moved to his father’s side in silence. He could not think of anything to say. He wanted to throw his arms around him, to bear some of the burden of his sorrow. But he could feel the pride and solitude radiating from George like the heat of a fire, and he did not dare move.
At last he could not stand the silence any longer.
‘I will never forget the story of how he rescued Grandmother Louisa from a convict ship as it was dashed to pieces on the shore.’ He had heard the tale a thousand times, and it still sounded incredible.
George said nothing.
‘He was a true hero,’ Rob continued.
It was hard to imagine the twinkle-eyed old man he had known as the amazing adventurer he had heard about.
George shot him a sideways glance. Suspicion twisted his face. ‘And I am not, I suppose?’
Rob started. ‘I did not mean that.’
‘I have seen how you look at me.’ George tapped his wooden leg. ‘Your father the cripple, the stay-at-home. Could not hold a candle to the great Jim Courtney.’
George had always possessed an acerbic streak. But Rob had never seen him as bitter as this.
‘How can you stand at his grave, with him not one day buried, and say that?’ Rob said. ‘Your own father.’
George stared at his son. ‘When you are older you will understand.’
‘I am going to leave home,’ said Rob suddenly. He did not know where the words came from. He had not meant to broach the subject so soon after Jim’s death, but as soon as he said it, he felt a great burden had been lifted.
‘We discussed this before,’ said George. ‘You cannot leave. I forbid it.’
‘No,’ said Rob. ‘If any good can come from Grandfather’s death, it has given me a second chance to leave with Captain Cornish. You said you needed me to look after your father. Now that burden is lifted.’
‘And now I say I need you to work the land.’
‘And I say that even if every field was harvested, and all our cattle fat, you would still find an excuse to make me stay.’ Rob turned away. ‘I am going, Father, whether you say aye or no.’
‘You will do as you’re damn well told.’
George’s hand landed heavily on Rob’s shoulder. He spun his son around. Before Rob could react, George hit him hard across his cheek.
Tears pricked Rob’s eyes, though not from the pain. As a boy, George had beaten him just like any father – but not for many years. Beyond the anger of the moment and the bruise rising on his cheek, what hurt most of all was the underlying message of the blow: You are no more than a child.
Rob hit back.
He was not a child. He had grown to manhood, his body lean and prime. The punch he threw had a power behind it, charged with youth and fury. His fist struck his father’s chin so hard it lifted him off the ground and deposited him on his backside three feet away. The wooden leg caught awkwardly in a crack. Bent backwards, it snapped in two.
Rob stood over his father. George lay on his back like an overturned beetle, the stump of his wooden leg sticking in the air. His lip was bleeding, his face was white with astonishment.
‘You will pay for that,’ he gasped.
‘No.’ Rob looked down at his father. He felt sick, though he couldn’t tell if it was guilt or contempt. ‘You are not my master. You are nothing but an old man.’
A tear escaped his eye. Rob wiped it away. Blood pumped in his ears, making a sound like the most violent ocean storm. Before his father could see him cry, he turned and ran down the path.
Rob did not go to dinner that evening. He stayed in his room. At nine o’clock, he heard Louisa’s soft knock on his door. He didn’t answer, although when he opened the door some time later he found she’d left him a tray of food. He devoured it hungrily.
At ten o’clock, he heard the familiar rhythm of his father’s wooden leg tapping down the hall as he went to bed, tentative and unsure. He’d had to splint the leg together to repair it, and he did not know if he could trust his weight to it. Rob waited for George to pass by.
The tapping stopped outside Rob’s room.
Rob could see his father’s shadow through the crack below the door. He waited for it to open, holding his breath. He saw the handle turn. He wondered what he would say to his father. Had he come to apologise, or to shout at Rob again?
He would never know. The handle was released, the shadow moved on. George walked away up the corridor. Tap. Tap. Tap. Rob heard the creak of his father’s bedroom door, then silence.
Rob breathed again. There was an ache in his chest, though he couldn’t tell if it was relief or disappointment.
