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Available for pre-sale Summer of 2012. Launches in January 2013.
From his earliest days as a midshipman in the new American Navy to his eventual ownership of a vast shipping empire, Richard Holmwood displays an uncanny sixth sense for the sea, and heroics. Richard battles Barbary Pirates off North Africa, then earns a fortune as a privateer during the War of 1812, where he is called “The Killdeer” by his enemies.
At war’s end, the Navy sends Richard to defend the Great Lakes territory. At that remote outpost, Richard and his young wife and family struggle with unimaginably harsh weather and isolation, longing to return to their home in coastal Virginia.
This sweeping story of American history shows personal triumph and frontier spirit that overcomes tragedy and loss.
All seven men piled into the whorehouse with little regard for gentlemanly behavior. They hooted and laughed and pushed each other chest-to-back into the ornate house in a fashionable neighborhood above the harbor. It wasn’t actually a whorehouse, but rather a rented house that this night was to function in that capacity. The men were young naval officers, veterans of a recent, daring success over the Barbary Pirates, and soon to be the darlings of the American public at home and abroad. What they were getting tonight was just a taste of how grateful their nation would be and what heroes they would become once the news spread further than the north of Africa. They were about to begin a long series of public celebrations, but tonight’s affair was private. It was the gift of a wealthy shipping merchant whose fleet was now safe to sail the North African coast, no longer forced to pay tribute for safe passage. The business of this same merchant had been strangled by insurance fees when insurance was even available, so any men who could give a good slap to these “damned pirates” deserved a night to remember. The merchant’s gold and the right connections had bought just such an evening for these young officers. They were being provided a huge and luxurious house, well-stocked with liquor, food, and numerous ladies of the evening.
Most of the officers had paid to consort with whatever tradeswomen were available in North Africa, Syracuse, or even Gibraltar, but tonight’s ladies were of a vastly different set than what they had sampled in the Mediterranean. These women were not common whores raked in for hasty work, but elegant creatures approaching the caliber of courtesans, well-read, beautiful, and very, very skilled. The officers ranged in age from seventeen to twenty-seven, and they were all raucous and randy, but after one look at their hostesses, they settled down. The dozen or so ladies seated around the room tonight resembled sleek and elegant cats, and just like housecats, they came in a variety of colors and coats. They were all beautiful, and each had a pinch of danger for flavoring.
One of the men was Lieutenant Richard Holmwood, a tall blonde with amazing blue-green eyes. His face was burnished by the sun and his hair bleached almost white. Richard was one of those men with light-brown hair which turns blond when touched by the sun. Darker hair in his brows and lashes set off his eyes. Richard looked around the room at the women and suddenly felt nervous. He sensed as they entered the room that it was the men being measured up tonight rather than the other way around. An older woman stepped forward and introduced herself as the “sponsor” of the ladies, then urged them all in to dinner. Two of the women appeared on either side of Richard, and he found himself escorting them into the dining room. The women looked hungry for more than just food, and Richard eyed them fearing it was quite possible he would embarrass himself before morning. The two women who had taken his arm could sense his anxiety, and they found it absolutely charming. They winked a silent pact with each other to share this youngster and guide him faithfully.
The sun was nearly up the next morning when the seven men tumbled into two waiting carriages to return to their inn. They had been in bed most of the night although none of them had slept a wink. Richard found himself in a carriage with the three youngest officers, and they lolled on each other barely able to sit upright. The carriage had not gone two-hundred yards before all four were slumped over each other asleep like a litter of exhausted and sated puppies.
Sisters have an easy time of finding their place in a family, but for brothers it is vastly different. Richard was next to the youngest of the four sons of Gabriel Holmwood, a merchant captain, and they lived near Hampton, Virginia. A gap in age between the elder two and the younger two sons left Richard somewhat of an outcast. Micah and Thomas were the older brothers, and as such, the young gods of the household. Richard was too young to be included in the older boys’ exploits and too old to have fun with his younger brother, David. The baby of the family was Susanna, and her brothers alternated between tolerating, tormenting and adoring her. For Richard, finding his place was a daily struggle.
