It’s 1777 when Captain Jack Absolute becomes a sensation throughout London. This news comes as a shock to the real Jack Absolute when he arrives in England after four months at sea. But there’s little time for outrage before he finds himself dueling for his life. Right when he thinks he’s finally won, he is forced to flee London by the quickest means possible, becoming a spy in the American Revolution. From the streets of London, to the pivotal battle of Saratoga, to a hunt for a double agent in Philadelphia, this novel marks the exhilarating beginning of an epic historical series and a character you won’t soon forget.
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About the Author
Chris (C.C.) Humphreys was born in Toronto, lived till he was seven in Los Angeles, then grew up in the UK. As C.C. Humphreys, Chris has written seven historical fiction novels. The first, ‘The French Executioner’ told the tale of the man who killed Anne Boleyn and was runner up for the CWA Steel Dagger for Thrillers 2002. Its sequel, ‘Blood Ties’, was a bestseller in Canada. Having played Jack Absolute, he stole the character and has written three books on this ‘007 of the 1770’s’ – ‘Jack Absolute’, ‘The Blooding of Jack Absolute’ and ‘Absolute Honour’- short listed for the 2007 Evergreen Prize by the Ontario Library Association. All have been published in the UK, Canada, the US and translated into Russian, Italian, German, Greek and Czech
Chris lives in Vancouver, Canada, with his wife and young son.
Chapter Seven(Jack Absolute)
Within the silence of the trees, the wolf howl pierced like musket shot. Roosting pigeons exploded from branches, careless of the canopy, wings hammering the leaves aside in panicked flight. A squirrel, which Jack had been studying with the idle curiosity of the slightly hungry, disappeared into the higher reaches of a black walnut with a flick of its tail.
Jack looked to Até and his friend peered back at him through his spectacles. He had acquired a new pair in London, delighted with an improvement that had occurred in their time in India; these were called “bifocals” and had a reading lens occupying the lower half of the glass. The contrast between these and the shaved head and war paint had given Jack much amusement, though Até had not seen the humor. A copy of Clarissa by Samuel Richardson lay on his tattooed chest. He did not usually read novels, preferring philosophy or Shakespeare, but Burgoyne had thrust it at him on the voyage over and he felt obliged to the General to finish it. After two days in the forest, he was nearly done.
They waited for the chorus that should follow the single cry. But it was not long before the one voice cried once more, from a little nearer, a longer ululation ending in a series of sharp yelps.
There was something strange in it. Jack tipped his head.
Até was folding his spectacles, putting them and the book to the rear of their birch bark, half-moon lean-to. “Yes,” he said, reaching for his gun, “but not an animal one.”
Jack had heard it too. Someone was moving through the woods toward them. Their shelter was set back from the main path, hidden by a thicket of young birch. Priming their fusils with a sprinkle of powder in the pan—they were already loaded—they moved swiftly down to the trail. Jack’s raised eyebrows drew the slightest of nods from Até, who swung himself into the lower branches of a beech. Jack lay just off the path, squinting along the barrel down the path that led to the Rebel lands.
It was not a long wait. Within moments, they heard the sound of feet slapping the earth. Or rather one foot, then a dragging sound accompanied by a harsh exhalation. And there were other sounds beyond these. Straining, Jack could make out at least three other footfalls, maybe more, coming fast. Faster certainly than the one they obviously pursued.
The first man to appear looked as though he had run for miles. He was dressed, much as Jack and Até themselves, in breech cloth, moccasins, and little else. But the black and gold paint that striped him from crown of head to knees was smeared and, Jack instantly saw, run through with red. This was not done in the formal patterns of the paint. This was blood. It spread across the body in a spider’s web, streaming from beneath the hand the man ineffectually clutched to his side. And Jack saw that the leg, the one that dragged, had another wound, also pulsing red.
They saw him and a moment later he was upon them. Laying aside his gun, Jack stuck out a leg.
The wounded warrior had been glancing back so he went down hard. But he rolled twice and came up to his knees, a knife in his hands. Jack followed, tomahawk drawn, but the blade halted him. Besides, there were friends as well as foes in this forest.
There was a moment of near silence; only a moment, because both men heard, above the desperate breathing of the kneeling one, the rapid approach of those other feet. Maybe two hundred paces through the brush. Maybe less.
