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1. THE FISHERMAN
Gravesend Bay, New York, August 22, 1776
He had sat out the raw misery of the storm through most of the night, keeping his boat tight against the shore. She was pulled up on soft ground between two large rocks, his private mooring, a hiding place he had known since he was a boy. The boat would be safe there, from weather or the occasional vandal, but this time the storm was different, the rain driven by a howling wind that might push the waves hard beneath the boat, damaging her against the rocks. His wife would not worry, would keep the fireplace lit, would not protest even though he would stay out all night. She had heard him speak of it too often, his love of the water, the pursuit of the fish that seemed to call to him in a way few wives understand. This time she did not expect him to return home for at least two days, and so as he huddled under a ledge of rock, soaked by the amazing violence of the storm, he did not worry for her, thought only of tomorrow, the new dawn, hoping that the storm would be gone.
He would rarely fish in the darkness, but the late summer had been hot, breathless days that kept the fish silent, sent them away to some invisible place every fisherman seeks. He had thought of drift- ing with the tide along the edge of Gravesend Bay, without even his small sail, just easing along the first deep water offshore, hoping to tempt something from below into an ill-timed assault on his handmade hooks. But as the sun went down, the breeze had not calmed, and he had stared wide-eyed at a terrifying burst of lightning, warning him from the distance, a great show from the lower tip of New York, moving toward him from the distant shores of New Jersey. The storm had blown hard across the harbor, and he barely made it to his private wharf before the hard rain slapped his face and soaked his clothes. He had used his long push pole to slide the boat between the rocks, jumping out and then moving quickly under the ledges that faced away from the water. There was nowhere else to go, no thought of a fire, no blessed coffee, nothing but the hard crack of thunder. He had tried to lift himself up, keep his breeches off the ground, the dirt beneath him turning to mud as the flow of rainwater found him, small rivers in the soil. But the rock ledge was low and tight, and he could not escape, had settled into the misery, simply to wait it out until the dawn.
Before first light, the rain had stopped, and the quiet had awakened him. He groaned his way into the open air, his joints crying in stiffness, the air chilling him through the wetness of his shirt. But then he could see the first glow in the east, and he listened for the sound, the winds gone, only a soft breeze flowing through the trees behind him. He had always believed that after a strong rain, the fish would move, emerging from their own shelter, hungry, looking for whatever he might offer them. It was a lesson taught him by his father, who had fished this same water, who knew Gravesend Bay better than anyone in the villages, the way a farmer knows his land, every rock, every hole. He had begun to go out with his father when he was barely old enough to hold the stout fishing pole, had cheered with pure joy when the old man had wrestled with the fury of some unknown creature, and shared the pride of his father's success, the fish flopping and writhing in the bottom of the boat, the old man's quiet joy. His father was gone now, but the lessons remained. He looked at the boat, his father's boat, cared for by the hand of the son, thought, It's time to go fishing.
There was a great deal of water in the boat, and he scooped out as much as he could, then turned it on its side, a great splash on muddy ground, the last bit of water spilling away. He was in a hurry now, did not look at the glow on the horizon, knew that the dawn would give way to another hot day, and he slid the boat quickly off the shore, one last push as he waded out beside it, then jumped, lifting himself into the stern. He pushed with the long pole, the boat cutting through the low ripples on the water, and he measured the shallowness, knew that in another hundred yards it would drop off. He examined his fishing pole, felt the familiar excitement, knew that in the early morning, he might find a big one, a striped bass perhaps, or hook into a big blue, a fight that could pull his boat for a half mile into the great bay. If the breeze was right, he could drift along the slope of the drop-off, where the flounder might strike, the amazingly ugly fish that his wife would not touch until he cut away the ugliness.
The push pole suddenly went deep, the bottom falling away, and he set it down along the rail of the boat, tested the wind, thought of raising the small sail. He reached for the hard wad of bait in his pocket, ignored the smell, picked up the fishing pole . . . then froze, stared hard to the south, across the narrows, saw a reflection, caught by the first sunlight. It was a ship, fat and heavy, in full sail, coming straight toward him. Beyond, he could see two more, smaller frigates, more sails, and he stared at the bows of each ship, cutting through the water, thought, They will turn soon. They must be going out to sea.
