Waverly had just managed to steal a soft-boiled egg from Wynonna when her sister was distracted enough, as heavy footsteps thumped down the stairs.
“Here, have some coffee,” mama handed their father a steaming mug as soon as he appeared in the doorframe. “I didn’t even hear you come home last night. Did you have to drive Mr. James to the city again?”
“Yeah,” came a grouchy response from Ward, as he joined the three of them at the small round kitchen table for breakfast. “The Beekmans were attendin’ some reception last night ‘n yah know how they like to prolong those things.” He was visibly tired, his face covered with a day’s stubble, his clothes wrinkled and scruffy, his eyes bloodshot from the lack of sleep.
They lived on the outskirts of the City of New York in a small two-story stone house on Bowery Lane, just east of the marshes and a few blocks from their father’s employers – the Beekman family. Mr. James had built a mansion on top of Mount Pleasant about ten years ago, providing numerous jobs to the local residents. Even though she had been sad to see their favorite hill for playing be developed all those years ago, as an adult Waverly appreciated her father’s steady income and a significantly reduced appearance of bourbon in their home.
And she was an adult now, wasn’t she? Just five months shy of her 18th birthday.
“Oh, I think I see some red feathers outside. Ain’t that a cardinal, Waverly? It’d be the first one this spring,” her father pointed at the window behind her back, causing Waverly to turn hastily in her chair.
“I don’t see it, daddy.” Swaying from left to right on her chair to get a better vantage point to see outside, Waverly frowned. She turned around to a sight of him pilfering her soft-boiled egg.
Ward winked at her. Waverly pouted. Wynonna stuck her tongue out.
Well, technically, it was Wynonna’s egg, to begin with, but Waverly had really hoped for just one more spoonful of a runny yoke this morning. Perhaps, if she searched the straw bedding in their chicken coop again after breakfast, she’d find one more egg that had magically eluded collection at dawn.
A thud against the front door, indicating a newspaper delivery, stopped mama from verbally expressing her exasperation with the Earp clan. With a soft smile that betrayed the disapproving shaking of her head, she headed outside. The day was warm and sunny, unlike the past week of gloomy rains, and a breeze of fresh April air entered the stone house as mama opened the door. The noises permeating from the outside mingled with the sounds of Ward’s spoon tapping against the egg and its shell cracking.
Wynonna got up to put the tea-kettle over the fire, picking up some of the dirty plates off the table and placing them in a washbasin. About to join her sister in cleaning after breakfast, Waverly was stopped by her father’s hand on her upper arm. He peeled the shell off the top of the egg, expertly cut the very tip off of it, exposing a runny yolk inside, and tossed a dash of salt on top. When mama threw a rolled-up gazette on the table in front of him, Ward picked it up, quietly sliding the egg cup toward Waverly.
She was still unaccustomed to his fatherly presence and took the proffered egg cautiously, her eyes not once leaving his face now hidden behind the large newspaper spread. Her early memories of him mostly included drunken outbursts; things had undoubtedly gotten better on that front after he found employment as a coach driver for the Beekmans, but her oldest sister Willa getting married to a British merchant and promptly being whisked away to England a few years ago had made him withdrawn and taciturn. Willa was his firstborn, after all, shouldering all of his dreams and expectations.
“Now, that’s it!” Ward exploded suddenly, tossing the gazette on the table. “There’ll be no more tea in this house, yah hear me?!”
Waverly dropped the spoon and cowered in her chair, surprised with the abrupt outburst and aggression.
Up on his feet in a mad fury, he wreaked havoc in the kitchen, searching the cabinets and gathering all their tea cans. “I was quiet when they pass’d the Sugar Act ‘n I was quiet when they pass’d the Stamp Act, but enough’s enough,” muttering and still barefoot, he stormed outside, mama close on his heel. Waverly vaguely heard him grumble something about the lobsters and the bloody backs and a full-circle back to the fucking lobsters. Through the window, she saw him toss the tea leaves from each of the three cans into the wind – even mama’s favorite.
