It was to prevent that very outcome that Matthew was on this rattling ride, headed for a duel before dawn of a bitter December day. "En route to posterity," Sam Adams had proclaimed, slapping the hindquarters of the horse. That was Sam's way of looking at the duel—good P.R. for the Rebellion. While he hadn't come out directly and said it, Sam gave the impression that it might not be all bad if Matthew could contrive to end up with a pistol ball in his gizzard. Just the thing to inflame the newspapers and put public opinion back on the boil.
For that reason, Matthew did not ask Sam to be his second in the duel. He asked instead Sam's distant cousin John Adams, who was scrupulous, careful as a lawyer could be. But John Adams said no. He did not hold with dueling; it was illegal, and he would not risk imprisonment for the hardship this would cause his family. "I cannot be a proper second," he added, "because, in the eyes of the English, I am not of gentle birth. They will not fight a Colonial."
Matthew frowned. "But Nicky challenged me. Aren't I Colonial?"
"You arrived in Boston with Mr. Rotch, on board his ship—indeed, wearing his breeches and carrying his sword."
"He saved us when we were cast away at sea, and our clothes were ruined," Matthew replied. "Would you prefer that I walk the streets of Boston naked?"
"Hardly," said John, with a dry laugh. "And it is good to have Mr. Rotch as patron, as it is to him you must turn to be your second."
Thus did Matthew return to Tory society, despite being the symbolic champion of the Colonials. Francis Rotch readily agreed to back Matthew, saying, "You will be surprised at how far opinion in proper Boston is running against Nicholas Blunt—all think he has harmed relations here. A number have written his commander to request that he be withdrawn from Colonial duty. Governor Hutchinson himself is irritated." In a Boston so tense and unfriendly that the British garrison already had withdrawn to the protection of Castle Clinton, the duel was hindering the main objective: to get the tea unloaded so it could be sold and taxed. "You may use my rapier, if it suits you," Rotch added.
"Slight problem," Matthew murmured, and held up his bandaged pinkie. Rotch relayed word to Nicky's second that they would have to use pistols. He also sent for a doctor.
"Ooohh yes, a most significant caesura digitalis," pronounced Dr. Dunwiddle, "dangerous if left untreated, even mortal." A narrow-faced fellow with glinting spectacles and a bright red bare skull, the doctor plunged into a stiff-sided leather bag and took out a mortar and pestle, loose bunches of dried leaves, and a soft leather pouch. "We shall make a poultice, brew an infusion, and bleed the humor."
Back in Newport, a doctor had set the finger with a popsicle-stick splint, given Matthew a handful of painkillers for the week, and prescribed an ice cream cone a day. But despite Matthew's protests, Dr. Dunwiddle unwrapped the pinkie, applied a damp mess of herbs, made him a cup of weedy sour brew from St. John's Wort, and told him to roll his right pant leg up.
"Why?" asked Matthew.
"For the leeches." He opened the leather pouch, removing and unfolding a damp square of green moss; immediately a dozen shiny black slug-like things raised their blind snouts and began sniffing the air. Matthew felt sick. When the doctor nimbly plucked off a leech and brought it up to his bare calf, he shouted and jerked away.
"Hold him!" cried Dr. Dunwiddle.
Francis Rotch and Captain Spencer gripped Matthew, who writhed and pleaded, to no avail. He looked away, felt a slight pin-prick, looked back and nearly fainted. A half-dozen black leeches clung to his skin, bodies convulsing as they drank his blood. The herbal brew and the blood loss combined with his horror to overwhelm Matthew, who fell back into the arms of his comforters. When he woke it was evening, and Francis Rotch was laying out clothes on the chair beside the bed.
"Time to get dressed," he said, pleasantly. "We've an evening at Castle Clinton ahead of us."
Despite a cup of hot beef broth given him by Abby, Matthew stepped out of the open carriage faint and disoriented. As he mounted the steps behind Francis Rotch, he thought he heard a buzz of comment, but had to focus on his feet. At the entrance of the lower floor ballroom, he waited dully in a press of bodies.
"Why, here is the wounded hero himself!" came the loud, familiar, snotty voice of Nicky Blunt. Surrounded by an entourage of tittering young men and women in glittering London fashions, Nicky sauntered toward Matthew, opening and closing a long-handled wooden fan on which was painted a centaur gamboling after nymphs. "Into the fray he plunged, bravely assaulting a terrible foe—but what? A squirrel? A mouse?"
"Slammed it in a door," said Matthew. "I trust pistols are to your liking?"