He had often thought of sailors, the crews who manned the great ships, what kind of life could be had living only on the water. The harbor had filled with them only weeks before, more ships than he thought there were in the world, a vast navy, all the might of legend come to life. They were still there, a forest of bare masts and rigging, wrapping along the shoreline and wharves of Staten Island, extending out into the harbor. They had stayed at anchor for the most part, the navy-knowing as did the villagers-that on Governor's Island there were cannon, a curious battery placed by the rebels to keep Lord Howe's ships from sailing close to New York. The villagers had mostly laughed at the idea, that these men who had come down from Boston would dare to threaten His Majesty's navy, would have the arrogance to believe they could keep the mighty ships in their anchorage. But there had been no conflict, no real activity on either side. The hot talk in the taverns had grown quiet, the inaction breeding boredom in those who never really knew what would happen anyway. He was among them, excited when the navy arrived, the amazing sight of so many troops making camp on Staten Island, a vast sea of tents. But then nothing had happened, and many had gone back to their routine. And so, he had once again returned to Gravesend Bay to pursue the fish.
His father had told him about the British navy, the mightiest armada in the world, the vast power of the king that kept all his enemies at bay. But his father had no fire for politics, and the son knew only the talk, words like Whig and Tory, and issues that excited some, but, to many more like him, seemed very far away. He had heard the arguments, the complaints and protests, the threats and hot talk that meant very little to him. He had thought it strange that so many people could make such protest against their king, especially in the face of all those ships, the vast army, the enormous guns. And yet the voices had grown louder, the protests erupting into great public gatherings. He had been in New York when this man Washington had come. He had seen what those people called an army, heard some of the speeches, more new words, talk of a congress and independence. He thought it odd that the people wanted to be rid of their king, the one man responsible for their security, for protecting them from what he supposed to be all manner of enemies: Indians, the French, even pirates, who could sail close to these very shores, attacking the helpless, stealing anything they pleased. He had never actually seen a pirate, of course, or a Frenchman. There were Indians occasionally, in New York, or so he had heard. He admired these ships, this great mass of power, had felt as so many had felt out there on Long Island, that there could be no danger, no enemy who could harm the colonials as long as the great ships were there to protect them. But the rebels had cannon too. All it meant to him was that he should probably not fish around Governor's Island.
He had not fished around Staten Island either. It was unfamiliar water, too long a trip for his small boat to risk. If the wind turned against him, or a storm blew up, he would be helpless, have to make for land in a place where rumors sprouted. There had been talk from men who had been to Staten Island, who had seen the foreigners. He didn't know why they would be with the king's army, but the men at the tavern swore they had seen them. They were called Hessians, and some said they were savages, frightening men, strange uniforms and stranger faces. He had laughed at the descriptions, knew some of the men could spin a good yarn, but still . . . why would the king bring these men to New York?
He watched the three ships, his hands moving automatically to rig up his fishing pole. He had often seen smaller ships moving past Gravesend Bay, some near the shallows where he fished. There were sails only when they were heading for the open water, or, as he had seen lately, when they came in, the end of some long journey he could only imagine. The sailors had often called out to him, men up in the rigging, on the rails. He had always waved politely, wondered if they envied him, captain and crew of his own boat. But then someone had shot at him, a puff of smoke from a lookout, the strange zip of the musket ball passing overhead, a small punch in the water behind his boat. He had not understood that, thought it a ridiculous, frightening mistake, but the lesson was learned. Now, when the navy ships moved past he made ready, turned his boat toward the shore, an instinct inside him to move to safety, to keep his fat rocks in sight.
He thought now of doing the same, the three ships still bearing toward him. It was odd, something wrong. He did not move, still watched them, thought, They should be turning about before now, the deeper water is behind them. If they keep on this course, they will run aground. He had never seen such a mass of power so close. The larger ship was now barely two hundred yards away, then he heard shouts, the ship beginning to veer slowly to one side. The sails began to drop, the rigging alive with men, sounds of canvas flapping, the rattle of chain. He could see the anchor suddenly dropping, a hard splash as it thrust downward. He set the fishing pole down, his heart racing cold in his chest, his hands feeling for the paddle, no time to put up the sail. In short moments, the rigging of the great ship was bare, the tall masts naked against the glow from the east. He began to move the paddle in the water, pulling his boat backward, unable to take his eyes away from the flank of the ship, the rows of cannon staring straight toward him, toward the land behind him. The other ships moved in behind, slow maneuvering, more sails disappearing, and he kept paddling, his boat barely pushing into the tide, the breeze against his back. He glanced behind him, saw his rocks, the sanctuary, the agonizing distance, moved the paddle faster, chopping at the water. He expected to hear the musket ball again, but they seemed not to notice him, or better, they were ignoring him. The sandy bottom was visible beneath his boat now, and he grabbed quickly for the push pole, stood, balanced precariously, the boat rocking under his feet.