“Has daddy been drinking again?” Waverly asked quietly, her voice shaking.
“Nah, pops hasn’t given a bottle a black eye in years,” Wynonna replied, calm and assured as always. “I’m sure it’s fine, Waves. Look, I’ll just steep some red root leaves, and it’ll taste just the same.”
But Waverly wasn’t concerned about the tea. “What’s gotten him so riled up, though? You don’t think… You don’t think he’s going crazy, do you? I mean, why is he so upset with lobsters all of a sudden? And what do the poor critters have to do with tea?”
Instead of a response, Wynonna sent a signature shrug her way, soundlessly saying, “Beats me.” She moved around the table to collect Ward’s plate, dislodging the gazette he’d abandoned so abruptly. The front page read,
Shots Fired against the Brave Patriot Militiamen in Lexington and Concord. The City of Boston Now Under Siege.
Waverly snatched the paper, as Wynonna hovered behind her shoulder, mouth agape. She scanned the page quickly; the date indicated April 19th – just yesterday. Was this the beginning of the war everyone has anticipated for years? Waverly may have been young, but she wasn’t entirely naïve; it was unreasonable to believe that the so-called Patriots – a bunch of untrained militiamen, armed with a hodgepodge of weapons – could face a regular, organized British army and come out victorious. The newspaper article skimmed over the details, but it did appear that the militia at Lexington and Concord had simply gotten lucky, while the British regiments hadn’t expected any resistance.
The front door opened vigorously, banging against the wall. “Ward, just calm down and listen to reason for one goddamned minute!” mama yelled at their father’s back. Seeing both of her parents upset and angry was like watching a natural disaster unfold – in awe with its beauty yet completely unable to stop the carnage.
“I said what I said. I shall join the fight ‘n that’s that,” headed upstairs, Ward didn’t even spare a backward glance at their fuming mother, who began pacing the length of the small kitchen.
“Don’t worry, mama. Pops’ll cool off in no time, and he’ll see there is no easy way to get his ass to Boston.”
Mama was distracted enough with all that pacing and head-scratching that she didn’t even scold Wynonna for her foul language.
A loud knocking announced an unexpected visitor. Waverly rushed to open the door and was met by John Henry Holliday – their father’s friend and Wynonna’s unlikely suitor. Dressed impeccably as always in a ditto suit of matching blue coat and breeches, a black waistcoat, and a blindingly white cravat covering his neck, he was a sight for sore eyes. Waverly gave him an unseemly long hug – if there was anyone who could talk their father out of this preposterous idea, it certainly was John Henry.
“I believe you are showering the wrong Earp sister with affection, Mr. Holliday,” came Wynonna’s teasing from the kitchen. Waverly extracted herself from John Henry’s embrace, rolling her eyes fondly at her sister’s antics. The man was old enough for Waverly to place him in the same category as their father, although Wynonna, six years older than Waverly, didn’t protest greatly when Ward announced his desire for her to allow John Henry’s courtship.
Turning around to face her sister in the kitchen doorway, Waverly was met with a stormy forehead and lips set in a thin line, already paling from the force keeping them together. Her eyebrows raised involuntarily at an unusual display of jealousy – whenever the subject of John Henry came up between the two of them, Wynonna’s responses typically seemed noncommittal, indifferent, and aloof, almost on the verge of apathy. Waverly grabbed John Henry’s hand, grinned, and skipped a step, pulling him behind her to the kitchen. Oh, but did she finally find something to tease her sister about.
“Michelle. Ms. Earp,” clutching a three-sided cocked hat in his palm, John Henry greeted the women with a polite nod. A barely-there smile ghosting his lips indicated that Wynonna’s jealous reaction didn’t go unnoticed.
“Have you heard of Lexington and Concord?” Hands resting on her hips, mama stopped pacing and faced their guest. Well-mannered greetings seemed to have been lost to the wind along with her favorite tea leaves.