“Mohawk?” whispered Jack. He said it in English and the man’s eyes widened.
“Cayuga. I seek the forces of the King.”
“You’ve found them. Some, at least. Those who follow?”
“They serve the Rebel. They seek to stop my mouth.”
“Five. I think five.”
Jack had a moment to believe or not. When he did, he pursed his lips and whistled. First, just the once and like a spruce partridge, the best of the eating birds, indicating to Até that they had found a friend. The second time, five quick bursts with the aid of his fingers (a quail rising in alarm from a nest) gave the number of the enemy. Then he stepped off the path and reached down for his musket.
The first of the pursuers crested the slight rise and yelped in triumph when he saw the fallen Cayuga, an Ironwood war club lifting as he ran. He was just about to throw it when Jack fired, the buck-and-ball load taking him in the chest, spinning him back. A second warrior hurdled the falling man, came on without a pause, shrieking, his own weapon rising, then spinning from his grasp as a hole opened in his side, the sound of Até’s shot coming almost simultaneously. He cried out, staggered, tried to run on, fell slithering toward them.
Behind, three other warriors appeared, hesitated. In that still moment, Até dropped from the tree straight into their midst. His tomahawk rose, fell; another blocked it. Wood cracked on wood, metal on metal, as the metal heads slid toward each other, clashed together. Another blade sliced down toward Até’s back, but the warrior was aiming where Até had been. He’d used the interlocked heads to pull himself and his opponent off the path.
Jack now had a target. Drawing his own tomahawk again, he threw, spinning it fast through the air. Somehow, the man saw it come, raised his own to deflect it, skittering it into the woods. Jack only had a moment to curse his choice to throw before he was dealing with its consequences—a screaming warrior running at him, tomahawk raised high up to that point where the killing strokes begin.
He’d held on to his fusil in his left hand. Now he snapped the butt up into his right, raised the weapon square across his head, just in time. The tomahawk blade drove into the gunstock an inch from Jack’s fingers. He pulled his right arm down sharply, twisting his body aside. The running attack, the slight slope, Jack’s sudden movement, all caused the warrior to slip past, fall to one knee. But he wrenched the weapon from the stock and, sweeping around, cut at Jack’s extended knee. Jack leaped back, using the fusil almost as a sword, sweeping the barrel down. The tomahawk, the better balanced of the two weapons, knocked the musket from Jack’s grasp. He staggered back and the warrior, with a shout of triumph, raised his blade high and stepped forward to deliver the death stroke.
Jack reached his left arm across his body and drew his dirk from the sheath at his right side. In the same movement he threw it underhand, though it was not truly designed to be thrown, and he was aware, even in that instant, of the poor results he’d obtained from the far more airworthy tomahawk. But the blade flew effectively enough, taking the warrior in the throat just as he was about to strike. It halted him in midblow, a look of surprise, even reproach taking over his face. Then he sat down very suddenly, legs thrust out before him. A gurgle, it might have been a curse, and he lay back.
It had taken no time at all. Jack turned to see Até still entwined with his opponent, spinning around as each tried to loosen the other’s grip on his tomahawk. Even as he watched, his friend leaned back, then suddenly forward, his head cracking down on the opponent’s nose. With a cry the man lost his hold on his own weapon, and, with it, his life.
The last of the pursuers had not moved from where the fight had begun. Now, he looked quite slowly at the bodies of his friends, at Jack, at Até. Then he nodded once, turned, and ran.
“Yours.” Jack indicated the path. Até paused only to jerk his tomahawk’s head from his victim’s body and he was gone. Twin footfalls faded.
Jack turned to the Cayuga brave. The man had fainted and, looking at his wounds, Jack could see why. Both chest and leg must have bled extensively and a terrible pallor underlay the dark skin. Jack bent and lifted the man, carrying him the few paces to the shelter. There, he swiftly ripped apart a shirt reserved for cooler nights and wrapped the swathes of cloth around the wounds. The leg injury was deep but would heal with time. The other, in the side of the chest, was more serious; Jack felt the ball might still be in there. The man needed a surgeon and swiftly.
As Jack bound the more serious wound, the man stirred then started.
“Easy, friend. My name is Jack Absolute. You are safe now. Rest.”
