July 4th, 1777
To His Excellency George Washington, Esquire,
Commander in Chief of the Armies of the United States of America
The enclosed news of a great threat against you requires your immediate action. On the second instant, I stumbled upon a heinous plot devised by Major-General Sir William Howe and General Charles Mitchell of the British high command. While I listened from hiding, the generals discussed the mission of their agent, a British captain named Parker, who has enlisted in the American army under a false name. An unknown number of accomplices support Parker, for the sworn purpose of capturing you and delivering you into General Howe’s hands. Failing that, Captain Parker’s orders are to assassinate you by any available means.
I assure you of the truth and veracity of this warning, and I beg you to take heed. My esteem for Your Excellency and my gratitude for the hope you bring forth in this glorious struggle have made me forever,
Your Obedient Patriot Servant
Swirling mist cloaked the trio of rebel soldiers galloping furiously toward a rendezvous. Raking spurs across lathered hides while shouting urgent commands, the riders thundered over muddy roads that snaked up hillocks and plunged through wooded defiles blazing with the colors of autumn. Deep in shadowy pinewoods, where a farmer’s cart track formed a crossroads in the gloom, the ragtag band of soldiers reined their winded mounts to a halt, withdrew pistols from saddle holsters and ranged across the roadway to await their prey.
Hearing the rattle of an approaching coach, its sluggish horses urged on by the sharp crack of a whip, they rose in their stirrups, poised to strike.
“Stay sharp, boys,” warned their energetic leader, a muscular fellow of middling height. “They’ll be armed. Shoot to kill if you must.”
Drawn by four beautifully matched sorrels, a large black coach, trimmed with scarlet and gilt, appeared over a rise and rumbled toward them.
Brandishing pistols, yelling like demons, the rebels swept forward, their fearsome charge causing the stunned coachman to haul back on the reins, abruptly halting the team, sending his passengers tumbling from bench seats inside the vehicle. Not about to tempt fate, the coachman quickly raised his hands. The footman, lacking his companion’s good judgment, sprang from his perch wielding a compact blunderbuss, his focus the rebel leader. Taking aim with the bell-mouthed weapon, he failed to detect the rider who circled behind the conveyance and clubbed him behind the ear with a pistol butt, pitching him onto his face. Leaping down from his horse, the man bludgeoned him again with a vicious blow, then removed the blunderbuss from his limp fingers.
The rebel leader threw open the coach door. “Get out!” he commanded the occupants, motioning sharply with his flintlock.
Robert Sinclair, prominent merchant and descendant of British aristocracy, alighted first. An imposing figure in black wool broadcloth, ruffled stock and beaver cocked hat, he surveyed the marauders with an imperious glare, as though considering unruly servants. His crisp, incisive voice revealed a man who expected obedience. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“Shut your mouth. Ladies, would you have me drag you out?”
Two women stepped from the coach, one middle-aged and graying but glamorously handsome, the other young, a dark haired beauty of such arresting face and figure that the rebel leader paused to appreciate the sight of her. A roguish grin spread over his face. “Who have we here?”
Maddie Graves kept silent but raised her chin a notch. Only a week ago, she and her stepmother had been living in Robert Sinclair’s town house in British-occupied Manhattan. Now, after a journey fraught with perilous ferry crossings and unscrupulous innkeepers, she found herself in this wooded glen near Philadelphia, facing an entirely different threat. As she locked stares with the rebel leader, her racing mind registered details of his commanding yet threadbare presence—auburn hair graying at the temples, fraying uniform spattered with mud, black fantail hat bearing a faded cockade. Something about him struck a chord in her memory, a vague familiarity she could not quite place, though she knew she had seen him before. Despite his worn appearance, he exuded natural authority and the awful aggression of someone about to launch an attack. His glittering stare seemed to pierce through her.
Robert Sinclair broke the charged quiet. “She’s no concern of yours,” he snapped. “Now what the devil do you want?”
