Joshua Scully Twisted Sister Fiction

FICTION — Early American Bankers

Charles Hobbs reached the top of a final hill. The vast winter darkness of the Atlantic stretched out before him. His eyes searched the expanse of sand between this grassy hill and the ocean. His clandestine journey from his small farm a few miles from the coast was nearly complete. After a moment, his eyes trained on a light just a few hundred feet up the beach. Holding out his lantern while clutching a hatchet and pitchfork under his left arm, Hobbs clambered through the sand toward this luminous beacon.

The beach was desolate this time of year. There were no ghost crabs scurrying from his brisk steps. A sharp, cold breeze blew in from the sea. A winter storm had just battered the barrier islands and the coast of Currituck County. For the poor yeomen near the banks, these winter squalls often provided a nefarious means to a more comfortable season between harvest and spring. However, the present British blockade had limited shipping and the graveyard of the Atlantic received no known burials this winter.

As he approached the light on the beach, Hobbs could hear the quiet chatter of other men between gusts of the wind and the encroachment of the surf. Standing in the sand just beyond the waves were Camden McCullum, the ancient Elias Smith, and Daniel, Elias’s adult son. Elias Smith was a veteran of the War of Independence and most said that the spirit of ’76 was all that kept the old man alive. Daniel Smith was tall and robust, and Hobbs thought the young man should have been off fighting the Redcoats. Instead, the younger Smith was on the beach with his father, and just as eager as ever to plunder.

Hobbs had long known that Camden McCullum and the Smiths no longer needed to bank during the winter months. McCullum was one of the wealthiest farmers along the coast, and the Smiths lived comfortably a few miles inland. This was in stark contrast to the Hobbs family. Charles Hobbs had three hungry children at home, a sick wife, and fields that were full of sand most of the year.

Camden McCullum stood with both of his hands on the back of an old pony. This tired beast had been specially trained for these beach sojourns on winter nights, and this special function spared this particular animal from the knacker’s yard. McCullum had tied a lantern around the pony’s neck. McCullum and the Smiths greeted Hobbs as he approached.

“I don’t believe we’ll need this old girl tonight,” McCullum said while running both of his hands across the back of the animal.

“Oh?” Hobbs asked while shielding his face from another strong sea gust.

“Have a look out there on the shoal,” McCullum replied.

Hobbs needed a few minutes to spot the target in the darkness. Not especially far from the beach, a schooner had wrecked on the shoals and leaned considerably to port. The surf beat against the hull of the ship, but the schooner appeared to be lodged firmly in place.

“I always sleep easier when we don’t have to use you,” McCullem laughed while rubbing his hands in the pony’s mane.

“Storm must have driven her in during the evening,” the elderly Elias Smith offered. “Or the blockade. She may have been trying to sail between the blockade and the shoals.”

The four men stood quietly waiting for the remainder of their band. Within a few minutes, John Eckleston appeared on the sand.

Eckleston, a transplant from farther south, was dressed warmly for the occasion. He carried a lantern and his uncle’s best flintlock pistol. Although he was something of a ne’er-do-well, the others all appreciated Eckleston’s humor and impartiality.

“Sorry that I am a bit tardy,” he said with a smile, “but the walk from Charleston was a blustery one!”

After falling out with his well-heeled stepfather in South Carolina, Eckleston had come to live on his uncle’s farm. His uncle had banked as a younger man and now sent his nephew in his place. Despite the fact that his uncle’s farm was very near the beach, Eckleston was routinely late for these meetings.

The final member of the band arrived a few moments later. Appearing behind the light of an old lantern, Deirdre Murfree, weary and disheveled, joined the group.

Deirdre Murfree had the farthest to travel to reach the coast. Her old cheese box canteen hung from one shoulder. Following the Galway flood of 1755, Murfree’s ancestors had come from Connemara to Currituck County. Her grandfather had been swept up in revolutionist zeal once reaching America and carried the same canteen while on campaign. Just as her grandfather, father, and older brother had done for decades, Deirdre Murfree carried whiskey in the canteen by day, and black drink by night.

Murfree considered the old canteen to be lucky. The others standing on the beach that night knew Deirdre Murfree had never had much in the way of luck. The Murfree place in the northern part of the county had always been destitute, although her father and brother had long been shrewd bankers and indoctrinated her into the clandestine practice years before. Murfree had lost her father and brother during the previous winter to influenza. A few months later, her mother was found drowned in the Currituck Sound. Quite a few thought the woman had taken her own life, but Deirdre Murfree ardently insisted otherwise.