John Henry cleared his throat and schooled his features. “I did, indeed. I am here to share further news with you if you’d allow.” Upon receiving a nod in acquiescence from mama, he briefly looked down at his feet and took a deep breath, “My services have been requested in a capacity of a captain to the Connecticut Colony militia. My company has orders to march northeast immediately and assist with the defense of Boston.”
Waverly gasped involuntarily, while mama threw her arms up in defeat and started pacing again. The only person seemingly unmoved by the news was Wynonna, who remained standing by the kitchen table, arms crossed over her chest, stoic eyes burning into John Henry.
“Ms. Earp, if I may…” he began pleading with Wynonna when their father barreled down the stairs.
“Hank! As I live ‘n breathe, I’d never been so happy to see yah, yah old fool!” He had his old hunting rifle, which Waverly hasn’t seen in years, thrown over his shoulder, and was carrying a leather satchel filled haphazardly with clothes. The brown socks he carelessly put on his shoeless feet inexplicably drew Waverly’s attention; the right one was threatening to slide off, while the left one was pulled on so tightly, his large toe was making an appearance in their kitchen through a pronounced hole.
Holding John Henry at arm’s length, eyes locked, Ward patted his upper arms dramatically and somewhat tenderly.
“I’m sure glad to see you as well, old friend,” John Henry whispered.
Waverly couldn’t pinpoint why the storm that passed over mama’s forehead felt familiar until she looked back up at her sister and saw the exact same expression painting her features. In the past, she had associated that look with jealously, but she must have been mistaken. It wouldn’t make any sense for either one of them to be jealous in this scenario. Her eyes darted back to the men. Maybe it was just anger. Or disappointment. Or… Or…
John Henry diverted his eyes to the floor and cleared his throat, “I’m here to bid you farewell. I am headed for Boston today.”
Her father grinned, full and bright, “No need to be gloomy. That’s fantastic news, as I’m lookin’ for means to get to Boston myself.”
Just then did John Henry notice the rifle and satchel in Ward’s hand and his lips spread in a matching smile, “Now then, this is what I would call a mighty good cause for celebration!”
“Give back my egg, Étienne, or I swear…” Nicole growled quietly under her breath so that their mother wouldn’t hear them.
Not even taking a second to look up at her from his plate, he continued to peel off the eggshell. “Or what?”
“Ugh, you’re such an idiot,” she tossed a rolled-up serviette at him.
He sputtered indignantly, “And you’re… you’re a beef-head!”
“Give it back!” Getting up to her feet to retrieve the stolen egg by force, if necessary, Nicole was equally stopped by the cumbersome petticoat obstructing her movement and the voice of their mother entering the kitchen.
“Nicole! Leave your brother alone. This childish behavior is rather unbecoming of a young lady.”
“He stole my egg, mother. An egg that I bought, with the money that I’d earned. But you always have to take his side, eh?” She walked over to the washbasin, rinsing off the breakfast dishes to calm her temper.
“Now, Nicole, you’ll never find a suitor to marry with that attitude! I had allowed you to take over your father’s weaving business when you came of age, under the assumption that you would soon have a husband to relieve you of those duties. Why can’t you follow Étienne’s example? Only 20 years of age and already engaged to a daughter of a fur-trading merchant,” her mother’s annoyed tone interlaced with notes of pride and honey at a mention of her brother.
Oh, I’d gladly marry a daughter of a fur-trading merchant as well. She had to bite her tongue. Leave it to her mother to change the subject so skillfully. Nicole rolled her eyes but didn’t offer a riposte; they’ve had this exact argument numerous times prior. After hastily drying her hands on the kitchen rag, she tied her pockets about her waist and put on a blue short-gown to head out. Focusing on the embroidered pattern on the pockets, Nicole avoided her mother’s eyes she felt drilling holes into the side of her head.
She walked briskly to the front door to evade yet another charged discussion about her chosen profession and marital status – she enjoyed being a spinster by trade and – at 24 – saw nothing shameful in being referred to as such for entirely different reasons. Her rushed departure was stalled by Mr. Nedley – their neighbor and her late father’s friend – who was stood just outside their door, arm raised as if he was just about to knock.