The rebel leader’s eyes flashed with annoyance. “Search him,” he ordered his men.
Over Sinclair’s protests, they stripped off his coat, dug into his pockets, rifled his waistcoat and forced him to remove his boots. They ripped away his powdered bob wig, revealing a head of close-cropped, steel gray hair, but the headpiece held nothing of interest.
“Search the coach.”
“Now you listen to me,” Sinclair angrily asserted, recovering his wig from the muddy ground. “We’re innocent civilians, and you’ve no right—”
The rebel jammed a gun muzzle under his chin. “I said shut your mouth.”
Sinclair sucked in his breath, quelling a retort, for the chilling expression behind the weapon bespoke death if he said anything else.
After searching the coach, the rebel’s men disappointedly shook their heads.
He stalked through mud to confront the two women, crowding them against the coach. “Who’s first?”
Whimpering in fright, the older woman sagged against the vehicle, a hand pressed to her heart as his malevolent gaze bored into her eyes. “Maddie,” she whispered, her scrabbling fingers clutching the young woman’s arm.
Maddie Graves stepped between her terrified stepmother and their antagonist. “Take heart, Agnes. I won’t let him harm you.”
“Well now,” he leered, “a brave little volunteer.” Again he looked her over, as one might inspect an exceptional filly for sale, her form fine and lithe, with a wonderfully slender waist and a full bust shown to advantage by a tightly laced riding habit. “Come here, girl. Let’s see what you’re hiding under your petticoat.”
To her alarm, he seized her bodice, yanking her to him, then reached a grimy hand down to hike up her skirts. She struck his face with all her strength, the impact stinging her palm. The fist that bashed her cheek knocked her against Agnes, who moaned and crumpled in a heap.
Quivering with outrage, Maddie held her throbbing cheek. She now had the measure of this man, and with her eyes ablaze she warned him, “Don’t you touch me again, you by-blow of a whore.”
His nostrils flared. Gripping her shoulders, he flung her to the ground, followed her down and drove a knee into her stomach, pinning her in the mud. As she pummeled him with her fists, he yanked up her skirts, exposing a pair of exquisitely molded legs encased in pink silk stockings held up by ribbon garters above her knees. He gripped her sleek thigh, his questing fingers probing higher, only to stop shy of his goal when she screamed as though wounded. After a moment’s hesitation, he renewed his assault, though now his resolve seemed diminished, even forced.
Maddie Graves, sensing his reluctance, fought back with increasing fire. Heaving upward with maddened strength, no longer feeling or fearing any contact, she clawed for his face. She managed to rake his cheek, carving bloody furrows in his flesh.
His balled fist rose like a mallet, making her cringe behind warding hands. Abruptly he paused, head canting as he listened intently. “Boys, did you hear that?”
In the next instant, the pounding of hooves and the crash of splintering pine boughs shuddered through the air. As the startled rebels turned in confusion, a horseman exploded from the woods astride a snorting, wild-eyed stallion. Wielding a brace of pistols, with a savage yell he bore down on the rebels, took aim at their dumbfounded leader and fired, sending sheeting flames and whistling lead at his target. The ball pierced the rebel’s arm, the impact knocking him to the ground. Staggering to his feet, he bellowed in pain, “Goddamn you!” and dove for cover.
Wheeling his big bay charger around in billowing smoke, the rider drew a bead on a second rebel, who knelt behind a frozen Robert Sinclair, attempting to use him as a shield while leveling his own flintlock. Lead whipcracked from the horseman’s pistol. The rebel yelped in agony, clutching his right shoulder as blood seeped between his fingers. Steel hissed as the horseman drew his saber. Sawing on the reins, he dug in his heels and charged the remaining threat. Confronted by flashing, deadly hooves, the third rebel wisely dove aside, but as he rose again to fire, the horseman swung his blade. Sparks flew as steel struck steel with a ringing blow. The rebel’s pistol went flying, his hasty shot winging harmlessly into the trees.