Gabriel Holmwood’s fleet was comprised of two good-sized barques and six smaller vessels. He traded strictly in the Chesapeake Bay. He had ventured far up and down the coast during the War of Independence and he preferred now to sail within the comfortable sight of the Bay shoreline. There were other seamen who claimed the blue waters of the deep ocean, but Gabriel would stick with the green and brown of the Chesapeake. He had prospered staying close to home and saw no need to leave his family any longer than necessary. His clients were happy with his services and he had made a tidy sum. His sons inherited his love of sailing and were like a swarm of water bugs up and down the river in any number of the family’s small sailing vessels. A neighbor was once heard to say, “You mean to tell me there are only four of those boys. I swear there must be eight or ten. For God’s sake you see ‘em wherever you go on the water!”
Micah and Thomas would always take the best of the vessels moored at their father’s pier. They would go off on their adventures which amounted to little more than catching fish and racing with other boys, leaving Richard with whatever vessel was left. He usually had to make some repair or adjustment to the boat before he could use it, but Richard loved to tinker and tend the boats as much as he loved to sail them. He would get a vessel in such good shape that it was one his brothers would take next time. It wasn’t just that he repaired and cleaned, but he adjusted the rigging as well until it was as efficient as possible for catching the wind. Over the summer, the Holmwood boats would become faster and more seaworthy as Richard continually refined them, until they could not be touched by any other little fleet. Richard took Micah and Thomas’ abuse in stride, and by constantly repairing the boats, he became a master of squeezing every ounce of power from the wind. At age eleven he was a much better sailor than either of his brothers and many fully-grown men.
Occasionally, Richard would give in and take seven-year-old David with him. They would haunt the creek banks looking for crabs or snakes or try their luck for fish on a crude line they had set out. More than once Richard and David successfully caught fish and had been roasting them over a fire when the older Holmwood boys swarmed in and took the feast by the simple right of more muscle and height. At these times David would cry, but Richard saw it simply as the way of power in the world. After one particularly nasty incident of piracy though, Richard set about to get even with Thomas and Micah.
The next time he and David were out fishing, Richard made a big display to his elder brothers of the fish they had caught by holding them up on their stringer, letting the sun glint off their wriggling bodies. Richard and David then sailed away to cook their fish on the bank of a small island near the western shore of Point Comfort.
The older boys waited until they thought the fish was just about ready to eat and then commenced their raid. Micah and Thomas stalked the cooking spot, but found it deserted; however, on a crude spit over the fire were two fish about eight inches long, perfectly cooked. The fish had been raised up off the fire to let them cool, and to their delight Micah and Thomas found Richard had been kind enough this time to add pepper and salt. The fish were the perfect size and small enough that their bones became soft in cooking so that they could be held in one hand and eaten whole like a banana. The younger boys had been obliging enough to take the heads off the fish, and now Micah and Thomas stood with their conquest in their hands, ready to take the first bite. “I bet I can eat mine faster than you,” Micah dared Thomas.
“You shouldn’t eat those,” Richard said as he stepped forward from the trees, sounding braver than he felt.
“Yeah? Who is gonna stop us? Certainly not you, Toad,” Thomas sneered at Richard. Richard looked at his brother’s leering face and noticed Thomas was getting a beard. It was not as thick as Micah’s, who had just turned fifteen, but it was beginning. Thomas was only three years older than Richard, but the gap in boys at that age might as well be a century. As Thomas held his stolen fish, he felt the power of every one of those years he had over his little brother and said, “Just try to take it from me.”
Richard stood mute while Thomas and Micah eyed each other holding their fish. Micah counted, and on three they both took a huge bite. On the same count of three, Richard bolted back toward the shore where David stood holding the boat with its sail already up and luffing in the breeze. As Richard crossed the low dunes near the shore, he heard howls of disgust and rage behind him. He waited grinning while David, his eyes huge with terror, begged him to get back into the boat. Richard shook his head with a wicked smile and said, “Just wait.”
Richard and David had cleaned the fish as they always did, but this time they had placed fresh, well-formed dog turds in the body cavity of each just as it finished cooking. The heat from the fire warmed the feces and turned it to a noxious paste just waiting to be gobbled by the greedy older brothers. The dog custard had only been the first act, and Richard waited now for the encore.