The man shook his head as if to clear it. “I cannot. My name is Samuel. Water?” When Jack had fetched it and he had drunk deep—though it caused him pain—he said, “I have wampum for the King’s army.” He nodded to the pouch that Jack had removed from his shoulder. Jack opened it, pulled out the belt of beads. The majority were purple, though white ones were spaced along it in rectangles the size of a thumb.
“I am not gifted in the reading of wampum. I know this means danger, and that it is incomplete.”
“There was not time to finish it. I bring the news…here.” The man touched his mouth. “But Molly Brant sent this so that my words would be believed. I speak what she would make into wampum.”
“Molly Brant? Joseph’s sister?”
The man nodded. “She lives still in Canajoharie, down the Valley. It is full of Rebels. She listens and sees them gather. They are coming here, their soldiers.”
“Regulars?” Jack would be surprised to see Washington’s regular army, the “Continentals” as they were called, this far west. Not with Burgoyne marching down from the north and Howe from the south.
The man shook his head. “Tryon County Militia. But many. They come to fight for the fort.”
Jack frowned. The Militias varied in quality and training, summoned as they were only for short bursts of service. But the best of them were doughty fighters. “We had heard this Militia was fearful, that they would not fight.”
“A girl was killed. White girl. By tribesmen allied to King George, it is said. It makes them angry.”
The man looked east. “Soon. Maybe even tomorrow. They set out after me but it is not far. They…”
They both felt the faint vibration on the earth. Jack picked up a pistol, but, a moment later, Até was before them. He threw something down in front of Samuel—a long black braid attached to a piece of skin.
“The last of your pursuers.” Até toed the scalp a little forward. “Oneida, I think.”
“Yes. Oneidas love the Rebelmen. As do the Tuscaroras.”
Jack looked up. “Two of the Six Nations. That confirms what we heard on the way to the gathering, Até—we are not the only ones fighting our own.”
“Did you not say, Daganoweda, that all wars are civil wars?”
“I did.” He looked down at Samuel. “If I help you, can you make it to Fort Stanwix? It is about an hour’s march, maybe a little more with your wounds. I think the Colonel will need to hear it from you. He doesn’t value my opinions.”
Samuel raised himself on one elbow. “I must.”
Até reached into the shelter. In a moment, all his possessions were across his shoulders.
“I will…” He nodded down the path in the direction the enemy would come.
“I’ll be back by dawn.” Jack was helping Samuel to stand. Once on two feet the Cayuga warrior shrugged off the supporting hands. “And hopefully I’ll bring an army. At the creek?”
With a flick of two fingers at his brow, Até loped off down the path. Samuel had already begun to limp the opposite way, through shafts of late afternoon sunlight slanting through the canopy. Before he followed, Jack went to seek his thrown tomahawk. Rooting among the undergrowth, he finally found it, straightened…and was struck by how peaceful everything was, all the colors of the forest in harmony. Then, turning to follow, he looked down, saw the one color that was out of place, because the season for it had not yet come. Red. Their victims’ blood, on the bodies they would have to leave, on the forest’s floor. Jack knew that if Samuel’s message was heeded, the hue would soon be spread much wider under the canopy.
This time there was no question. The urgency of the matter demanded that Jack was part of the war council within their leader’s pavilion—though St. Leger, drunk as a lord, made much play, before his crimson nose, of a large stained handkerchief that he regularly anointed from a flask of perfume. The scent was of the very cheapest, cloying and more noxious to Jack than anything that could come from a bear. And it combined unfortunately with both the grease sported by several of the Native councilors and the pipe smoke many others were using to ward off the stench. The approach of evening had barely tempered the heat of the day. Within minutes of the council commencing, the tent smelled like a combination of bordello, sweat lodge, and abattoir.
Yet to Jack, the nasal assaults were as nothing to the main irritation under the canvas. There, right next to the swaying, sweating Colonel, and as apparently in favor as Jack was out, stood a man in the dark green uniform of a major of Jaegers, the Light Infantry from Hesse-Hanau. He was a senior officer with the final reinforcements, newly arrived from Lake Ontario. But on Hounslow Heath he’d been Banastre Tarleton’s Second-Second, and in a secret message in Quebec he was, Jack felt certain, “Diomedes” of the Illuminati. Here though he was, once again, the Count von Schlaben.
