On the island of Key West, during the American Civil War of the 1860s, Aaron Mathews is a Yankee spy sent to eliminate a Rebel saboteur. Aaron’s search is complicated when evidence points to the woman he loves.
This enchanting mix of historical details, intrigue, mystery, adventure, and romance has been chosen by the Key West Art & Historical Society to be featured in connection with the Civil War exhibit at KWAHS’s East Martello Tower museum.
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from Chapter 3 of Mudsills & Mooncussers, A Novel of Civil War Key West
At dawn the next morning, Josephine Marie Thibodeaux entered her brother Richard’s bedroom expecting to find it unoccupied. She beamed with surprise and delight when she beheld a slumbering form behind the mosquito netting. Thinking Richard had somehow regained his sanity and stayed away from yesterday’s war-bound English schooner, she leapt upon the sleeping form, hugging it about its middle.
“Wretched!” she cried happily.
The bed’s occupant was shocked out of a sound sleep and bounded up to grapple with its attacker, sending them both to the floor in a tangle of bedclothes and mosquito netting.
After a frantic scramble, two heads burst from beneath the linens, one shouting “What are you doing here?” at the same time the other shouted “What the devil do you think—?”
Joe continued, “You’re not Wretched!”
“As many ladies with … intimate knowledge of me will attest,” said Aaron Matthews with a grin.
They began untangling themselves from the bedclothes, Joe with the object of getting out of them—Aaron with the object of keeping at least a portion of them wrapped about his loins. The girl was fully clothed, but Aaron had been sleeping in the nude. Even in winter the nights were tropically warm on Key West.
“This is Richard’s room!” declared Joe.
“Dear me, I understood it to be vacant. At least, that is what Captain Thibodeaux indicated when he let it to me last evening.” Aaron finally succeeded in disengaging himself from her. He sat (appropriately swathed) on the bed while Joe backed across the room to press her posterior against the door.
“I had the impression from your parents,” said Aaron, “that while your father and all the other wreckers were racing to the reef to save my unfortunate St. Gertrude, good old Wretched Richard was sneaking off to join the Glorious Army Of The Confederacy.”
Joe was pressing door splinters into her backside in her haste to get out of the room. “I’m going turtling before it gets too light. I only came to get the poking stick … here it is … I’m sorry I disturbed you, Mister …”
“Matthews. Joe, isn’t it?”
“I gotta go. It’ll be light.” With that she slipped out the door and closed it behind her.
Aaron snatched up his clothes, from the chair where he had piled them, and jigged into them.
Minutes later, on a deserted beach, Joe had pulled the hem of her lightweight cotton dress between her legs, back-to-front, and tucked it into her belt to form blousy pantaloons. Her floppy straw hat brim flapped like wings in the breeze as she strolled along hard-packed sand at the water’s edge, three-foot poking stick in one hand, boots dangling by their laces in the other.
“Good morning, again,” said a familiar bass voice.
Startled, she looked up to see Matthews sitting in the soft sand at the base of a tree, plainly waiting for her. She walked faster. “Mornin’.”
Aaron stood, brushed the sand from his clothes, grabbed his shoes, and hurried to overtake her. He had gone to considerable effort to determine where she might have gone and to arrive ahead of her. He had not asked himself why; it simply seemed important at the time.
The morning sun burned brightly. Joe stopped, squinted against the glare, and gestured to the distant shoreline in dismay. “Oh, see! O-o-o-h, I knew it would be too late. It’s all your fault. We could’ve turned her.”
Aaron squinted in that direction. “Turned whom?”
Joe pointed. “The loggerhead. See, she’s gone back to the sea. Just a minute sooner and we’d have caught her on the beach. Maybe she’s laid!”
At that, Joe dashed to the turtle’s tread-like marks in the sand and began back-tracking them away from the water, poking at the soft sand on either side of the tracks with her stick.
Many yards from shore she emitted a squeal of delight and fell to her knees, digging furiously.
Aaron trudged through the soft sand to stand over her excavation.
“Take off your pants, Mister Matthews!” she demanded, still digging.
“Young lady, not only am I shocked at that request, but I am unaccustomed to hearing it from people who do not know me well enough to call me by my Christian name.”
Joe dug faster. “It’s your fault we’re late. The very least you can do is help.”
“By taking off my pants?”
“You got drawers on, ain’t ya?”
Aaron unbuckled his belt. “Indisputable logic if ever I heard it,” he said.
Hanging his belt with its brass buckle over his shoulder, he stepped out of his pants and dropped them next to Joe on the sand. The heavy brass buckle of the belt dangling down his chest was wrought in the shape of initials: ABM.
Without giving him a second look, she tied knots in the legs of his pants, making them into a double-barreled sack, and began to fill the sack with turtle eggs.
Comprehending the goal, Aaron dropped to his knees and helped dig out the eggs and fill the makeshift sack.
“A hundred and ten!” Joe proclaimed. “Best me and Richard ever found was ninety. Cataline and Stepney fund a hundred and thirty-two one time.”
“What will you do with them?”
The two stood up and, carrying the full pants between them, walked toward town.
“Sell ‘em at the kraals,” said Joe, using the local name for the commercial turtle pens on the north side of the island. The South African word, meaning a corral or pen for animals, had arrived in Key West via sailing ship, as all things did.
“Ah,” said Aaron, wondering what “the crawls” might be. “And will they bring enough money that you might forgive the blackguard who cost you the turtle by making you late this morning?”
Joe smiled fully upon Aaron for the first time, and he was unprepared for its effect on him. Guilt showed in his face for an unguarded instant.
“Wretched would like you,” Joe told him.
“High praise indeed,” he said. He looked again at the eggs. “This reminds me, what do we do about breakfast?”