That morning both he and David had forced themselves to drink as much as they could from the spring before they left the house, and their bladders had been nearly bursting as they showed off their catch to Micah and Thomas. When they reached the island to do their cooking, and before they even built their fire, they peed into two large beer mugs, smiling and sighing as they relieved themselves. They then placed the mugs in plain sight of the fire as they did their cooking.
Micah and Thomas had instinctively reached for the beer mugs to wash the dog mess from their mouths only to find it wasn’t beer at all. They came crashing and smashing for the beach just as Richard and David shoved off, and the wind filled their little sail. Richard looked back over his shoulder and saw the older boys lying face down on the sand, sucking up the brackish water they would normally never drink as they alternated between cursing Richard and spitting jets of water. Richard turned his back grinning, but headed straight for home. It would probably be best to be in the house and under the aegis of his mother, or their nurse, Wrennet, before the older boys caught up with them. David looked back at the shore, and though he was still scared, he flashed a small conspiratorial grin at Richard, who winked back at him from his perch by the tiller.
The older Holmwood boys were never inventive enough for real vengeance, so they simply pushed and shoved Richard when they could get away with it, but this had little lasting effect on his sturdy frame. Richard knew they wouldn’t dare hurt him seriously for fear of what their father or mother would do to them, and he tried to convince David of this, but David lived in constant terror of his eldest brothers. The older boys tried to get Richard in trouble with their father, but Gabriel Holmwood was easygoing, if not indulgent, so it usually came to nothing. The older Holmwood boys continued their ineffective bullying of Richard, but it only served to make him tougher. This war between brothers might have continued for years had it not been for an event that altered their lives forever.
The silence of the sleeping house was shattered by screams and the pounding of running bare feet. Richard met Micah and Thomas in the upstairs hallway, their faces white with shock. “What’s wrong?” Richard asked, as Micah held up his hand for him to be quiet. They listened and then there were more moans and a scream. “It sounds like Zanna,” Richard said, referring to his sister by her nickname, but then another scream ripped through the house and this time there was no mistaking it as David’s. “Something is happening to both of them,” Richard said as all three moved down the hall toward their parents’ room. They crowded through the door to find David, Susannah, and their mother writhing in agony on the bed. Wrennet and their father, still in their nightclothes, were bent over the three.
“I’ll go check on the other boys,” Wrennet said, turning to leave when she caught sight of them staring wide-eyed in the doorway. She asked, “Are any of you ill?” They all shook their heads, staring in mute horror at the others on the bed. “Come with me,” Wrennet said, pulling them from the room and closing the door. “Micah and Thomas, you must go and get Doctor Wailey. Go together, and go quickly. Your mother, Susannah, and David are very sick. I think it’s something they ate.” Micah and Thomas nodded and ran to get dressed. Within minutes they were riding barebacked-double on their father’s horse. Thomas held a lantern in one hand as he clung to Micah’s waist, and Wrennet urged them, “Be careful, but go fast, and then you come right back here!”
Wrennet had given all three of the sick ones tartar emetic, causing them to vomit explosively. She feared too much time had elapsed and the unknown poison had invaded their blood. She had thought to give them another dose of the emetic but concluded it would not do any good. Little Susannah had nearly choked to death with the first dose. She had been vomiting when a painful spasm struck her abdomen. She inhaled to scream, sucking the vomit into her lungs. Wrennet had turned her upside down to help clear her lungs, but the damage was done.
The whole family, including Wrennet, had eaten the same thing, so why would only the three of them be ill? Wrennet stood by the side of the bed while Gabriel waited by the front door, barefooted with his nightshirt hastily tucked into his trousers.
Dr. Wailey, Micah, and Thomas arrived within twenty minutes, and the doctor examined the three patients. He ordered more tartar emetic and bled them, but he only added to their agony. The screams went on for several more hours and Richard overheard Dr. Wailey say to his father in the hallway that he did not believe they would survive the night. It appeared to be poisoning, probably from mushrooms. “But we all ate the mushrooms,” Gabriel said. “Why only these three?”
