"Damn them all!" cackled the merchant, not for the first time. Then his smile broadened as he glimpsed, through autumn leaves, the upper arm of Narragansett Bay.
Duncan Middleton had ridden out from Boston early, taking the post road whose windings had carried him inland for many wearisome hours. Far from streets full of people and fine carriages, he had lately seen only villages, tedious stretches of woodland, and empty stubble fields left to the crows that cawed from the treetops, well above the rustling, slithering, hopping life that foraged below.
Carefully, he uncurled gnarled fingers and reached beneath the scarlet cloak that covered his bent and withered form. It should be said that his curious shape was due to a gouty disposition of the joints: the merchant was barely fifty. But he had already acquired the face of an old man who cultivated a wintry soul. Certain acquaintances had been heard to comment, in private, that both face and twisted skeleton served to warn men of the merchant's undernourished and corrupt spirit . . . as Jehovah had probably intended when he made him that way. Others thought better of invalids, if not of Duncan Middleton.
But now, on this mild October evening, the wizened rider felt almost kindly as he gently stroked something held against his chest. Satisfied, he breathed deeply of the brisk salt air. Was it a love of the sea that made Middleton's small, sunken eyes lift and sparkle briefly? Unhappily, no--the merchant's pleased expression was born of his belief that what he smelled on the air was profit. He already had a hoard of money--enough to buy courtesies from others whose manners and breeding were far better than his own. But, as he often said, more money never hurt . . . and everyone knew that a shipping fortune was never entirely safe. With a few fierce storms, or an unseen reef or two, one could be ruined. And who would shed a tear?
Well, at the next milestone, he would see. The next milestone . . . one of those set up by order of the Great Man, Middleton sneered to his mount in lieu of anyone else to complain to. He'd always said the stones were a waste of money, erected only to mark Franklin's own advancement on Fortune's road. But on this evening, in a rare burst of good humor, the merchant decided to excuse "Poor Richard." At the next milestone, Middleton intended to do a quiet bit of business himself.
The thin, tired nag that carried him stumbled over the deeply rutted soil, occasionally lifting its head to the whine of gulls above. Ill-fed and rarely rested, the horse had again grown used to shivering under the cut of its owner's whip. Now, although it had no way of knowing, its troubles were nearly over.
Middleton continued to strain his eyes across the glinting waters ahead. He entertained mixed feelings about what he saw. Like many others who took their living from the ocean, he rarely allowed his own body to brave her rolling green waves. In fact, the death of his last brother by shipwreck three years before had hardened his suspicion of the sea, however much that event had pleased him. Oh, young Lionel had been a worthless relation--shunned by a family who disapproved of his gambling and his lusting after things he was unable to pay for, and forced to become a sailor. When he eventually sank to his final reward, Lionel followed the lead of the merchant's pious brother Chester, a truly tedious soul, and was followed in turn by a spinster sister, Veracity, who had been "as chaste" (and as cold) "as unsunn'd snow."
Middleton didn't miss any of his siblings at all. With the pack of them gone, none were left to try to steal from his corpse, with the help of their lawyers, what he'd managed to pull together into a considerable fortune even by Boston standards. His own death would simply be the end of the line. And the ornate tombstone he planned would be a fitting memorial to the last and best fruit of a dead branch of the family tree. Where the rest of the money would go would be Duncan Middleton's final surprise for the good people of Boston.
Curiously, there were still several gentlemen living in that city, entirely unrelated to him, who believed they might receive a piece of his fortune when Middleton went to meet his Maker. These birds of prey (who nested in law firms and merchandise warehouses) had lately given him far more entertainment, as he watched and baited them, than Lionel, Chester, and Veracity together had ever managed to do. The crooked man looked forward to keeping the vultures guessing. He would continue to enjoy seeing them squabble among themselves, making flattering, unctuous bids for his favor. Just let them try to gain from his death--years away, at any rate. Recently, he even thought some of them had secretly followed him about Boston . . . probably trying to glean details of his holdings, or to find something in his activities that might be held over his head.
Damn them all!
The purpose of this particular trip might have surprised even those who thought they knew the worst about the merchant's ways. Middleton had started out after receiving an answer to a letter of his own on the previous evening. The missive had made his lips curl with its promises."I foresee no trouble in transporting the commodities you require, and selling same, regardless of their eventual use...."
The merchant had wisely burned that letter to keep it from Mrs. Bledsoe's notice. The old biddy only knew that he would be gone for at least two days. She would be free to gossip and pry where she might, as she went about her housekeeping duties. Still, she would never guess what he was up to, nor see the end of the lucrative plan he was about to set in motion.
Abruptly, the traveler's thoughts of home were interrupted by the hurrying approach of another horse and rider. After a few moments, they overtook him and passed by, probably making for shelter before night fell. Duncan Middleton averted his face, giving the passing stranger only the back of his wig and an edge of his tricornered hat, until the other had gone.