With the rest of her clan now buried in the old graveyard at St. Dymphna’s, Murfree often spoke of relocating to the backcountry, somewhere up in the Appalachians, and forging a new life in that rough wilderness. She had also talked about heading to New Berne to find work, and, at least once, she expressed an interest in traveling to New Orleans to see if the city might offer her some luck. The men on the beach that night had all long been friends of her clan and had known Deirdre since her auburn hair first reflected the light of the world. The thought of what might befall a young woman in New Berne, let alone New Orleans, unnerved the most naïve of the company.

Camden McCullum and Elias Smith had each offered Murfree a place at their tables, but she would have none of their charity. Although she had never met any of her kindred residing in Connemara, she expressed a deep need to appease the supposed expectations of her ancestral clan’s American branch. The Murfree legacy was one of wild independence. Subjugation was to be loathed. Deirdre had occasionally bristled under her father’s harsh hand during her youth, but now she was a woman and desired to have no one as her master.

“Better to be the poorest innkeeper than the best kept,” she often said.

She sought no pity and did not favorably receive comparisons to her namesake, “Deirdre of the Sorrows”. She continued to live on her own, survived how she could, and spoke of her plans and gambits to anyone willing to listen.

More than anything else, Deirdre Murfree talked about moving away from the sea. Murfree was fairly certain that her clan had always lived near the ocean, even back in Connemara. Of course, the sea had given and taken away. The Murfrees always farmed coastal land, banked whenever the waves offered the chance, and prospered when the ocean was pleased. The Murfrees had also known flood, famine, disease, and death just the same. Deirdre Murfree intended this night to be her last interaction with the Atlantic. She hoped the sea would be gracious and send her off with a blessing.

Murfree carried a shearing knife from the old country and a post maul. Her tired and distraught appearance induced some sympathy from her partners, but Murfree was fiercely proud and cared not for the well-wishing. Such concerns expressed during previous banking excursions had been met with vehement curses from the young woman.

Of course, times had been difficult for all of the coastal yeomen. While the plantations to the west and south became only more prosperous, the sea battered their barns and houses with winds, deluged their fields with rains, and washed away their soils with waves. The current war with Great Britain had only complicated their lives. The British blockade had been in place along the Carolinas since November, but most of the armed confrontations had taken place far away in Canada. Those along the Atlantic coast had been left to their own devices.

Camden McCullum hobbled his pony before the band set out in his boat, which was the largest of those locally available. Charles Hobbs, John Eckleston, Deirdre Murfree, and the younger Smith manned the oars. The elder Smith sat in the bow of the boat with his worn musket trained straight ahead. From the beach, there was no way to know if anyone was left alive on the schooner. Old Elias Smith didn’t see so well anymore, but he swore that he could still shoot.

“Nearly hit Banastre Tarleton himself with this same musket at Guilford,” Elias Smith once said, “and that devil would have eaten the ball if he hadn’t reared up on his horse just that instant.”

The schooner sat low in the water. As the party neared, the damage done by the storm became immediately apparent. As expected whenever a vessel wrecks on the shoals, the front of the ship had taken the worst of the beating. The foremast had seemingly snapped in half. The foresail had collapsed over the deck, the topsails were missing, and the mainsail was in tatters.

In choppy waves, McCullum tied his boat to the port side of the schooner’s bow. While doing so, his lantern illuminated an area of the hull. There should have been a name painted on this spot, and McCullum believed the paint on the hull looked remarkably fresh.

There was only one reason for fresh paint on a nameless ship.

“We got ourselves a privateer!” McCullum called out.

A wave of muffled cheers swept through the small boat. Since the current war with Britain had started, quite a few Carolinians had been commissioned as privateers. These ships often tended to be laden with trade goods intercepted from British merchants.

As the others gathered their belongings, McCullum turned to drop the boat’s anchor. The heavy wooden stock struck the water near the drowned bodies of two sailors. This was more good news, and McCullum pointed out the floating dead to the others.

The seven bankers carefully boarded the schooner, as the ship had come to rest with a considerable cant. Each member of the band searched a different area of the ship. Camden McCullum and the Smiths set to entering the hold, expecting that the schooner may have great treasures stored below deck. Charles Hobbs and Deirdre Murfree sought a way into the cabin. John Eckleston scoured the deck for bodies, hoping to relieve the dead of their coins, watches, jewelry, or navigational tools.

Eckleston had found the body of a single man under the foresail. This unfortunate soul had been struck by the broken foremast. Finding no other bodies, Eckleston joined Hobbs and Murfree outside the cabin.

“Stand back,” Hobbs said to the others as he prepared to hack through the locked cabin door.

Hobbs brought his worn hatchet against the wood with great force. He repeated his strikes until a splintered hole appeared in the center of the door. Handing the hatchet to Murfree, Hobbs stepped forward to reach through the hole and unlock the door.

Suddenly, the door swung open. A frazzled man in a green greatcoat stepped out of the cabin and pointed a pistol directly at the chest of Charles Hobbs. The man fired, sending Hobbs tumbling backward off the deck and into the churning water near the bow.

