A TRAITOR AMONG US
September 24, 1777
It was long before dawn and I had not yet slept. There were so many thoughts tumbling through my anxious mind. I did not want to wake my sister with my tossing and turning, so I rose to start my chores for the day. I dressed quickly without the aid of the oil lamp, closed the bedroom door behind me with a soft thud, and hurried to the kitchen. I reached for my apron where it hung on a hook next to the back door and tied it over my skirts as I slipped outside.
I stood near the door for several moments, listening. The only sound was the occasional far-above rustling of bird wings as they flew toward the south in great flocks. Cold weather would be here soon. The bird songs I enjoyed in the daylight were absent, lending an unsettling hush to the darkness.
It was not unusual for me to be out-of-doors in the early morning, but this time was different. This time, not far away, I knew a stranger shared the darkness with me. A stranger who did not belong here. I hoped he was still asleep and that I could retrieve my washing tub without waking him. Something in my abdomen flipped over and twisted, reminding me to be quick and silent.
Fog swirled low above the ground. I hurried past the storehouse, which we were filling every day now with more bounty from the late summer’s crop of fruits and vegetables, and on toward the barn. The fog shifted, its wisps pulling apart and forming again as my shoes padded along the damp ground. I held my lantern aloft to dispel both the darkness and my relentless worries as I approached the barn that stood nestled against the woods that separated our home from the waters of the bay.
I set my lantern down to retrieve the heavy iron key from my pocket, before realizing with a start that the door was slightly ajar. I whirled around and peered into the darkness that had crept behind and surrounded me, but I heard nothing. Saw nothing.
I shook my head, chiding myself for my silly fears. Of course my brother, Jesse, had forgotten to lock the door.
It was Jesse’s job to take the animals out every morning and return them to the barn every evening. It was also his job to make sure the door was locked when the animals were inside the barn. I would not tell Mother or Father of this carelessness, but I would have to mention it to Jesse. For all we knew, a party of British soldiers might come foraging for supplies and livestock in the barn. I wondered if the stranger—Oliver Doolittle was his name, though speaking it left a sour taste in my mouth—was inside. I presumed he was. He was lazy, so he was unlikely to be awake and moving about at such an early hour.
I placed the key back into my pocket and stooped to pick up the lantern again. I stepped gingerly into the gloom of the barn, taking care to be as quiet as possible. I listened for the snufflings and snortings of the animals and was relieved to hear their comforting murmurings. I approached the stalls and small pens, trying to count the animals in the darkness to make sure they were all there, but I abandoned my task after just a few moments. The animals, annoyed that I had awakened them, were making known their displeasure with a series of loud grunts, clucking, and lowing. I moved away as quickly as I dared, hoping their sounds had not awakened Oliver, whom I suspected—I hoped—was still asleep toward the rear of the barn.
I did not relish being alone in the barn in daylight, let alone in the grim darkness of predawn and with the knowledge that Oliver slept nearby, so I made haste, as quietly as possible, to retrieve the washtub I had come for. It hung on the back wall. As I made my way toward it my skirts swished against rough-hewn boards, tendrils of hay that protruded from wooden mangers, and the large crates of corn husks that Prissy and I would soon use to make floor mats and stuff the mattresses in the guest rooms of the inn.
I stumbled as I reached the back wall. My lantern swung wildly in my hand and cast long, grotesque shadows on everything the dim light touched. I very nearly exclaimed aloud, but I caught myself in time and pressed my lips closed.
I reached for the washtub and set it down on the ground with a hushed thump as the lantern flame stabilized. I knew there was no hope that Oliver would remain asleep now.
Whatever had tripped me needed to be put away, since I knew I would be blamed if Mother came out and tripped, too. I picked up my skirts and looked down, then gasped.
A man lay at my feet.
When I saw his head cocked at a strange angle, his shirt front slashed in several places, and his eyes staring at me with a glassy emptiness, my horrified scream broke the morning stillness, reaching through the woods and echoing over the waters of Great Egg Harbor Bay.