As soon as he’d seen him, Jack had cursed Burgoyne silently. The General had promised to keep this dangerous man tight to him. In the chaos of campaign Von Schlaben had obviously contrived to slip away. Burgoyne would not know where he had gone and if he’d finally found out, any warning sent would almost certainly be far behind the German. And Jack could see, by the way St. Leger already deferred to the Count, that speaking out against him would have no effect, could only hurt Jack’s standing in this company further.
And, once again, Von Schlaben opposed Jack on everything that mattered. His position as a leader of the German contingent gave him a voice. His was as soft and persuasive as ever as he counseled caution, consolidation, even withdrawal in the face of the approaching foe. Surely better to preserve these forces and return them to Burgoyne if the Fort could not be taken quickly and was soon to be relieved? Even St. Leger demurred at this. He did not want a return to a subordinate position where both his incompetence and his drinking could not help but be noticed. But he agreed that his forces should not be split—his regular forces anyway.
“They shall maintain the siege,” he had drawled. “I am convinced the defenders are soon to falter. Since my esteemed ally Joseph Brant here and, uh, Captain Absolute are so convinced of the prowess of their tribesmen, let them show it. Let them to prove their vaunted forest fighting skills. Let them do it alone.”
Jack had no need to raise his voice in the counterarguments that followed. The two Loyalist leaders, John Butler and John Johnson, commanded troops who were nearly all farmers and landowners, like themselves, in the Mohawk Valley they were due to march through. It was their farms that had been appropriated by the Rebels, their neighbors, former friends, and, in many cases, even brothers and fathers who formed the Militia that marched to relieve the Fort. This was the personal war they had come to fight. They would go with the Mohawks and their allies and join in the ambush. And, much to Joseph Brant’s disgust, a Seneca sachem declared that his people, as had been promised them, would come along and watch.
It was far from perfect. But it could be enough. From Samuel’s report, the Militia numbered about six hundred men and the Allies were mustering about the same—four hundred Native, two hundred Loyalist—with the advantage of surprise and of choosing the terrain. Both he and Joseph knew the valley and, like Até, had spotted the ravine at Oriskany, about six miles from Fort Stanwix, as a likely site. Yet when Jack saw the swiftest of smiles appear on Von Schlaben’s lips, he suddenly felt less than sure.
The meeting broke up, participants gratefully fleeing the fug to go and ready their men. They were to march in one hour. Joseph immediately set off for the Mohawk camp. Von Schlaben had preceded them and Jack saw his green coat disappearing down a side trail toward the German lines. They had set up in a small clearing just away from the main encampment. On a whim, Jack followed.
He caught up with him down a dip, in a small stand of fir. Their dense needles screened the two men from sight and the rallying trumpets were muted there. Von Schlaben had stopped, was staring ahead. Drawing nearer, Jack saw the reason.
A rattlesnake lay curled up, slap in the center of the path. It was a large one, several years old, its rattle at least seven ligaments long. It raised this as it confronted the Count, shook its warning at him, its tongue slipping in and out, head weaving from side to side.
“Communing with a cousin, Count?”
The German half–turned toward Jack, endeavoring to keep his eyes in both directions, that faint smile as ever on his lips.
“Captain Absolute. My, such deadly forest creatures both fore and aft. What is a poor townsman to do?”
“I am flattered you consider me deadly,” Jack left the slightest of pauses before adding, “Diomedes.”
If he hoped the name would provoke a reaction he was disappointed.
“My first name is Adolphus, not…whatever it was you just said. Though I hardly think we know each other well enough to be on such terms.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Jack had stopped about four paces away. “I think one should always be on easy terms with a man who has tried to have one killed.”
“I?” There was no real denial in the tone. His gaze swung back to the snake, which had begun to move. Certain of its precedence on the path, it uncoiled and, with a final warning rattle, slithered off into the brush.
Von Schlaben shook his head. “A nasty way to die, I am told.”
“Very. You should try it.”
The German’s pallid eyes moved back to Jack. In a voice devoid of inflection, he said, “You wish something from me, Captain Absolute?”
Jack took a moment to look the dark green uniform of the Jaeger officer up and down. “Do you qualify for this role?”