“That is the way with mushrooms. You can eat them twenty times, and the twenty-first time you eat them, they kill you. I know people who have picked them successfully for forty years, and then one day they pick the wrong one,” Dr. Wailey said as he dabbed with a cloth at some vomit on his waistcoat. He added sadly, “I also think the mushrooms build up in the blood, and one final dose is too much. It is strange that three people would be affected at the same time, but it is not unheard of. Mrs. Holmwood was ill with a fever a month back, and the little ones would not be able to fight the poison as well, so the three of them were weaker. I am sorry, Gabriel, but there is nothing I can do. You can already see the cyanosis in the little ones. Her lips and fingernails are beginning to turn blue.” Richard had listened to what was supposed to be a private conversation, and then he tore silently down the stairs and into his father’s study where he stood leaning against the closed door. Panic more than sadness overwhelmed him. His mother had been the rock of his life, and with her gone, and David and Zanna too, he would be left as the sole target for Micah and Thomas. Catherine Holmwood had a way of making everything better for her children and Richard couldn’t imagine life without her.
After an hour in the study, Richard crept out from his hiding place and hid under the stairs, wanting to be closer to people but still shielded from the agony upstairs. He sat digging his nails into his palms until he could not stand it any longer, and then he put his hands over his ears. He felt like a coward, but he had to block the noise. He began to pray that they would stop screaming and around three in the morning he began to pray they would die. If they couldn’t survive, why did they have to suffer? His prayer was answered after another hour as the screams turned to moans, the moans to sobs, and then the sobs to silence.
Gabriel came for Richard and took him upstairs. “You must hurry if you want to see Mama while she is still alive.” He stepped now into his parents’ room and saw his mother propped up against the lace-trimmed pillows. Had she not been in her own room and wearing her own nightdress, he never would have recognized her. He quickly averted his eyes only to see David and Susannah’s small bodies wrapped in sheets on the floor near the window. Richard had no idea David and Susannah had already expired. Catherine had insisted, while she still had strength, that she and her babies would stay together until the end and leave the house together.
Richard walked slowly to the bedside, wanting to look at his mother, but not wanting to see her either. He reached out and touched her face and her eyelids fluttered and for just a second he had a glimpse of her indigo eyes. Catherine tried to reach for him, but she was too weak. Richard caught her hand and held it as he sat on the edge of the bed with the smell of vomit threatening to gag him. Once more he saw her blue eyes, and then she was still. Richard felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Micah. This was not the goading, threatening Micah, but one stricken and softened by grief. He gently pulled Richard away to stand next to him so their father could sit on the bed next to Catherine. Thomas stood on his other side, and the three brothers witnessed their mother die. Richard felt Thomas slip his arm around his waist and then Micah put his arm across his shoulders holding him. The three watched their father hold their mother’s hand until her last breath, and then they slowly left the room. She would now become no more than a shape wrapped in a sheet beside her youngest children, and they had no need to see it.
The cemetery service was a blur, and several times over the next week Richard was awakened from his sleep by David or Susannah calling to him. Twice he had gotten out of bed and dressed, determined to go to the cemetery and dig them up, but as he stepped outside in the cold, the reality of the chilly air would chase the tendrils of the dream away, and he would assure himself they were indeed dead. He shouldn’t have been fooled by the dreams because he had touched them both in their coffins, and they felt cold like a stone floor underfoot, and they would never rise again.
Time is the greatest of healers, and as the Holmwoods went through the motions of living, their world slowly returned to some sense of normalcy though they knew it had altered forever. Micah and Thomas called a truce in their warfare against Richard, but replaced it with something even more painful. They completely ignored him. They still took the best boat at the pier, and they still bossed him out of the way, but they really didn’t put their hearts into their abuse unless they had some friends to witness it.
This ignoring of Richard made the humiliation of the brothers all the more acute, when in front of everyone they knew, Richard took first place in the small river regatta Hampton hosted on Independence Day that summer. Had Micah and Thomas been completely honest with themselves they had known for a while that Richard was a breed apart when it came to sailing. Unfortunately, for them, all of Hampton Roads now knew they had been bested by their little brother. Richard took first place over two dozen boys, most of whom were older.
Richard possessed that sixth sense shared only by the very finest seamen. It was an awareness of the wind and the sea that cannot be taught, learned, or bought, but like any other gift from God, exists freely. This gift did not just exist in Richard Holmwood, it thrived.
“My heart may have gone east to Virginia, but my soul is still in Michigan.” The author and family make their home in Virginia Beach, Virginia.