He strained against the push pole, the boat lurching under him, but then he stopped. Beyond the smaller ships there was something new, motion again, but different, no sails, no great masts. He stepped up on his seat, tried to see more detail, could tell the boats were flat, the motion coming from rows of oars. He saw more of them, and slowly they reached the warships, but did not stop, kept moving, still coming toward him. He was frozen for a long moment, his mind absorbing through his confusion. The flatboats kept coming, a vast swarm, the motion of the oars bringing them closer. He began to see reflections, a mass of color, red and white and silver. And now he understood. The boats were filled with soldiers.
He had reached the rocks, pulled the boat between them, slid it hard onto the shore with sweating hands. The soldiers had ignored him, and he thought of leaving, running the long trail back to his house, telling his wife. He climbed up on the taller rock, could see a great fleet of small flat barges. They had begun to reach the shore, sliding to a stop a hundred yards away from his perch, one after another, shouts, the men suddenly emerging, each boat emptying. He felt a strange thrill, saw the uniforms clearly now, the red and white of the British soldiers, the colors that inspired an empire. He was truly excited, the fear gone, made a small laugh, thought, No, there is no danger. I should go out, salute them, welcome them to Long Island. He saw different uniforms, brighter red, gold trim, officers. If I can find the commander, bring him to my house . . .
He tried to imagine his wife's face. He laughed again, saw now that the empty boats were moving offshore, sliding between those that still held their passengers. He tried to count, three dozen, No . . . my God. The flotilla stretched all the way past the warships still, an endless sea of flat motion. He could hear sounds now, over the quick shouts of men, the rhythm of drums, and a strange screeching noise. The sounds began to come together, the music of bagpipes, and the boat released its cargo, a different red, men in tartan, and he stared, thought, By God . . . they're wearin' . . . skirts. He pictured his wife, knew she wouldn't believe him, thought of running again, bringing her back here, to see this amazing sight. He wanted to stand up high on the rock, pulled his knees up, but something held him down, frozen. There was a ripple of sound behind him, from the sandy hills, a line of thin woods. The soldiers seemed not to hear, no change in their voices, their activity. But he turned, looked back, saw bits of smoke in the trees. Musket fire. He couldn't see who was shooting, thought, My God, what foolishness. Who dares to fire at the king's troops? He huddled down against the rock, peered out toward the soldiers again, saw men in line, moving off the narrow beach, an officer leading them up the rise toward the trees. The musket fire slowed, just the single pop, then another. Then the woods were quiet, the British troops moving up closer. He felt an odd twist in his stomach, thought, Was that a battle? Was it over? He was amazed, thought, You do not shoot at soldiers. He tried to think who it might have been, had heard something about rebels who had come across the East River, to build some kind of fort near Brooklyn. Is that who was in the woods? He was anxious to move away now, to go home, to tell his wife this strange story. He looked out toward the boats again, could suddenly hear music, different, brass and drums. One of the boats reached the shore closer to him, and the colors were not red. The sunlight reflected off a mass of metal, men with gold helmets. The uniforms were blue, and the men began to move onto the shore with crisp steps, forming a neat rectangle. He stared, saw they nearly all wore their hair tied in a long queue, a braid protruding from the helmets, each man with a moustache. There were officers here too, and when their men moved off the shore, the officers turned, looked toward him, one man motioning with his arm, pointing. He felt the cold in his chest again, began to back down the rock. But he could not leave just yet, had to see, peeked up over the edge, saw six of the blue uniforms moving down the beach in his direction. Now the welcome was erased from his mind. He could hear their voices now, words that he didn't understand. This must be . . . could they be . . . Hessians?
He dropped down from the rocks, fought the urge to run, glanced at his boat. No, I cannot just leave her here. They might take her. He felt his hands shaking, the strange voices moving closer, just beyond the far side of the big rocks. He took a deep breath, fixed a smile on his face, moved around the boat, saw them now, saw for the first time the long muskets, the hard sharp steel, the bayonets moving down, pointing at him. There was one in a different uniform, the man holding a sword, who motioned toward him, unsmiling, said, "A spy, yes?"
He shook his head, tried to laugh.
"Oh, no, sir. Just fishing." He pointed toward the boat, his hand shaking. "See? Just fishing, sir."
The officer glanced at the boat, said something to the soldiers beside him, and the men moved quickly, the bayonets suddenly coming forward, the sharp flash of steel, the work of men who know their business. The officer gave a short command, and the soldiers backed away, stood again in a tight line. The officer glanced down at the man who lay fallen into his boat, nodded, made a brief smile.
"A spy. Yes."