“Ms. Haught!” He was unreasonably surprised to see her, given that he was stood on her porch. Running anxious fingers over his unfashionable mustache, he continued, “May I come in? I have some news to share with your family that can’t wait.”
“Of course,” Nicole moved to the side to allow him entry. Outside, she noticed his daughter, Chrissy, loading luggage onto a horse cart but the woman didn’t return her waved greeting, clearly upset with something. Huh, quite curious for the typically chirpy girl.
Mr. Nedley clearing his throat brought her back to the guest stood in the hallway. “Please follow me. My mother and brother should both still be in the kitchen after this morning’s meal.”
“Randy, what a pleasant surprise!” Her mother was up in an instant. “Can I offer you some tea?”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary, Anna. I’m bearing news that I’m afraid are not quite pleasant.”
“Well, please take a seat at least,” her mother pointed at one of the vacant kitchen stools.
“Étienne,” Mr. Nedley greeted her brother, taking the proffered seat.
Nicole took off her cap and her short-gown but kept them in her hands, ready to leave as soon as Mr. Nedley was done.
He took a deep breath. “There is no easy way to say this… The so-called American patriots led by General Montgomery captured Montreal last night. His army is said to be marching toward Quebec City as we speak, as is another division under Captain Holliday, approaching directly from the south. They will converge here within a couple of weeks. As I am now in charge of the city’s defenses, I will issue a proclamation this morning requesting evacuation of women and children, and requiring all remaining able-bodied men to take up arms, lest they be assumed a rebel or a spy.” He stated the last part looking straight at Étienne.
“That’s awful good for you to give us a warning. We’ll start packing at once,” her mother got up to her feet. Étienne was a beat behind her, dabbing his mouth with a serviette in preparation to get up.
Nicole couldn’t conceal the surprised expression that sneaked onto her face uninvited. “I’m not leaving.” Receiving a stern look from her mother, she continued in what she hoped was a determined tone, “I’m going to help with the defenses however I can.” She couldn’t be sure, but something akin to relief and gratitude crossed Mr. Nedley’s face.
“Now, quit this nonsense. We’re Canadien, Nicole. This is not our fight,” her mother chastised, shaking her head.
Ignoring her, Nicole spoke the next words directly to her brother, “Yes, we are. But our father was Scottish, and he died fighting for the King, protecting this city. It’s our duty, Étienne.”
Her brother looked at her gaping, like a fish fresh out of the water. As always, their mother came to his rescue, “Your father was a fool who left me with two small children, fighting for a country he barely remembered and a king who could not care less about us!”
Mr. Nedley shuffled uncomfortably on his stool, visibly uneasy with the unexpected family quarrel. He fought alongside their father at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham 16 years ago, defending the city from the French. Nicole was certain he didn’t appreciate his late friend being referred to as a fool, especially not after he, alongside hundreds of others, had died defending the very same city that was now under threat. She also knew Mr. Nedley was too polite to contradict her mother.
“You told us our father was a hero,” Nicole took it upon herself to defend his name.
“What else was I supposed to do?!” shaken and upset to a degree Nicole has never seen her before, her mother countered. “You were eight years old, Nicole; your brother was barely four… Your father left us to fight in a battle that meant absolutely nothing for our well-being and the well-being of Quebec City. He left us, Nicole,” she whispered, “and don’t be mistaken – it matters not one bit whether the city is governed by the British, the French, or becomes a part of an independent colony, as the Americans would fancy. Not one bit.”
“Mother is right, Nicole,” Étienne stepped in before she had a chance to refute. “The British have treated us right – we can practice Catholicism and speak French freely without fear of persecution. But we’re Canadien, and we’re under no obligation to oppose the American forces, nor are we bound to join their plight for independence. Better let it be.”