At eleven o’clock, the light under the door went out as the servants extinguished the lamps and retired to their quarters. The only sound was the insects chirping outside, and the call of an eagle owl in a tree nearby. Rob lay on his bed, fully dressed, staring at the ceiling and fighting his last-minute doubts. Could he do this?
He rubbed his face and felt the bruise his father had left. Did he want to stay here all his life and end up like his father: bitter and shrunken? He climbed off the bed. He had packed his clothes, his knife, the necklace he had made out of the shark’s tooth and a few other belongings in a canvas bag. He dropped it out of the window and clambered after it. The night air was cool, the moon so bright it dimmed the stars. It refreshed him. He was doing the right thing.
He crept away from the house, through the stockade fence and down the path to the beach. His head was brim-full of thoughts of the adventure ahead; he didn’t think to take a last look back until the house had disappeared behind him.
Down in the bay, the Dunstanburgh Castle sat at anchor, ready to sail on the morning tide. The calm water around her gleamed like a mirror. There was a small dugout canoe drawn up above the tidemark. Rob dragged it to the water’s edge and stowed his bag. He was about to get in, when suddenly a voice behind him said:
‘Where do you think you are going, Robert Courtney?’ Rob spun around, to see his grandmother emerging from the shadows of a kapok tree. Her silver hair was luminous, her white dress like a shaft of moonlight.
‘I thought the fish might be rising in the bay,’ Rob lied.
‘And what do you expect to catch without a rod or a spear?’ Rob was glad she could not see him blush in the dark.
‘I was running away,’ he mumbled. Then, finding his courage.
‘I am running away. To join Captain Cornish’s ship.’
To his surprise, she didn’t argue. ‘Of course you are.’
He stared at her. ‘You will not try to stop me?’
‘Would you listen?’
She moved towards him. He noticed she was carrying two bundles: a small round bag tied at the neck, and a long, thin parcel wrapped in a sheet.
‘I know you cannot stay here. I have seen the way you look at the sea, and the ships that call. You gaze at that blue horizon and long to discover what is beyond it.’
Rob had never heard her talk like this before. For the first time in what seemed like his whole life, he felt that he was speaking to someone who truly understood him.
‘But be careful,’ Louisa warned him. ‘Before Tom came to Nativity Bay, not one of the Courtney men lived out their full years. Tom’s father, his grandfather, his three brothers . . . they all met violent, untimely ends. Fort Auspice has been a paradise for us, a place where the family can live in peace. I fear what will happen to you if you leave it.’
Rob saw the concern in her face. He heard the anguish in her voice. But he was seventeen, and immortal as all young men think they are, and he did not believe her.
‘I must do this,’ he told her.
She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. ‘I knew you would say that. Jim would have said the same.’
She handed the bag she carried to Rob. It was only small, but her thin arms struggled with the weight. When he took it, he heard the clink of coins.
‘Consider it your inheritance from Jim,’ she said. ‘Wherever you go, it will ease your path. And if you are a true Courtney, you will make it grow tenfold before you come home.’
Rob took the bag with amazement. He had never held so much money before, had never even thought of it.
‘Also, I want you to have this.’
Louisa took the second bundle and unwrapped it. Rob gasped. He had seen it before, many times.
‘Uncle Jim’s Neptune sword.’
‘It was presented to our family by Sir Francis Drake himself,’ said Louisa, though Rob knew all the stories by heart. ‘Every man in the Courtney line has carried it into battle.’
Moonlight gleamed on the blue Toledo steel. Rob thumbed the blade. Jim had not used it in anger for years, yet the blade was as sharp as the day it was forged. He turned it in his hands, thrilling to feel the perfect balance of the weapon.
He craved it with all his soul. But–
‘I cannot take this.’ He pushed it back into Louisa’s hands. ‘It should go to my father.’
‘Your father is a good man. He is my son, and I love him, but he is forged from a different metal than the other Courtneys. He will never use this sword again. It was not meant to be kept sheathed, gathering dust in a forgotten corner of an unknown continent. Jim wanted you to have it – and so do I.’
