Sample Pages

An excerpt from Gather the Shadowmen:

Prologue

An Old Sailor’s Tale

A monster nor’easter, dark and menacing, swept up the east coast with an irrational, raw fury, savaging everything in its path – until it found Rhode Island. And there the ungodly storm halted and laid siege to the small safe haven called Newport, railing against its flimsy walls of wood and glass for long days like some berserk demon…

He quickly closed the heavy oak door behind him, shutting out angry winds, and paused at the top of a crude staircase to survey the dimly lit room below. The tavern was smoky, packed and uninviting. As the newcomer brushed flakes of snow off his shoulders heads turned, curious to see what fool had braved the treacherous ice in the night – but they soon looked away again, indifferent. And then he heard, as if coming from some far, distant place, the soft strains of a fiddle. Sad tunes.

He didn’t much care for taverns or crowds and suddenly felt very much out of place. And so he was. Impeccably dressed in a fine tailored suit and new topcoat, he stuck out like some raw recruit. The room was filled with mariners – rough, coarse men dressed in rough, coarse clothes. This is where they liked to gather to eat and drink and gamble. And when they had had their fill of those pleasures how they loved to whittle away the hours spinning out their stories.

The newcomer did not drink, he did not gamble. He had come for the stories or, more truthfully, he had come to this particular tavern for one particular story.

He saw a familiar face in the crowd, a man wearing the dark blue jacket of the American navy, and walked down the staircase, keeping a brown leather satchel pressed closely against his chest as he moved. He squeezed through the tables, apologizing profusely to each man he bumped, until he reached the navy man.

“That old fellow over there,” he asked the sailor, pointing across the room. “Is he the one you told me about before?”

The sailor casually looked up, followed the length of the newcomer’s arm and removed a long-stemmed pipe from his lips. “Ah, ‘tis the young Mr. Crook again I see,” the sailor replied in the high-pitched accent of a New Englander, pausing to slowly exhale a cloud of gray smoke through badly stained teeth. “A good evenin’ to you, young sir. Aye, the old salt sittin’ in the corner over there by himself, right you are. He’s the one you asked me about earlier.”

Crook nodded, carefully picked his way through the crowd, towards the old man sitting in the corner, towards a man who, as the shadows played their tricks, seemed to turn more sinister with each passing step. Years at sea had etched deep lines into the old man’s rugged face and a thin gray beard could not hide a jagged, white scar running down the length of his jawbone. Still it was, Crook decided, a handsome face. Despite the warmth of a nearby fire, the old man had not bothered to remove his coat, a shabby, threadbare garment, or his big fur cap. A maroon scarf wrapped around the old man’s neck, a tattered piece of cloth with a curious blue crescent moon embroidered on the tip, caught Crook’s eye but he knew better than to ask about such things too early on. Patience...

Except for its great stone fireplace, the tavern was an unremarkable place. Twin heavy stone columns – five feet high or better – supported the fireplace’s massive wood mantel, cut from a ship’s timber and adorned with sea themes, intricate carvings, of ships, sea monsters, myths and legends. And over the mantelpiece, mounted cross-wise like two broadswords, hung a pair of impressive ‘two flue irons’ liberated off some whaler.

The innkeeper walked over and tossed several fresh logs into an already generous fire. The green wood hissed and crackled at him as orange flames tickled the bottom of a black kettle, suspended in midair from a chain held in place by a circle of mermaids – three alluring, cast iron mermaids – rising seductively up from the hearthstone.

Crook could not remember having seen a more impressive or distinctive fireplace. The great fire, Crook then realized, that is why the old fellow comes here.

Out of courtesy Crook didn’t extend his hand. He saw the old man’s large hands with their scarred and gnarled knuckles, wrapped firmly around a pewter tankard and assumed the old man might consider shaking hands as something painful, or a nuisance. And he was right.

“Mind if I sit here with you for a spell?” Crook asked with a nervous tone. “Mr. Trevett, your name is John Trevett is it not?”

The old man slowly looked up to find a young man, with smooth skin and a pencil-thin mustache, peering down at him. He took in the younger man’s fine clothes, the slicked-back hair parted neatly down the middle and the clean fingernails. He smiled. The young man was doing his best to look older, wiser. A
gentleman
, the old man thought to himself, and a dandy one at that. A gentleman was something not much seen down by the waterfront and would offend some in the tavern. But the old man wasn’t troubled any.

“Free country mister,” he shot back with an Irish brogue.

“Thank you kindly, sir. My name is Crook, ah, Charles Crook. I’m delighted to make your acquaintance, sir. I’ve heard about you, Mr. Trevett. I write stories, stories for the newspaper. And I’ve heard you may have a story or two that might be of interest to me, of interest to my paper that is.”