Her father’s unruly red hair – much like hers – and his kind brown eyes flashed in Nicole’s memory. He used to take her to his wool shop, teaching her how to use a spindle, always spinning tales of Scotland and weaving in lessons of loyalty and duty to the Crown. Étienne was but a toddler when he died, and Nicole blinked rapidly, suddenly realizing that he probably didn’t even remember their father, that he had never experienced running through hundreds of woven threads hanging from the ceiling, laughing at their father making scary noises pretending to be Bodach – a Scottish bogeyman.
Looking back at her mother, Nicole took a saddened breath. Never before had she realized her mother’s pain – they had never been close, her mother always favoring little Étienne for his obedience and tame nature, so different from Nicole’s defiance and at times an overwhelming sense of pride. She never considered that her character, as much as her appearance, reminded her mother of the husband she lost so prematurely to a cause she didn’t even agree with.
“We don’t always see eye to eye, but you have to let me do this,” Nicole searched her mother’s face. “For his memory,” she added in a whisper, watching as the typically solemn, rigid features broke into a tearful expression. She opened her arms and allowed the shorter woman to fall into a crushing embrace. “Je t'aime, maman,” Nicole whispered into graying black hair.
Meeting Étienne’s eyes above her mother’s weeping shoulder, Nicole was sure she was staying in the city alone.
Nicole was jarred out of sleep by the bells of the Notre-Dame-des-Victories church. It was happening – the Americans were finally mounting an attack. She blindly patted the nightstand in search for matches to light a candle; it felt like early morning hours, but it was still dark enough outside it could have been midnight. The blinding snowstorm she could see raging out the window didn’t help with visibility one bit.
Candle alit, Nicole put on a pair of brown leggings and wool stockings, both left behind by Étienne. Him being only a few centimeters taller allowed her to wear his leggings and breeches without an excessive need for tailoring. Involved with the city defenses over the past weeks, Nicole had discovered the freedom of movement offered by leggings. During these trying times, nobody cared much about the lack of skirts on her person. To keep herself warm, she threw on a couple of her shirts and a wool capot she recently acquired instead of her short-gown. Grabbing a toque on her way through the door, she jogged to Mr. Nedley’s – General Nedley’s, she hastily corrected herself – house, battling the blizzard.
Infrequent roars of the artillery stationed outside of the city walls didn’t draw much of her attention anymore. When the Americans started shelling the city three weeks ago, Nicole had been a mess of nerves, jumping at every discharge of the batteries. Nedley had taken pity on her and walked her over to the top of the palisade. From the vantage point, it had been clear that the American artillery, set up on the opposite side of the St. Lawrence River, was too far from the city walls to be effective. Since the frozen ground prevented their enemies from entrenching their weapons, half of the American mortars had already gotten knocked out by the British cannons defending the settlement.
Not even bothering with knocking, Nicole entered Nedley’s house, where numerous men were bent over a large city map strewn over his dining table. Offering her a nod in greeting, Nedley announced, “That’s everyone, then. It appears that our reports were correct – many of the Continental Army’s enlistments expire with the end of this year, which has forced both Montgomery and Holliday to mount a last-ditch attack on this beautiful New Year’s Eve.”
Somebody snickered, and Nicole smirked in response – there was nothing beautiful about the blizzard raging outside.
Although not much was given away by his expression, Nedley’s tone grew fractionally more somber, “The city is under attack from three directions. Montgomery’s army has approached the outer defenses of the Lower Town from the Saint Lawrence River,” he pointed at the southern tip of the promontory on the map. “The sentries noticed the lanterns guiding the Americans in the blizzard and rung the church bells. The enemy broke through the palisade, but Montgomery was shot by the militiamen trying to navigate the narrow streets.”
“I’d never imagined there would come a day I would praise the layout of our convoluted streets, eh?” one of the men remarked.
Nedley’s mustache twitched, but he continued as solemnly, “Holliday’s forces are advancing toward the docks and the Sault-au-Matelot barricades. This is where I want to focus our defenses. However,” he pointed at the western walls, “there have also been reports of shots fired right outside of St. John’s Gate. If they break through the palisades there, we’ll be surrounded within the Upper Town. I need to verify these reports to ensure that concentrating our forces in the north is the right call and to know how many reinforcements to send west. Ms. Haught?”
