The Whiskey Rebels: Excerpt
It was rainy and cold outside, miserable weather, and though I had not left my boardinghouse determined to die, now things were different. After consuming far more than my share of that frontier delicacy Monongahela rye, a calm resolution had come over me. A very angry man named Nathan Dorland was looking for me, asking for me at every inn, chophouse, and tavern in the city and making no secret of his intention to murder me. Perhaps he would find me tonight and, if not, tomorrow or the next day. Not any later than that. It was inevitable only because I was determined not to fight against the tide of popular opinion—which is to say, that I ought to be killed. It was my decision to submit, and I have long believed in keeping true to a plan once it has been cast in earnest.
It is a principle I cultivated during the war—indeed, one I learned from observing General Washington himself. This was in the early days of the Revolution, when His Excellency still believed he might defeat the British in pitched battle, Continental style, with our ill-disciplined and badly equipped militias set against the might of British regulars. It was the decisive military victory he wanted; indeed, in those early days it was the only sort he believed worth having. He would invite the officers to dine with him, and we would drink claret and eat roast chicken and sip our turtle soup and he would tell us how we were going to drive the Redcoats back at Brooklyn, and the unfortunate affair would be over before winter.
That was during the war. Now it was early in 1792, and I sat at the bar of the Lion and Bell in that part of Philadelphia euphemistically called Helltown. In that unsavory scene, I drank my whiskey with hot water while I waited for death to find me. I kept my back to the door, having no wish to see my enemy coming and because the Lion and Bell was as unlovely a place as Helltown offered—and those were mighty unlovely. The air was thick with smoke from pipes plugged full of cheap tobacco, and the floor, naught but dirt, had turned to mud with the icy rain outside and the spills and spitting and tobacco juice. The benches lay lopsided in the newly made hummocks and ruts of the ground, and the drunken patrons would, from time to time, topple over and tumble like felled timber into the muck. Perhaps a drinker might take the trouble to roll a friend over to keep him from drowning, though there could be no certainty. Helltown friends were none the best.
It was a curious mix there: the poor, the whores, the desperate, the servants run off for the night or the month or forever. And alongside them, throwing dice upon uneven surfaces or hunched over a hand of cards spread across ripped velvet, were the gentlemen in their fine woolen suits and white stockings and shimmering silver buckles. They’d come to gawk and to rub elbows with the colorful filth, and most of all they’d come to game. It was the spirit of the city, now that Alexander Hamilton, that astonishing buffoon, had launched his great project, the Bank of the United States. As Secretary of the Treasury, he had single-handedly transformed the country from a republican beacon for mankind into a paradise for speculators. Ten years earlier, with a single stroke, he had transformed me from patriot to outcast.
I removed from my pocket a watch, currently my only possession of value if one did not account my slave, Leonidas. I had, despite the decisions that had prevailed among the wise drafters of our Constitution, never quite learned to think of Leonidas as property. He was a man, and as good a man as any I’d known. It sat ill with me to keep a slave, particularly in a city like Philadelphia, whose small population of owned blacks numbered in the dozens, and one could find fifty free blacks for each bondsman. I could never sell Leonidas, no matter how dire my need, because I did not think it right to buy and sell men. On the other hand, though it was no fault of his, Leonidas would fetch at auction as much as fifty or sixty pounds worth of dollars, and it had always seemed to me madness to emancipate such a sum.
So the timepiece, in practical terms, was currently my only thing of worth—a sad fact, given that I had removed it from its rightful owner only a few hours earlier. Its glittering face told me it was now half past eight. Dorland would have eaten his fashionably late dinner well over two hours ago, giving him ample time to collect his friends and come in search of me. It could be any minute now.
I slid back into my pocket the timepiece I’d taken on Chestnut Street. The owner had been a fat jackanapes, a self-important merchant. He’d been talking to another fat jackanapes and had paid no mind while I brushed past him. I’d not planned to take the watch, nor did I make a habit of such things as common theft, but it had been so tempting, and there seemed to be no reason not to claim it and then disappear in that crowded street, clacking with the walking sticks of bankers and brokers and merchants. I saw the watch, saw it might be taken, and saw how I might take it.