The old man looked hard into the young man’s eyes. “Can’t say that I reads much anymores mister.”

“Yes, indeed, well, Mr. Trevett, perhaps I could buy you a drink? Or, if you have an appetite, perhaps supper? We could – talk?”

Talk?”

A runt of a man sitting nearby craned his neck around to look at Crook and burst out laughing. “Old Johnny Trevett thar mister will talk sure enough! Pour him a drink, that’ll loosen his tongue. But, fair warnin’, once you get him goin’ you can’t shut him up and who knows what foreign beach you’ll wash up on!”

The runt then forced a hardier laugh and glanced around the room looking for support. “An’t that so boys?”

Heads bobbed up and down in agreement. A few men even joined the runt in his laughter.

“You’re in for a long cruise thar, mista!” added a second voice.

The crowd answered the sailor with hoots and howls.

Trevett, nostrils flaring, his gray, bushy eyebrows knotted, drilled into the men taunting him with an icy stare. “Piss off…” he told them all in a booming command voice full of threat.

The taunting instantly stopped. Men gladly returned to their own matters.

Trevett turned to look at Crook. “Pay ‘em blitherin’ fools no mind, Mr. Crook. ‘Em heathens are just jealous because they’re all young and ignorant. Young lads got no stories to tell. None of much interest anyhows to seasoned men of good character. With age, for some mind you, thar comes a privilege or two. Bein’ interestin’ is one of ‘em.”

“Indeed,” Crook replied, still processing the deference given to the grizzled, old man. “Good, good. Are you up for a story?”

“A story? Well, now, the years are a heavy burden for me as you can plainly see. Even a strong man’s pride and vanity must yield to the gentle ways of Father Time. Feeble tho’, I an’t. What kinda story? In a place like this, one hears quiet whispers in the night, hushed rumors and idle gossip – gossip of the troublin’ kind. Not for me, I’ll tell you plainly. I’ve got no stomach for fairytales.”

Crook ordered a round of drinks and food from a passing tavern maid. He then stood and removed his coat, scarf and gloves, carefully laying each piece of clothing neatly across the back of an empty chair.

The old man reached over to grab a poker from the fire, red hot at the tip, and dunked it in his tankard. The liquid hissed back at him.

Crook cleared his throat. “And I have no talent for writing fiction. Facts, sir. I am interested in facts. I understand you sailed with a man of interest to me, a fellow named Ryan, Luke Ryan?”

That name brought a sudden gleam to the old man’s eyes. His lips curled into a thin smile, the kind of smile brought on by some pleasant memory from long past. He drew a deep breath and whistled.

“Aye, I sailed with that rogue true enough! Haven’t heard that name in ages. Now thar was a sailor by Gawd! Sailed with a lot of men, I did, including time with the American navy. Sailed with Dowlin, Macatter and the Kelly boys too. Sailed with all ‘em lads.”

“Dowlon, Macatter and who?”

Dowlin, lad. Dowlin… Ha! He was a big, stout Irishman. Real lady’s man. Drank like a fish too but knew his business at sea well enough. No fool that one. He and Ryan were close, like brothers they was. Macatter claimed to be from Boston. Called himself Capt’n Wilde. Ha! That man never laid eyes on Boston! He was Irish like the rest of ‘em, from County Cork or so I heard. Tough, no nonsense little man. One of O’Keeffe’s boys. Nearly Ryan’s equal. Nearly. Christopher Kelly… Aye, biggest, strongest man – exceptin’ for Jumbaaliyia of course – I ever laid eyes on, but greathearted too. Kelly was the kind of fella you could trust with yer life in a bad fix. No better man ever put to sea than old Chris and nary a cross word ever escaped from that good man’s lips. Thar was Morgan and Hoar and, well, the whole damn crew was all first-rate. Ryan and Dowlin saw to that. Aye, I sailed with ‘em alrighty. Long, long time ago that was lad.”

“Truly?”

Trevett paused as if to collect his thoughts. He looked down at his curled fingers and sighed.

“I’m old now. My hands are useless and me poor old eyes aren’t what they used to be. But the brain is workin’ just fine, thank’ee very kindly. As if it had happened yesterday, I remember it all.”

Crook nodded while absently smoothing his slick, black hair back with the palm of his hand. “Yes, excellent. That is the story I wish to hear. How grand! Would you talk to me about Luke Ryan, Mr. Trevett?”

“Luke Ryan? You wants to know about Ryan?”

“Yes. Indeed I do. About him and all the men who sailed with him actually. The whole story, from beginning to end.”