“We all play many roles, Captain. I have seen some military service, yes.” He gestured with his chin to Jack’s encampment garb of green wool shirt and buckskin leggings. “Do you qualify for yours?”
There was a moment’s appraising silence between them. Jack broke it. “I know why you set that young lunatic on me in London. You would try to prevent me in the duty I perform now—rousing the Natives to fight for the King.”
“I would?” Again, it was barely a question.
“I am curious. What do you consider your duty?”
The smile left the eyes but not the lips. “I think it might be beyond your comprehension, Captain.”
“Oh, I know I am but a simple soldier, Count. But you could speak slowly and try me.”
Von Schlaben looked around. The trees were very dark but above them the high summer sky still glowed in evening light.
“Very well. Since we are alone here. You may have more imagination than I credited you for. You may even…” He brought a hand up before him, thumb and middle finger pinched together, and described a small circle before his heart.
Jack knew the response even if he did not hold with the Masonic creed. He delineated his own circle in the air, filled it with a hint of a “rosy” cross.
“Well.” For the first time Jack saw something other than amusement or calculation in the German’s eyes. “If I had known that, we might have spared ourselves some unpleasantness.” He sighed. “You talk of duty to a King. My duty is to something beyond kings. Beyond countries. My duty…is to humanity itself.”
“A higher cause, then.”
Von Schlaben took a step closer now, his voice lowered.
“The highest. ‘To make of the human race, without any distinction of nation, condition, or profession, one good and happy family.’”
“Interesting words. Your own?”
“My sentiments. The words themselves were written by a friend. A colleague. A leader.”
The German stepped closer. “There’s no harm in you knowing it. Very soon the greatest in every land will praise it. The name is Adam Weishaupt.”
“Ah, the Bavarian professor.”
For the first time, Jack had taken the German by surprise.
“You know of him?”
“The founder of the Illuminati. Even a simple soldier hears tales.” Jack stepped in. They were now just a pace apart, and he lowered his voice to match the other’s. “And so, this American Revolution…”
“A necessary beginning. So long as the right people end up in charge. People who are sympathetic.”
The smile came back. “Why, Captain Absolute, you are not such a simple soldier, after all. This is the duty beyond all duties, the supreme loyalty. Men of all nations, of all ranks of society from kings to innkeepers are beginning to understand this. And there is a special place for men with skills such as yours. An ‘elevated’ place I might say. It would be an honor to lead you into that brightness. For our Leader says to all, ‘Let there be light and there shall be light.’”
Jack thought for a moment. In the distance he heard the drums begin, summoning the warriors of his adopted people to war, summoning him. One of Até’s quotes nearly came then, hovering in his head, just beyond recall. He looked up to the treetops, into the evening sky; then he had it. Not Hamlet, for once. Othello.
“Speaking of which, do you know this one? ‘Put out the light and then put out the light.’” As Jack said it, he closed the gap between them. They were standing toe to toe.
Von Schlaben’s eyes widened. “Captain Absolute. You are not offering me violence? Are you not an English gentleman?”
“I am,” said Jack. “When in England.”
He placed one foot on one of the Count’s. Then he hit him, sweeping the uppercut from waist to chin. Fear, fanaticism, and questions, all put out, along with that light in Von Schlaben’s eyes.
He didn’t know exactly why he did it. The memory of an unwanted hand on Louisa’s arm? The part the German had played at Drury Lane and Hounslow Heath? Not wanting such a snake at his back in the conflict that lay ahead?
He wasn’t sure exactly why he did it. He just knew how good it felt.
He took his foot off the German’s, who fell back, hit the ground hard, and lay still.
Bending, Jack rolled him over, raised an eyelid. It was hard to gauge how long the man would be out. A few hours, with luck. Long enough to prevent him interfering again in what lay ahead, perhaps.
Dragging the Count under a pine, Jack heard Burgoyne’s voice forbidding him a dagger in an alley.
“Oh well,” he said aloud, wiping pine needles from his shirt, “he never said anything about a punch on a path.”
As Jack made for the Mohawk camp, under the sound of war drums he heard the faintest of rattles. He wondered if the snake might return, find the unconscious German…
He shuddered. He had been bitten once himself. It was an agony that haunted him still. Much as he disliked Von Schlaben, he would not wish that fate even on him.
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