Even then, if that had been all, I would have let it go, but then I heard the man speak. It was his words, not my need, that drove me to take what was not mine. This man, this lump of a man, who resembled a great and corpulent bottom-heavy bear, forced into a crushed-velvet blue suit, had been invited to a gathering the next week at the house of Mr. William Bingham. That was all I knew of him, that he, a mere maker of money, nothing more than a glorified storekeeper, had been invited to partake of the finest society in Philadelphia—indeed, in the nation. I, who had sacrificed all for the Revolution, a man who had risked life in return for less than nothing, was little more than a beggar. So I took his watch, and I defy anyone to blame me.
Now that it was mine, I examined the painting in the inside cover, a young lady of not twenty, plump of face, like the watch’s owner, with a bundle of yellow hair and eyes far apart and open wide, as though she’d been in perpetual astonishment while she sat for the portrait. A daughter? A wife? It hardly mattered. I had taken from a stranger a thing he loved, and now Nathan Dorland was coming to avenge such wrongs, too innumerable to catalogue.
“Handsome timepiece,” said Owen, standing behind the bar. He was a tall man with a head long and narrow, shaped like one of the pewter mugs into which he poured his ales, with wheat-colored hair that curled up like foam. “Timepiece like that might go a way toward paying a debt.” He held out one of his meaty hands, covered with oil and filth and blood from a fresh cut on his palm to which he paid no mind.
I shrugged. “With all my heart, but you must know the watch is newly thieved.” He withdrew the hand and wiped it on his filthy apron. “Don’t need the trouble, but I ought to send you to fence it now, before you lose it at game.”
“Should I turn the watch to ready, I would not use it for something so ephemeral as a tavern debt.” I pushed my empty mug toward him. “Another, if you please, my good man.”
Owen stared for a moment, his tankard of a face collapsed in purse-lipped indecision. He was a young man, not two-and-twenty, and he had a profound, nearly religious reverence for those who had fought in the war. Living, as he did, in such a place as Helltown, and moving through indifferent social circles, he had never heard how my military career had met its conclusion, and I saw no advantage in sharing information that would lead to his disillusionment.
Instead, I favored other details. Owen’s father died in the fighting at Brooklyn Heights, and more than once had I treated Owen to the tale of how I had met his father that bloody day, when I was captain of a New York regiment, before my true skills were discovered and I was no longer to be found upon the battlefield. That day I led men, and when I told Owen the tale, my voice grew thick with cannon fire and death screams and the wet crunch of British bayonet against patriot flesh. I would recount how I had given Owen’s honored father powder during the chaos of the ignominious retreat. With blood and limbs and musket balls flying about us, the air acrid with smoke, the British slaughtering us with imperial fury, I had taken the time to aid to a militia volunteer, for we had shared a moment of revolutionary comradeship that defied our differences in rank and station. The tale kept the drinks flowing.
Owen took my mug, poured in some whiskey from an unstoppered bottle and hot water from a pitcher near the stove. He set it down before me with a considerable thud.
“Some would say you’ve had your fill,” he told me.
“Some would,” I agreed.
“Some would say you’re abusing my generosity.”
Owen turned away and I opened the watch once more, setting it upon the counter, where I might stare at the tick of its hands and the girl who had meant so much to the merchant. To my right sat an animated skeleton of a man in a ragged coat that covered remarkably unclean linen. His face was unshaved, and his nasty eyes, lodged between the thinning brown hair of his crown and the thickening brown hair of his cheeks, stole glances at my prize. I’d seen him come in an hour earlier and slide a few coins across the bar to Owen, who had, in exchange, handed a small parchment sack to the ragged man. Owen did a brisk trade in that greenish powder called Spanish fly, though this man, his magic dust in hand, seemed content to sit at the bar and cast glances at me and my timepiece.
“I say, fellow, you are looking upon my watch.”
He shook his head. “Wasn’t.”
“Why, I saw it, fellow. I saw you setting larcenous eyes upon my watch. This very one.”
“Ain’t,” he said, looking closely at his drink.
“Don’t you speechify at me, fellow. You were coveting my timepiece.” I held it up by the chain. “Take it if you have the courage. Take it from my hands while I observe you rather than skulking in the dark like a sneak thief.”
He continued to gaze inside his pewter mug as though it were a seeing crystal and he a wizard. Owen whispered a word or two to him, and the skinny gawker moved farther down the bar, leaving me alone. It was what I liked best.