If all went well, he thought as he rode on, it would be a simple matter, this buying up of cheap turpentine and black powder (but quietly, through an agent) before mixing them with a bit of rum from his stores. Once the doctored item had been recasked, it would be sent inland by someone who had nothing to do with the coast trade.
The deadly new product would be difficult to trace back to him. On the frontier, it would be as welcome as any other intoxicant, and would be bought up by enough willing customers to make him a quick and satisfying profit. If a few delicate guts were poisoned by the drinking of it--why, they might have known better, and couldn't they follow their noses to save their lives? Most who bought would be heathens and savages anyway, and good riddance.
His knobby hand continued to fondle the bag of Dutch gold kept snug and warm beneath the red wool cloak. If all went well, he could soon laugh at the backs of the blasted customs men who peered out to sea. Not that he generally disliked these men; most of them were quite sympathetic, and took pity on a hard-pressed merchant--took bribes, really, for overlooking the outrageous and rarely paid duty of sixpence a gallon on non-British molasses.
(The commodity was, after all, one of the mainstays of colonial shipping. Everyone knew that much of the coast lived by sending fish, lumber, and livestock to the British, French, and Dutch sugar islands, in exchange for their dark syrup. Brought back to Massachusetts, it then went into dozens of distilleries, and came back out as rum that could be easily moved, and sold for a large profit at home or abroad. Some went as far as Africa, where it was traded for slaves, who were shipped to the sugar islands, where they were sold for more molasses, which would again be brought back to the colonial distilleries. It was a system that worked and would continue to work, because everyone concerned could share in the profits. Well, nearly everyone.)
Lately, however, rumors from London suggested that special interests might soon prevail, and that far stiffer controls could be expected within the coming year, now that Grenville had hold of a depleted royal purse . . . as well as the young George's ear. The coffeehouses had been full of it for weeks.
(Thirty years before, old George's infernal Molasses Act had threatened to stop the Triangular Trade with its tariff on the foreign syrup, that now satisfied more than two-thirds of the distilleries' demand--had even with the war going on! Thankfully, war or no, the Act's provisions had never been much enforced. But what if that were to change?)
There was even an absurd new idea of requiring customs officials to actually live
in the colonies--instead of staying safely at home in England, leaving their responsibilities to colonial men who were paid nearly nothing.
(It was almost unnecessary to pay such men anything at all. Everyone knew where to find their pockets, and had long stuffed them with a little something extra, to feed their families. If the Crown started paying them a decent wage, their eyesight might improve dramatically. Next, they'd be expecting shipping manifests to actually agree with goods carried! Then, where would everyone be?)
Long an avowed Tory, Duncan Middleton had lately become interested in Whiggish ideas of liberty, and British abuse of the colonies--which he often read about in the newspapers--although he also felt it was a shame they gave encouragement to the rabble. Still, noisy mobs might keep the long arms of the king and his advisors busy, and away from things that didn't concern them, like warehouses, and cargo holds.
Suddenly the sea wind hit him fully, and he had a clear view of a nearly spherical moon rising through the trees. Pulling wool closer for warmth, Middleton gave a harsh laugh.
In Rhode Island, away from the old Commonwealth, Britain saw far less, and a man of business could do far more. Of course a great many of Providence's men of business were pirates plain and simple--if few went to the trouble of stealing on the high seas. Not unlike himself, smiled the sly old merchant. Let Sam Adams and the rest in Boston earn His Majesty's displeasure: the Crown would soon make it hot for the City on the Hill. Meanwhile, he
would build a second home to the South while he fleeced the frontier.
And so, thoughts of death and taxes, pain and profits winged peacefully about the merchant's head on this quiet evening, complimenting each other pleasantly. The fading light had left the sky a soft rose, and the sea sent up moonlit reflections of lilac and silver.
That must be the final milestone up ahead, and there was a figure waiting just off the road, standing in the shadow of a leaning pine. Next to it stood two oxen and a loaded wagon, as promised. Soon, Middleton thought, he would go on alone to Providence. He looked forward to a very large bowl of crab bisque, and a dozen or two of oysters, for he was keenly hungry. But business first.
Once more, capriciously, he whipped the shuddering animal beneath him, and hurried on his way.
It might be mentioned that the gold the merchant carried off was of an interesting and unusual stamp. Separate bits of it would soon leave a glittering trail as they lay around the countryside like autumn crocuses. And watching them from the shadows would be an old reaper. He, too, would appreciate their bright, ageless bloom, while he held a scythe to the ready in his grasping, bony hands.
Excerpted from A Wicked Way to Burn by Margaret Miles. Copyright © 1998 by Margaret Miles. Excerpted by permission of Crimeline, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.