The rider then circled for another assault, maneuvering between the marauders and their would-be victims.
“Retreat!” cried the rebel leader, but his companions were already scrambling onto their mounts.
Whipping the saber above his head, the horseman galloped after the fleeing men, chased them over a low rise, around a bend, out of sight of the coach, leaving Sinclair and his party staring after them in breathless wonder.
A distant gunshot rang out, followed by a muted, piteous wailing that roused Sinclair from his trance. Urging the women back into the coach, he helped his coachman lift his unconscious manservant inside and laid him on the bench seat facing the women.
As the group prepared to flee, the horseman reappeared and cantered toward them. His saber blade was coated with blood, his face flushed with excitement beneath his three-cornered hat. Reining in, he wiped the blade on his pant leg, slotted it back into its scabbard, and immediately began to reload his silver-mounted pistols with practiced, absent motions. As he worked, his steady gaze assessed the shaken travelers. “Is everyone all right?”
“Mr. Moody took a nasty knock on his head,” said Sinclair, “but I think he’ll recover. What’s your name, young man?”
“Ethan Matlock, sir.”
“Mr. Matlock, you have our eternal gratitude for routing those villains.”
“Don’t mention it, sir. They had it coming.” Biting off the end of a paper-wrapped cartridge, Matlock poured the charge into the muzzle, removed the wooden rammer and pushed the ball down the brass barrel to seat it atop the powder. The wadded brown paper followed. “I’ve been trailing those three for the past hour,” he declared, priming the flash pan with fine powder from his flask. “Their troop ambushed a British patrol. Once the spoils were divided, they split off from their friends and rode straight here.” Eyeing Sinclair, he tilted and then lightly tapped his pistol to knock a few grains into the touchhole. “Almost as if they were expecting you.”
“I hadn’t realized what a lawless place this would be.”
Matlock smiled without humor. “Where the armies go the law soon departs.” A far-off pattering of gunfire punctuated his remark.
“We were told General Howe was victorious at Germantown, and Philadelphia was now in his possession. We were also informed, by a reliable source, that the approaches to the city would be well-guarded by British patrols.”
“You heard wrong, sir. These roads are so thick with rebels you can hardly go amiss of them.”
“Mr. Matlock,” Maddie Graves spoke up, “may we prevail upon you to escort us to safety?”
Matlock nodded his assent, tipping his hat while appraising her. “By all means, Miss.”
“Are you from these parts?” asked Sinclair.
“Not far ahead is an inn where we can take our bearings and perhaps summon soldiers to assist us.”
His pistols reloaded, Matlock secured them in his saddle holsters. “I’ll ride ahead, sir. Watch behind us for trouble.” Touching his heels to the stallion’s flanks, he cantered away.
With a sharp whip crack and a protesting whinny, the coach-and-four set out after him at a fast clip, rumbling up the rise, around the bend, to where three bloody bodies lay sprawled in a ditch.
Matlock retrieved two of the rebels’ mounts and those weapons not fouled with mud. Tossing the coachman a pistol, he then led the captured horses behind the conveyance and tethered them to the footman’s step. Quickly mounting up, he scanned the woods all around, alert for any sign of danger. His concentration intensified when he noticed Maddie Graves at the coach window, her expression melancholy as she surveyed the corpses in the ditch. Weak afternoon light revealed the bruise beginning to darken her cheek. When she looked at him directly, Matlock could not resist exchanging a lingering glance. He needed no one to tell him that this was no ordinary wench. She had a wondrous presence, compelling his attention with the power of her gaze. Only after she withdrew from view did his thoughts return to the business at hand.
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This page contains the first chapter of The Devil Take Tomorrow by Gretchen Jeannette as a sample. This sample has been published with permission from the author and/or publisher of The Devil Take Tomorrow, whoever originally submitted the book for review.