"I'm sure they're to your liking," Nicky said. "I'm sure you arranged this 'injury' to avoid facing me at swordpoint. In fact," he drawled, "I'm not so sure you're injured at all!" And he lashed out with the closed fan, rapping Matthew's pinkie. Pain turned the room all-black, then white; faded faces peered anxiously at him, gradually gaining color. "You . . . jerk," he gasped.
To his surprise, Nicky blushed bright red. Obviously upset at himself, he retreated immediately from the party. Even more surprising, Matthew found himself surrounded by solicitous squires and ladies, who insisted on fussing over him and bringing him the best cuts of beef and goose. Sympathy, it seemed, had gone all over to his side.
The following day Francis Rotch took him to visit the Jaegermeister of Saarbruck, whose set of steel-barreled horse pistols gleamed in their walnut case, beautiful and deadly. "We'd like to try these out," said Rotch. "May we take them for a day?"
"Aff course! I gif you two days!" Erwin Walster stroked his bushy sideburns. "If ask I may, vhat vill you be doink? Huntink? Vighting Indians?"
Rotch smiled at Matthew, laying a hand on his shoulder. "It's his first duel."
"Zo mature!" Walster sized Matthew up. "Aff course, vor a duel ze custom is to pay und advance." He coughed into his fist. Francis Rotch frowned, but complied.
Afterward, as they walked back to the ship, Matthew thanked him. Rotch shook his head. "The least I can do," he said. "It is, of course, hard dealings that one so recently brought up into society should be forced to defend his honor so soon, but I made no mistake in recognizing your qualities." He threw a fatherly arm around Matthew's shoulders. "Like me, I am sure that you would not trade the life of a gentleman, no matter how short, for the bedizened eternity of a commoner." He lowered his voice. "And it is the piquancy of such a life, short, sweet, and glorious, that has captured the interest of a certain young lady. . . ."
The field, crusted in thin snow, enclosed on three sides by dark forest, faced a fast river running black. At one end was a pale orange fire around which huddled two serving men; with all of his attention Matthew had watched them spit scrawny wild turkeys on sticks before jamming them into the frozen earth, angled over the flames. Now, as if his life depended on it, he watched them prepare hot toddy.
His breath sounded so loud he closed his mouth to breathe through his nose. Immediately he felt a choking sensation, resisted it for as long as he could, then gasped and began panting. Be brave , he thought. Hadn't he been brave yesterday? Word had come that Governor Hutchinson had reiterated the already existing ban on dueling, but when Abby and John Adams suggested that this got him off the hook, Matthew had only shaken his head. So then ten tavern heroes hoisted him on their shoulders at Sam Adams's huzzah. Was that bravery? Afterwards he'd retired to the Dartmouth , where Francis Rotch had a second supper waiting, lobster chowder and a tenderloin of beef, followed by a pudding of preserved fruits. And—the true dessert—Prudence, deigning for the first time since their quarrel to sit at the same table. Pale and formal, she nonetheless had inquired after his health, listened politely as Rotch detailed their Plan B: everyone would travel to an agreed site by separate means, Matthew smuggled in a farm wagon. Prudence then turned to Matthew. "I do regret the circumstances, and in any event would not wish you to go forth tomorrow without having tendered my sentiments," she said. What could he say to that? "I shall try to be worthy of them," he said, earning an approving nod from Rotch and a disbelieving glare from Abby.
A bright clop-clop-clop of hooves: Rotch, who dismounted by the fire, nodded to Matthew, and accepted a hot toddy. Matthew realized he had been offered neither food nor drink. For the best, perhaps. He would not be able to hold a glass without trembling, and he might very well throw up. But why would nobody approach him, talk to him? It was as if they suspected he would lose heart, perhaps refuse to go on, or run. Better to leave him alone on these, his last minutes on earth. The thunder of hooves preceded two men riding powerful horses, approaching in tandem across the field, leaping a small rail fence: Nicky and his second, another Englishman, a dragoon. They rode straight up to the fire, receiving their stirrup cups of toddy as if after a fox, not a very frightened 12-year-old boy.
This is so civilized , Matthew thought, but it's murder, and I'm doing my best to help them! He looked down at his hands. They'd stopped trembling. Honor was alive inside his breast. Clip-clop, clip-clop: another horseman, this time Sam Adams on a swayback nag. Behind him a closed carriage appeared, swaying along the rutted road, its windows covered in black cloth. For the dead , he thought. For me .
Nicky strode across the field toward Matthew—an unexpected development. He sought Matthew's eyes with his own, gave a somber nod. "My dear Roving," he said, in a happy voice. "I give you greetings this glorious morning. But before we proceed, there is something that weighs heavy on me. I must beg your pardon for my actions the other night."
