—Boston Federal Courthouse, June 2, 1854.
They wanted more blood, no mistake, and he found it hard to blame them. Outside, the crowd’s roar seemed almost inhuman—a howl as unrelenting as a raging storm at sea.
A well-aimed brick proved their resolve. It shattered the last unbroken window on the ground floor of the courthouse, landing not a foot from where Third Lieutenant Andrew Gunn crouched inside. A quick glance through the window verified that after four hours of slinging rocks, bricks, and epithets at the building, the mob in the courtyard had not tired, still threatening to storm the courthouse doors, as they had the night before. In fact, their number had grown at least by half in the last hour.
Mid-afternoon shadows cast a partial twilight over the courtyard. He peered over the windowsill at the livid faces in the throng, fearing—among other equally horrid things—that he might recognize a neighbor, maybe even a friend or two among them.
He shook his head. Not likely, though, was it? He had so few true friends, after all. Come to think of it, if this current predicament had been, say, a shipwreck at sea, he and all his friends could have abandoned ship together in a small skiff with room to spare. Hang it, there’d even be space enough for a half-crazed ship’s cat to have run of the boat. After today, there’d likely be more room for the cat.
There was no such escape from his sworn duty as a federal officer.
In all probability, he’d already lost some relationships, thanks to the judge’s verdict, condemning a fugitive slave’s return to servitude, which had precipitated this raging tempest. The rising tide of public opinion against the heavy hand of the federal government finally had breached a long-held protective barrier of civility, lately worn thin. The split now divided families, friends, and neighbors from each other, leaving them stranded as though on either side of a gaping sound, newly formed. No safe harbor was to be found. Not now. Not for the foreseeable future.
He again ducked below the sill, as the most reliable man among his band of thirty edged up and knelt beside him.
“Kettle’s about to boil over, Mr. Gunn.” Boatswain Thomas Nelson took a swig from a canteen, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and offered to share. “And where the blazes are the Boston cops, anyhow?”
“I’ve been wondering the very same thing, Nelson.”
“Well somebody needs to do something. Them people evidently don’t take too kindly to the notion of sending runaway slaves back to their masters. They ain’t likely to just pick up and go home quiet.”
“Now, whatever gave you that idea, bos’n?” Gunn drank deeply from the canteen. The tepid water tasted of their ship’s dank scuttlebutt, but it was the only refreshment to pass over his tongue since his morning tea.
Nelson screwed up his mouth into a wry smile and shrugged. “Call it a hunch, sir.”
Gunn drank again, too fast, coughed and passed the canteen back. Part of him, perhaps the best part, wanted to be out there among the protesters. But, there was nothing for it at the moment. “Yeah, well, truth be told, I don’t blame them. I’m not real fond of the idea, myself.”