The hands of the watch moved. It was strange how a man could find himself in so morose a state. Only a few days before I had considered Dorland’s pursuit of revenge as a vague amusement. Now I was content to let him kill me. What had changed? I could point to so many things, so many disappointments and failures and struggles, but I knew better. It was that morning, coming from my rooms and seeing the back of a woman half a block ahead of me, walking quickly away. From a great distance, through the tangle of pedestrians, I had seen a honey-brown coat and, above it, a mass of golden-blond hair upon which sat a prim if impractical wide-brimmed hat. For a moment, from nothing more than the color of her hair, from the way her coat hung upon her frame, from the way her feet struck the stones, I had convinced myself that it was Cynthia. I believed, if only for an instant, that after so many years and married though she was to a man of great consequence, Cynthia Pearson knew I now lived in Philadelphia, knew where I lived, and had come to see me. Perhaps, at the last moment, recognizing the impropriety, she lost her courage and scurried away, but she had wanted to see me. She still longed for me the way I longed for her.
It lasted but an instant, this utter, unassailable conviction that it was Cynthia, and then disappointment and humiliation struck me just as hard and just as quickly. Of course it had not been she. Of course Cynthia Pearson had not come to knock upon my door. The idea was absurd, and that I should, after ten years, be so quick to believe otherwise testified to how empty was my sad existence.
When Owen returned, I closed the watch and put it away, and then I drained my drink. “Be so good as to pour another.”
Owen hovered before me, shaking his head, his mug handle of a nose blurring in the light of the oil lamps. “You can hardly keep yourself sitting. Go home, Captain Saunders.”
“Another. I am to die tonight, and I wish to do it good and drunk.”
“I daresay he is already quite drunk,” said a voice from behind me, “but give him another if he likes.”
It was Nathan Dorland. I needn’t look, for I knew the voice.
Owen’s eyes narrowed with contempt, for Dorland was not an imposing figure. Not tall, not broad, not confident or commanding “Unless you’re a friend of Captain Saunders, and from the look of you, I’m guessing you ain’t, I’d say this is none of your concern.”
“It’s my concern, because when this wretch is done with his drink, I mean to take him outside and introduce him to a concept called justice, with which he has been all too unfamiliar.”
“And yet,” I said, “I am familiar with injustice. Such irony.”
“I don’t know your complaint,” said Owen, “and I know the captain well enough to trust you’ve got your cause. Even so, you’ll not harm him. Not here. If you’ve a grievance with him, you must challenge him to a duel, like a gentleman.”
“I have done so, and he has refused my challenge,” Dorland said, sounding very much like a whining child.
“Duels are fought so early in the morning,” I said to Owen. “It’s barbarous.”
Owen looked over at Dorland. “You’ve heard it. He has no interest in fighting you, and you must respect that. This man is a hero of the Revolution, and I owe him a debt for my father’s sake. I’ll defend his right to fight or not fight whom he wishes.”
“Hero indeed!” Dorland barked. “I suppose when he is spinning tales of his time with Washington, he may have neglected to tell you the one in which he is cast out of the army for treason. Haven’t heard that one? Ask him if you doubt it. Captain Saunders’s career ended in disgrace, and as to the matter of your father, be assured he tells every tavern keeper in Philadelphia that he fought with his father or brother or uncle or son. Our friend here has given so many doomed men powder, he is like the angel of death.”
Owen’s eyes glistened in the light of the fireplace, and I shrugged, for I had been caught. I would not shy away from an untruth, but it seemed a contemptible thing to lie about a lie.
“I was at Brooklyn Heights,” I said. “I might have seen your father. And no matter what you may hear said of me, I can promise you I was never a traitor. Never.”
My words only served to make Owen more teary. He looked over at Dorland. “Leave now. I don’t want trouble, and nor do you.”
“What does he owe?” I heard the ease of wealth in Dorland’s voice. “I’ll pay his debt.”
Owen said nothing, so I spoke. “’Tis near eleven dollars.” It wasn’t true. I owed less than six, but if Dorland was going to pay for my death, at least Owen should profit from it.
I heard behind me the music of metal on metal, and then a purse landed hard upon the bar. “There’s three pounds of British in it,” said Dorland. “Near fifteen dollars. Now Saunders comes with me.”
I nodded at Owen. “’Tis my time. Thanks for the drinks, lad.”
I pushed myself off the rough wooden stool, and the room turned to a wild and topsy-turvy thing, with the floor leaping up toward me and bar stools taking flight like startled birds. I reflected on the danger of drinking so long without rising—that it is often hard to say precisely how drunken one has become if there is no new movement against which to test oneself. And then I believe I lost consciousness.