As if in a trance, Matthew heard himself say, "No problem." Nicky's smile lit up his face. "Thank you, sir," he cried, and turned to the seconds. "Then it's on!" He turned back to Matthew: "Forever in your honor." Nice sentiments, but how long would that forever last?
It came to Matthew that he'd missed another chance to back out. Yet Nicky kept smiling, as if the whole thing were a game, kept casting glances about him, back toward the black-draped carriage. His anger was gone; his fickle temperament had turned generous. And so Matthew allowed himself to hope. Perhaps this would be the sort of duel where the participants fire into the air, shake hands, and sit down to breakfast together.
After the seconds oversaw the charging and priming of the pistols, they were brought back to the duelists. Matthew, as the challenged, had his choice— first dibs on death , he thought, giddily. As he'd discussed with Roddy and Shoddy, he picked up one pistol, weighed it, then set it down. Next he picked up the other, appearing to hesitate while sliding his finger under the guard to the screwhead that, when pushed, set the hair trigger. Should he? Did he dare? What if Nicky no longer meant him harm? He placed the pistol on the velvet cloth and picked up the first. "I believe this one suits me better."
Nicky peered down with an expression of connoisseurship. "Say, I know these—from Walster, yes?" An approving nod. "Very handsome—I've wanted to try these for ages—what luck!" He lifted his pistol, paused. "Do you want to know a secret?" He leaned confidentially toward Matthew. "I have heard, on very good account, that these pistols have within them the cunningest hair trigger." He beamed at Matthew, who nodded dumbly. "Say, would you like to—you and me—you know?" He winked. "Now that would add a little spice to the affair! The little devils are always set by . . ."
Nicky's eyes changed color, the blue darkening. His bemused, jesting expression faded. He stared away, into the distance, as his upper lip slowly curled. Matthew's heart sank. The Nicky who looked back at him wore the face of a killer.
"Let us proceed," he said. "I find that I am growing anxious for my breakfast."
They stood 15 paces apart—none of this walking away backward as in the movies. Behind them, bare trees were filled with silent black crows. The seconds, also in black, called out their readiness. Matthew could hardly hear for the blood pounding in his ears. Get it over with , he thought. But he could not even lift his arm.
During the long dreadful pause Nicky also waited, pistol at his side—smiling. He knows I'm too scared to shoot straight , Matthew thought. He'll fire second, to show his superior nerve and, of course, aim.
Even on his best day, Matthew reflected, his odds at hitting Nicky at this distance were no better than fair. How would it feel, having shot and missed, to wait for the return shot. No doubt Nicky would make him sweat. He would be shooting to kill, no doubt about that now.
Matthew glanced around him one last time. He saw that one window of the black-draped carriage was open, its curtain stayed by a white-gloved hand. Prudence! She was here, watching; but on whose account? Nicky's, of course. She'd come to see him apologize, probably, for striking Matthew's broken finger—it wouldn't do to be seen in London with a man with such a blot on his honor! Now it would be all right, thanks to Matthew.
Matthew considered his own shame over the hair trigger. You deserve this , he thought, aware that he felt faint, ravenously hungry, and the smell of the roasting meat and hot punch was sweet in his nostrils as he lifted the heavy long-barreled pistol, slowly leveled it, exhaled, and in the same instant squeezed the trigger.
The crows lifted off, flapping heavily—except for one, which swung on a branch for an instant before plummeting to the ground a few feet from Nicky. He stared at the crow. "Nice shot, Roving," he said, flatly, then turned to face him, raising his own pistol.
"Halt! In the name of the King, Governor Hutchinson, and government of Massachusetts, by these warrants do I arrest thee both!" thundered a grim sergeant in British red, emerging at a run from a copse of trees alongside a platoon of soldiers. Behind them, on horseback, galloped an officer, and behind him rode Abigail, beating a hand on the rump of her horse, her face resolute and unapologetic.
With a curse, Sam Adams tore off his tricorn hat and threw it in the snow.
Within the hour, Matthew found himself in a prison cell in Castle Clinton.
Don Wallace is a novelist, essayist, and editor whose childhood was split between books, boats, and the outdoors. Both his father and grandfather served in the U.S. Navy. The father of a 14-year-old boy, Don started The Log to bridge the Gameboy generation and the world of his father and grandfather. Jan Adkins is the auhor and illustrator of more than 36 books for children and adults, many of them about the New England seacoast. He has received dozens of awards for text, design, and illustration.
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