Nicole was ready. When she’d volunteered to stay and aid the militia, Nedley had redirected her enthusiasm toward scouting and carrying messages. She’s prepared herself over the past six weeks, memorizing city shortcuts, running every day to gain endurance, and delivering messages from the spies. “Yes, sir?”
“Scout St. John’s Gate, the enemy’s numbers, and our militia stationed there. I will march the remaining forces to the Palace, just a couple of blocks north-east of where you’ll be, and will prepare to flank Holliday from the north. Report to me immediately if the defenses at the gate are getting overwhelmed, and I’ll assist them instead. Understood?”
She studied the map – St. John’s Gate wasn’t even a kilometer away; she could run there in five minutes if the weather weren’t this bad. Scouting in the blizzard would also be more difficult and exceedingly more dangerous. Swallowing hard, Nicole nodded. “Yes, sir. I will report back to you in half an hour.”
Receiving a nod of affirmation, Nicole turned on her heel, pulled the tuque over her ears, and darted into the storm.
Her back against a half-destroyed barricade, Nicole was sat on the frozen ground, panting. The blizzard had passed hours ago, only a few straggler snowflakes were falling around her now, late to the party. Late to the fight. In a post-battle daze, she couldn’t help but follow their descent to the ground with unseeing eyes. The first ray of sunshine broke through the heavy dark clouds just as the church bells rang ten times.
The battle was won, Americans surrounded and short on ammunition, Montgomery was killed and Holliday severely injured, yet there were no cheers of victory. Nicole felt empty; her ears were ringing with musket shots, her eyes couldn’t unsee the dead bodies peppering the streets that just yesterday had teemed with life.
“Ms. Haught… Ms. Haught… Nicole!” Her eyes snapped up to General Nedley. His gentle smile was marred with concern. “We won,” he whispered, sliding to a sitting position against the barricade next to her with grunts of dissatisfaction.
“We won,” she agreed.
Nedley nodded, adding after a brief pause, “In no small part thanks to you.”
Nicole looked at him questioningly.
“All of my captains were nagging me about the shots reported by the western walls. About how I ought to send a division to reinforce St. John’s Gate.” Nedley shook his head in disbelief. “You were the only scout who assessed the situation for what it was – a feigned attack to distract us from the main action against the Lower Town. Had I kept those forces there… or worse – had I reinforced them by pulling away from our main defense against Holliday…” He didn’t finish, but the implication was clear.
Turning to see him more fully, Nicole noticed a torn piece of fabric wrapped carelessly around his upper right arm, already soaking in dark maroon. Not knowing how to respond to the implied praise, at least not now when the fresh snow was still painted red all around them, she chose to change the subject instead, “You should have that looked at, sir.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Nedley dismissed with a wave of his uninjured arm. “In a minute. I like the serenity of this place.”
His grouchiness and stubbornness brought a small smile to Nicole’s lips. She sighed. “Serenity, eh?”
“Uh huh,” he confirmed.
The comfortable silence between them was eventually shattered by a familiar noise of far-away artillery. Nedley groaned, “I was hoping Holliday died from that ghastly wound to his leg, but apparently nothing will kill that devil.”
Nicole’s eyebrows pulled together in concern, “What now, sir?”
“Now? It would appear that we’re under siege again,” he shrugged. “But if our reports are correct, Montgomery’s army fled after his death and Holliday lost at least 75% of his men, whose enlistment expired with today’s sunrise. He won’t attack again.”
She nodded in understanding. Seeing Nedley reluctantly struggle to his feet, Nicole helped him up, earning an awkward pat to the shoulder, “Get some rest, Ms. Haught. You deserve it.”
“Yes, sir!” she mocked a salute, which earned her a chuckle from the typically solemn man.
Walking away, Nedley offered over his shoulder, “I’m glad you stayed, Nicole.”