She put it in his hand and closed his fingers around it. Rob’s arm trembled as he took it. For the first time, he felt the heavy finality of his decision.
‘Will I see you again?’ For a moment his voice sounded like a child’s again.
‘Of course you will,’ said Louisa briskly. ‘I am not so terribly old, and the tides will always bring you home. Come back wealthy and strong, and with a beautiful young bride on your arm and a brood of great-grandchildren for me to spoil.’
‘I promise,’ said Rob.
‘Now go. Cornish needs a full tide to get his ship over the bar, and he will not delay.’
They embraced. Rob’s strong arms almost crushed Louisa’s thin body with the strength of his emotion. For a moment she feared he might never let her go.
But the lure of the sea was irresistible. He released her, kissed her on the cheek, and loaded the sword and the money into the waiting canoe. Louisa pushed him off, wading into the water in her nightdress until he was clear. He paddled out to the ship with strong, confident strokes.
‘Farewell!’ he called back.
The moonlight made a silver path on the bay, straight towards the anchored ship and out into the open ocean. Soon Rob was nothing more than a shadow against the bright water. Louisa touched the cross she wore around her neck.
‘God speed,’ she whispered, though not without a tremor in her heart. She put her hand on her breast. There was a lump there, invisible beneath the skin. She had told no one, not even Jim, but she had felt it, growing inside her with malignant power.
There was no point trying to fight it. Her life had had its share of sorrows, but it had also given her many joys. She was content.
But she knew she would never see Rob again.
Rob hid himself in the hold, which was thick with the aromatic spices of Cornish’s Indian cargo. He meant to wait two days, so there could be no chance of Cornish sending him back. In the end, he needed to relieve himself so badly he emerged, blinking and shamefaced, just as the ship’s bell struck noon. The great whale-backed summit of the cape was still clearly visible behind them. Tawny Cornish surveyed him sternly. ‘A stowaway, eh?’
‘Please,’ Rob begged. ‘Do not take me back.’
‘I cannot take the responsibility. If any harm came to you . . .’ Cornish was torn. It was late in the season to catch the trade winds, and he would count the cost in lost profits of every day’s delay reaching London. But he could not in good conscience take the boy from his family.
‘What would I tell Louisa?’
‘It was Grandmother who helped me stow away. She gave me this.’
The Neptune sword sang in the morning sunlight as he pulled it out.
‘Put that away,’ said Cornish hurriedly. ‘That is a weapon that should not be drawn lightly.’
Rob obeyed. ‘You said yourself I should make my own way in the world.’
The breeze snapped the masthead pennant. Cornish made his decision.
‘I will sign you on as a fo’c’s’le hand. But you will have to earn your keep,’ he warned Rob. ‘No loitering or shirking.’
Rob’s grin was so wide his jaw ached. ‘Thank you, sir. I promise you will not regret it.’
Cornish assigned Rob a mess and a watch, and ordered one of the mates to show him the ropes. Rob was a quick learner, and an eager student. His mind and body moulded naturally to his tasks. Soon, he could run aloft as fast as any of the topmen, balancing on the yards like a cat as the ship rolled beneath. He could splice a line, reef a sail and tie a knot all while a hundred feet in the air. His young body, already strong, grew harder. Cornish was a firm taskmaster, but he could hardly hide his pride. Even when Rob returned from shore leave in Cape Town sporting a hangover and a livid tattoo on his arm, the captain barely raised an eyebrow.
He had caroused hard in Cape Town, determined to prove himself a rough, tough, but loyal mate. His gang of sailors drank and sang, Rob’s voice growing hoarse as he poured his heart and soul into the melodies. As one of the youngest he could reach the top notes, which he would sustain until his breath ran out, and everyone in the room clapped and yelled encouragement, standing him drink after drink. He was free, this was a new life, and he felt a surge of pent-up life force urging him on to ever more devilish pranks and laughter. He wanted to mark himself as one of the crew, so he bit his lip and looked away as the tattooist carved intricately into the skin of his upper arm, the pain as nothing compared to the joy of camaraderie. Imprinted for a lifetime was a bold anchor entwined in muscular rope. Arms around shoulders, bonded by blood and unshakeable brotherly love, the gang stumbled from tavern to tavern and into the night.
