The knock at the door came quickly: three sharp raps, a pause, followed by two more. For all the world it might have been a code, yet none in the house rightly spoke the language.
That it signaled danger could not be debated.
Seth Ward rose from his rocker, the Lawrence Gazette he had been reading slipping from his lap to the wooden floor. It landed with a soft swishing noise, hardly enough to disturb a sleeping babe, yet he flinched as though the periodical rattled the walls. Finger to lips, he signaled for silence. Barbara Nelander-Ward, his wife, nodded understanding and softly ushered two older children and the sleeping babe into a rear bedroom.
Before completing the tactical withdrawal, a small pup, teeth bared, body quivering in righteous indignation, raced between her legs. Viciously yapping, the animal squared itself by the main entranceway, a narrow line of fur bristling down its back like a solitary row of corn. The hound’s sudden silence bore testimony to the fact Seth had slipped a hand around its muzzle.
Inside the sleeping chamber, the children formed a close-knit circle.
“Who is out there?” Patricia whispered. As the elder of the non-commissioned crew and senior able-bodied seaman of the farm called Pirate Treasure, she took it upon herself to speak for Peter, her brother, and their infant sister, Paula.
“I don't know,” Nelander responded in a command tone befitting the many years she had worked aboard a real sea-going vessel. “It is best we take precautions...”
Times being what they are.
She did not finish the sentence. In the opening months of 1861, it had already grown old by repetition.
“Shall I get my cutlass?” Peter queried in a brave, ten year-old’s voice. “If it’s trouble, I want to be ready.”
“Say, rather, it is the unknown,” his stepmother advised.
“But I want to be prepared to defend the house. And you and Captain Papa and —”
“Enough. It is an officer’s duty to protect. You will receive your orders. In the meantime, stay here. Do not emerge until given the all clear.”
Expecting them to obey, she cast a loving glance at her sleeping daughter then tiptoed out, sealing the door behind. Lowering the wick in the kerosene lamp to make her and her husband less of an obvious target, Nelander merged with the night shadows, rejoining Seth by the entrance. The fact he had grabbed the deer rifle from the wall and cradled it in the crook of his arm augmented rather than lessened her discomfiture.
"Have you looked out the window? Who's there?"
He shrugged. “Whoever it is, he's standing outside my line of vision. Can’t make him out.”
Professing ignorance of the summons provided no escape. Granting the stranger had seen the lamp burning through the window, he could reasonably expect the family to be home. Waiting too long might incite ire. Refusing to answer altogether implied fear.
Giving their enemy, if so he turned out to be, an edge.