The old man sipped his drink, smacked his lips with approval and then narrowed his eyes at Crook. “Well, now, queer that is mister. Most people want to know about famous old Commodore John Paul Jones. Sailed with him too, Gawd rest his soul. Jones died in Paris a pauper in ‘92. Not quite a hero’s death, eh? But he was a quarrelsome, boastful sort and didn’t have many friends at the end. Anyway, I sailed with a lot of ships and a lot of captains. But I’ll tell you the truth of it young pup. Now listen well…”

Trevett leaned over the table until he was nose-to-nose with Crook. “Never sailed with a braver or better man than Luke Ryan,” he said in a deeper voice, a more serious tone. “He was fearless. Like a fox he was. I swear that man could’ve out-sailed the devil himself. Knew how to read the hearts and minds of men too. A real leader. Catch my drift?”

Trevett saw the blank expression on Crook’s face. “See here lad. There aren’t many truly good ship’s masters around. Some men are good seaman, you understand, because they know thar ships and they knows the sea. Some men are good leaders because they knows how to inspire thar crew to work hard and they knows how to rouse thar fightin’ spirit when needs be. Sad to say, but very few capt’ns nowadays are both good seaman and good leaders. But Ryan knew the way of it. We woulda followed him anywhere – and the money be damned. Now you see?”

Crook felt his blood stir and nodded eagerly again. He cleared his throat to try and deepen his own voice. “Those must have been heady times, Mr. Trevett.”

“Aye. That’s a fact, lad,” Trevett answered while leaning back in his chair. “Those were excitin’ times sure enough. Giants walked the Earth back then and not just the ones you read about in yer books and papers.” He paused to wink at Crook. “Of course, thar were pygmies too runnnin’ about. Seemed as if the whole damn world was at war with itself. This country fought old King George and beat him and all his men and ships at sea sure enough. I done my part. We won our liberty. Doubt ‘em young baboons sittin’ over thar understand what liberty means, exceptin’ for the freedom they have for drinkin’ and whorin’ about town.”

While Trevett nodded at his own words in satisfaction and chuckled, the young reporter reached into his waistcoat, removed a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles and carefully set them over his nose and ears. Then he reached into his satchel, removed a sheaf of blank paper, a quill pen and an ink jar and, after laying each item out on the table with meticulous care, dipped his pen into the ink and began scribbling words across the paper.

“You get that scar on your jaw sailing with Ryan?” Crook asked as he wrote.

Trevett laughed. “No son, ‘fraid not. I got this beauty-mark from bein’ stupid, from slippin’ on some ice down the street here in town a few months back.” He unbuttoned his coat, pulled up his shirt to expose his chest and, with a wide grin, pointed to a round white spot on his shoulder. “Now this here scar was made by a musket ball – a gift from the English. And this, this here slash across my gut, a Mameluke’s scimitar did this to me in Egypt back in ‘99. I was with Ryan on both occasions.”

As Crook looked up and smiled at the scars the old man tucked his shirt back inside his pants and slowly began buttoning up his coat. It was a difficult task for scarred, old fingers.

“You like writin’, do you?” Trevett asked.

“Yes. Yes, I do,” Crook replied as he resumed writing.

“You’ll be puttin’ this stuff in a book or in yer paper?”

“I’d like to write some articles about your story. Whether any of it is ever published or not I can’t honestly say.”

The old man slowly brought the pewter tankard to his lips with one hand, leaving the other resting on the table, its stiff fingers curled as if wrapped around some invisible object. He drained his tankard with one, long gulp.

“Hm. No matter mister young reporter. If yer buyin’ the drinks I suppose I’ve got some time for ya. Good Lord hasn’t seen fit to take me yet. Aye, I’ve got time. It’s a long story, a handsome story and well-bred. And what I says to you about what I seen is the truth, no sailor’s tall tales from me. Other things I says to you is from what different mates, mostly Kelly and Dowlin, told me ‘cause I weren’t thar yet. They was honest men tho’. I’ll be needin’ to wet me pipes now and then. I was drinkin’ a rather tasty spiced punch earlier. To get the blood flowin’. You should give it a try. It’s a house favorite. But with nary a drop left, now I think I’ll change course here and go with Jolly Fellows with a maybe a whiskey chaser or two. And I don’t cares to have my Jolly Fellows rationed out one gill at a time like aboard ship. Full tankard, hey? Hope you brought yer purse with you.”

“Jolly what?”

Grog, lad.”

Crook again reached into his waistcoat, removed a money purse and tossed the fat bag on the center of the table with a broad smile. The coins made a pleasant clinking sound as they tumbled around. Then he took another clean sheet of paper and started writing again.

Soon half the tavern had gathered around their table to listen to Trevett spin out his tale and Crook quickly realized that the old man had a gift. Trevett recounted his adventures in such vivid detail, and with such passion, the story seemed to come alive…

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