The boy was growing up.
‘You are like a wild colt that has jumped the paddock fence,’ Cornish told Rob. ‘Just like your grandfather, Jim.’
Rob glowed with pride. He knew there was no higher compliment Cornish could give, nor one that Rob would cherish more.
The Dunstanburgh Castle rounded the Cape of Good Hope and ploughed into the great rollers of the Atlantic Ocean. Soon afterwards, the coast of Africa slipped below the horizon. Rob, working at the masthead, was the last man on the ship to see the continent before it vanished. The only home he had ever known.
But that was the past. He turned his back on it, and set his face towards the north-west, to the new horizons and new continents that awaited him.
On the far side of the ocean, nearly eight thousand miles away in the colony of Massachusetts, Theo Courtney was in a towering fury.
‘What is this?’ he demanded, waving two scraps of paper. They had been a single sheet, until he had torn it apart in his anger. ‘I found it in your bedroom.’
Caleb Courtney stood in the farmhouse kitchen and stared his father down. There was no doubting their relationship: both had the same strong frame, thick red hair and piercing green eyes. Theo’s face was tanned from long hours overseeing his farms, while Caleb’s was still speckled with youthful freckles. Otherwise, there was little difference between them.
‘It is a pamphlet,’ said Cal coolly. ‘And you should not have been spying in my bedroom.’
‘It is treason,’ Theo spluttered. ‘It says that our colony should break with Britain and declare for independence.’
‘You call it treason. I call it common sense.’ And then, because Cal was of an age when he could not resist provocation: ‘King George is a tyrant who means to make slaves of us all.’
‘I risked my life in the King’s armies!’ Theo shouted. ‘While you and your hothead friends were sucking your mothers’ teats, I was fighting to keep the colonies safe from the French. And now that menace has gone, and the King of England has the temerity to ask the colonies to pay for their own deliverance, you call it slavery?’
‘We do not vote for the Parliament in London. Why then should we submit to their demands? Only the legislatures of the colonies have the right to levy taxes.’
Theo’s face flushed so red he looked as if he might explode. ‘We are Englishmen. If Parliament cannot make our laws, it is anarchy.’
‘He doesn’t mean it, Pa,’ said a voice from the doorway. It was Theo’s second son Aidan, smaller and darker than his older brother. He had listened to the argument unnoticed. ‘Just ’cause he read it doesn’t mean he thinks it.’
‘Keep out, Aidan,’ said Cal. ‘This is not your business.’
‘I live here, too. If there’s to be a war—’
‘There will be no war,’ said Theo, in a voice that brooked no argument. He crumpled the two scraps of paper into a ball and threw it into the fire. He glared at Cal, defying him to protest. ‘And if I hear any more of this treason, you will find you are not yet old enough that I cannot give you a thrashing.’
‘Nothing compared to the thrashing we will give King George,’ muttered Cal. He skipped out of the kitchen, avoiding the pewter mug Theo had thrown at his ear.
He went to the stables and saddled up his horse, Maverick. He needed to ride.
The horse’s presence soothed him. Maverick had been a birthday present from his father, a fearsome stallion with a coat as glossy and black as wet tar. He was named after Samuel Maverick, the apprentice who had been shot dead by the British in the Boston Massacre a few years earlier and had become a martyr to the cause of liberty. Maverick had been part of a crowd confronting British soldiers. When the soldiers raised their muskets to scare off the mob, Maverick called out, ‘Fire away, you damned lobsterbacks!’ – which they did, killing Maverick and four others.
Theo thought Cal had named the horse for his fearsome temper, and Cal had not told him the truth. He did not want his father to think he was ungrateful.
He stroked Maverick’s nose and combed a knot from his mane. He buckled the girth, and was about to step up into the stirrups when a shadow fell across the stable doorway.
‘You’re not running away, are you?’ said Aidan, in a fearful voice.
‘I’ll be back for supper,’ said Cal curtly.