John Eckleston froze in his place, but Deirdre Murfree did not hesitate for a second. She thrust her old shearing knife forward, penetrating the man’s left shoulder near the base of his neck. A spurt of blood arched out of the man’s body as he gasped and collapsed to the deck. A stream of blood immediately started to flow toward the schooner’s port side. Regaining his composure, Eckleston stepped forward, carefully aimed his uncle’s pistol, and shot the man through his forehead.

These types of encounters were not uncommon, as those wrecked along the shoals knew to expect the bankers first and rescuers second.

The sound of the pistol’s discharge had brought McCullum and the younger Smith back up onto the deck. Seeing that Murfree and Eckleston were fine, McCullum and the younger Smith began searching for Hobbs.

With a lantern in one hand and her post maul in the other, Murfree stepped over the dead man’s body and forward into the cabin. The small space inside was a mess of papers, charts, and furniture, but there was a distinct shape in the back of the cabin that caught Deirdre Murfree’s eye. There was the body of a woman near an overturned chair.

Murfree rolled the woman over and brought her lantern close to a strange face. The woman was still alive and breathing well enough, although she seemed to have suffered a head injury. Murfree could see a bloody knot at the top of the woman’s forehead. A female passenger onboard a ship of this nature was rare, and Murfree could see from her dress that the woman possessed a certain refinement not to be found in coastal North Carolina.

She moved her canteen to the woman’s lips and poured some of the black drink into her mouth. After a few seconds, the woman seemed to swallow the concoction and, unfamiliar with this local brew, immediately began to convulse before finally turning and vomiting the mixture onto the floor of the cabin. The woman opened her eyes at this point and met Deirdre Murfree’s own. Murfree could see this strange woman was indeed striking, with dark eyes, strong features, and long, dark hair. The woman almost immediately fainted.

Eckleston shuffled around the cabin behind Murfree, picking up whatever may have some value. Typically, the bankers murdered anyone left alive on the ship after boarding. However, Deirdre Murfree seemed to show no inclination to bash this woman’s head with her post maul, as Eckleston had seen during a previous banking effort.

Eckleston helped Murfree scoop up the delicate frame of the woman from the cabin floor and the pair carried the survivor to the doorway. McCullum and Daniel Smith appeared on the deck outside the cabin.

“Robert Hobbs is dead,” McCullun said through pursed lips.

The group all studied the schooner’s woman for a few minutes. John Eckleston suddenly paid a special interest in the woman, leaning in very close as he supported her upper body with his arms. The others thought the young layabout might actually kiss the woman.

“If I didn’t know any better,” Eckleston finally said, “I would say that’s the wife of Joseph Alston.”

There was a pause. Eckleston realized that no one in the group knew the name of Joseph Alston.

“He’s a politician in South Carolina,” Eckleston added.

The others all exchanged glances. The woman’s dress and appearance certainly indicated a level of sophistication on par with a politician’s wife.

“That’s Theodosia Burr,” Eckleston concluded. “I’m near certain.”

That was a name that Camden McCullum recognized.

“The daughter of the man who shot Hamilton?” McCullum asked.

“The same,” Eckleston replied. “My step-father hosted the Alstons once or twice.”

“Is that Joseph Alston?” McCullum asked, pointing to the dead man in the green greatcoat on the deck.

“No,” Eckleston answered. “I don’t know that man.”

There was another pause, as now Eckleston, McCullum, and Daniel Smith all looked at Deirdre Murfree. Their female accomplice intently peered through the murky light of a few lanterns at the survivor.

“You boys take what you will from this schooner, and I don’t doubt there’s quite a bit to find in the hold,” Deirdre Murfree finally said.

“There is,” McCullum replied. “Old Elias is sorting everything out down there now. We’ll have to make a few trips to the beach before dawn.”

“I’m going to load what’s mine into the boat,” Murfree said. “I suppose I won’t be going to New Berne or New Orleans. And I won’t be going to the Appalachians alone.”

The men nodded together. Murfree reached down with a free hand and pulled her shearing knife from the clavicle of the dead man.

“You’d do well to give my share to the Hobbs widow,” Deirdre Murfree continued while imploring Eckleston to help her carry the woman to McCullum’s boat.

“I can do that, but are you certain?” McCullum asked.

“I am,” Murfree said with a grin. “The sea has given me a fine farewell, and I think she would make the folks back in Connemara quite proud.”

 

*

(Ed. Note — we loved this piece by Joshua Scully and can’t wait for him to turn it into a novel.)

Joshua Scully is an American History teacher from Pennsylvania. His flash fiction and other writing can be found on Twitter @jojascully or at https://jjscully.wordpress.com/

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