Ever since Aidan could walk, he had followed his big brother like a shadow, desperate not to be left behind. When Cal learned to ride, Aidan had dislocated his collarbone trying to clamber onto the horse. When Cal started boxing with his friends, Aidan had come home with a broken arm. Sometimes, Cal appreciated the adoration. For most of the past fourteen years, he had found it intensely annoying.
‘Where are you going?’ said Aidan.
‘Over to the Hartwell farm.’
Cal didn’t answer.
‘You’ve been there five times in the last week. Are you sweet on Liza Hartwell?’
‘Of course not,’ said Cal.
Cal hesitated. Seeing he had an opening, Aidan played his trump card.
‘If you don’t say, I’ll tell Pa you’ve been spooning Liza Hartwell in her barn. He’ll forbid you to ever go again.’
‘I’d punch the daylights out of you if you did that.’
‘I’d still tell.’
Cal glared at his younger brother. He did not trust Aidan to keep a secret, but he did not want his father asking questions about his visits to the Hartwell farm. And he badly wanted to tell someone his news.
‘Promise you won’t tell a soul.’
‘I swear,’ said Aidan solemnly.
Aidan put up his hand. A thin scar showed on the palm where he had cut it open six years earlier. A childish oath, but they both took it as solemnly as if they’d sworn on the Bible. Cal raised his own hand and pressed it against his brother’s.
He lowered his voice. ‘We’ve formed a group. It’s called the Army of the Blood of Liberty.’
Aidan squinted. ‘The what?’
‘The Army of the Blood of Liberty.’ Cal tried to invest the name with gravitas and majesty, though he knew it was a mouthful. The name was a compromise. Half the boys had insisted they should be the Army of Liberty, the others were adamant they should be the Blood of Liberty. After hours of heated debate, they had settled on both.
‘Who’s in it?’ asked Aidan.
‘Boys from the farms. Sam Hartwell went up to Boston a month ago and spoke with some patriots. We’ve had enough of politicians talking and writing pamphlets. We need to organise for war.’
Aidan felt a stab of jealousy. It hurt to think that Cal had joined a secret society without telling him.
‘Can I join?’
‘You’re too young.’
‘No.’ Cal’s voice was as stern as their father’s. ‘This is not like when we played at soldiers in the hayfield.’ He tousled his brother’s hair. ‘I don’t want you to get hurt.’
‘I won’t get hurt,’ said Aidan. ‘I can ride as well as you, and shoot even better.’
Cal resisted the automatic impulse to contradict him. ‘And when you are sixteen, there will be fighting enough for all of us. Until then, this is man’s work.’
Before Aidan could argue, Cal swung himself into the saddle and galloped out of the stable yard.
In the farmhouse parlour, Theo heard the drum of hooves. By the time he looked out of the window, Maverick and his rider were a cloud of dust on the farm track.
Theo’s wife Abigail came in carrying a tray with a pot of tea. She set it on the table and poured two cups.
‘I heard your argument from my bedroom,’ she said. ‘Did you have to be so hard on the boy?’
‘What he is saying is treason.’
‘If sons grew up believing everything their fathers told them, the world would never change. He must become his own man – as you did at his age.’
‘That was different,’ frowned Theo. ‘I had no choice in the matter.’
‘Neither did I, after I met you,’ said Abigail archly.
Theo had arrived in America as an orphan. In a short time, he had become a hero in the frontier war against the French and their Indian allies. Against the odds he and his ragtag army had inflicted major damage on the French forces, winning the battle at Fort Royal, which turned the course of the war. He had fallen in love with Abigail and she became pregnant with Cal, to her family’s fury. Fame and victory had provided him with a certain amount of money, which he had invested in a merchant business from the port of Boston. The business had thrived, for Theo had learned his trade in the bazaars of Calcutta and could out-haggle even the meanest Yankee. Later, he had bought this farm in a township some twenty miles from Boston.
Theo slumped in his favourite chair and sipped his tea. Even the drink was tainted with the sour taste of politics. Cal had refused to drink tea, ever since the British government put a tax on it.
‘I fear for what will happen to him, if he does not stop this madness,’ said Theo. ‘It’s more than politics. The government will hang traitors.’
Abigail glanced out of the window, where Aidan was picking his way across the stable yard.
‘I am more worried for Aidan. Where Cal leads, he will follow. He idolises his older brother.’
‘I idolised my older sister Constance, once,’ said Theo. ‘It brought me nothing but heartache.’
Cal returned for supper, as he had promised. He stared at his plate, made no conversation, and retired to bed early. Aidan followed. Shortly afterwards, Theo and Abigail extinguished the candles and went to their bedroom.
At a quarter to midnight, Cal rose from his bed. The horses snufﬂed and whinnied as he opened the stable door, but they calmed at the familiar sound of his voice. He saddled Maverick, and retrieved a heavy bundle hidden under a pile of hay. He tied it to the saddle and wrapped cloths around the big stallion’s hooves so that they would make no noise on the cobbles. He led the horse by the bridle until they were clear of the farm before he took off the cloths and started to ride.
He was convinced nobody had seen him depart.
The night was dark. The moon hid behind ragged clouds, giving the merest light to guide him along the road. He was terriﬁed that Maverick might catch his hoof in a hole, ending everything before it began. But the sure-footed horse did not let him down. Soon terror was replaced by elation: the midnight ride, the smell of the horse and the cold wind in his face. Maverick’s hooves struck sparks from the stones in the road, ﬂickering around his feet. It was apt, Cal thought. Tonight, he would ignite a revolution.
The others were waiting for him at the bridge. Dim ﬁgures circled their horses, cracking nervous jokes and checking their weapons. Some had dressed as Indians; others wore scarves wrapped around their faces and their hats pulled low. They had been busy. Most of the bridge timbers had been lifted and carried to the riverbank, leaving only a few planks spanning the river.
‘You’re late,’ said one of the riders. His face was hidden, but Cal recognised the white blaze on the horse’s nose. It belonged to Sam Hartwell.
‘I had to wait till Pa was asleep,’ Cal explained. ‘Otherwise, I couldn’t have brought this.’
He unwrapped the blanket tied to the back of his saddle. Moonlight gleamed on the long, lethal barrel of his father’s rifle.
The other boys gasped. All of them could shoot, and had rifles hanging on the wall at home. Some of the bolder ones had brought them. But this was different. This was the weapon of a hero, the gun that had chased the French out of North America and won the battle of Fort Royal. Cal’s father rarely spoke of his exploits to others, but Cal had recounted the stories.
They gathered round, touching its blackened brass work and scarred wood.
‘He’ll thrash you if he knows you took it,’ warned Sam, jealous of his friend.
‘It’ll be back by sunup and he’ll never know,’ said Cal. ‘Unless we stand around talking all night.’
Without waiting, he kicked his horse and rode over the bridge. The skeletal timber seemed too narrow and frail to hold the weight of the boy and his horse, but Maverick picked his way across unerringly. Sam, not wanting to be outdone, spurred after him. The others fell in behind, until only one – George Hartwell, Sam’s younger brother – was left on the far bank.
‘You stay here,’ Cal told George. ‘You know what to do.’ George clutched his riﬂe and gave a trembling salute. The others tipped the remaining bridge timbers into the stream, until only a single plank remained. Cal circled around and kicked Maverick into a canter. Riding with his friends around him and his father’s rifle slung over his shoulder, Cal felt nothing but pure savage joy. Conﬁdence coursed through him; stealth was forgotten in the thrill of the moment. The horses’ hooves drummed on the road. Some of the boys could not help letting out whoops of delight, intoxicated by youth and war. It was like every game of soldiers they had ever played, but now marvellously real.
No one could have missed their progress through the townships and farmsteads of Massachusetts colony. But the shutters on the houses remained closed, and anyone who heard them stayed in their beds. These were dangerous times to be abroad.
Soon the air thickened with the salty smell of the sea. They dismounted and tethered their horses to a rail fence, hidden from the road by a copse of trees. No one joked or hollered now. The deadly seriousness of what they were about to do was sinking in.
A squat tower stood on a hill ahead, silhouetted against the starry ocean sky beyond. A fire smouldered in a brazier, downwind and a safe distance away. One spark inside the tower would turn the hill into a crater. Three sentries huddled around the brazier, talking in low voices.
‘I cannot believe they do not defend it better,’ whispered Cal. ‘That fool of a governor has underestimated us again,’ said Sam. ‘We will make him pay for his mistake.’
The tower was the British royal arsenal. In all their years of rule, the British had never allowed powder mills in their colonies. Every grain of gunpowder had to be imported from Britain. In Massachusetts, this was where it came to be stored.
There was a pause. The members of the Army of the Blood of Liberty stared uncertainly at each other. They had spent months discussing their plan, but now they were ready for action, no one was willing to make the ﬁrst move.
‘Enough,’ said Cal. ‘I did not come here to skulk in a ditch.’ He jumped back on his horse and, with a twitch of his reins, brazenly rode up the path towards the arsenal.
The sentries saw him coming. They ran forwards and levelled their muskets.
‘Who goes there?’
‘A friend,’ gasped Cal, making his voice hoarse and ragged. He had hidden his riﬂe from sight. ‘I came from Fairﬁeld. A group of men are dismantling the bridge.’
The soldiers looked agitated.
‘They mean to cut us off,’ cried one. ‘Without the bridge, the general cannot reinforce us from Boston.’
A lieutenant emerged from the guardhouse. He looked Cal up and down, reassured by his well-cut coat and polished boots.
‘The devil you say!’ he cried. ‘Sergeant, muster the men. We will march out to Fairﬁeld and teach those Yankee rebels a lesson in the King’s power.’
Soon all the guards except two had formed a column outside the tower. Their white cross belts gleamed in the darkness. Cal led them back to the bridge, walking his horse so they could keep up. He spoke cordially with the lieutenant, amused at how easy it was to fool the man. The lieutenant was garrulous. He had asked the governor many times for more men, he complained; had begged him to move the powder store to the safety of Boston, never mind the risk to civilians. The governor insisted that moving the powder would be seen as an act of weakness.
Cal nodded. It was not hard to feign sympathy. He only had to repeat the things he had heard his father say.
At last they reached the bridge.
‘Where are the rascals?’ The lieutenant advanced towards the bridge, holding his lantern high. He wondered if he had been hasty in trusting Cal. ‘If you have brought us on a fool’s errand . . .’
His voice trailed off as he took in the view of the dismantled bridge. Only one narrow board remained, spanning the river like a tightrope. The water flowing freely underneath was clearly visible.
‘We must have interrupted them at their work,’ said the lieutenant. ‘They will learn they cannot get away so easily.’
‘They could be miles from here by now,’ said his sergeant.
At that moment, fire flashed in the darkness. A shot rang out from the far bank, though the bullet went well wide. It was a deliberate shot off target, though the British were not to know that. George Hartwell had played his part to perfection. ‘Get over the bridge!’ shouted the lieutenant. ‘We cannot let them destroy it before we cross.’
In single file, his men ran across the plank and fanned out on the other side, muskets aimed uncertainly on the darkness. Soon Cal was the only one left behind.
‘Come over,’ called the lieutenant. ‘You must ride to Boston and inform the general we need reinforcements.’
Cal dismounted and walked to the river’s edge. With a deft kick of his boot, he knocked the last plank off its support. Then he manhandled it with all his strength until it fell in the water with a splash. The rushing current swept it away.
The lieutenant stared at Cal. In the darkness, he thought it must have been an accident.
‘You clumsy oaf!’ He glanced over his shoulder, though no more shots had been fired. ‘Now you are stranded on the wrong side.’
‘On the contrary,’ said Cal. ‘It is you who are on the wrong side. I am exactly where I want to be.’ He tipped his hat. ‘You may give my regards to the general yourself – when you are on the boat to London, where you belong.’
And before the astonished soldiers could realise what had happened, he turned his horse and galloped back to the arsenal.