Western New York State, 1817
The boy knew his deerskin moccasins would fall with no sound on the woodland floor, but he was too frightened to run. At the first shouts and heavy thud of boots, he had darted behind the thick trunk of an old oak. It kept him hidden from the man with a musket who was pulling a woman through the trees. She stumbled over frosted underbrush, pleading, “Let me go!” but he tugged her forward and yelled at her to be quiet.
When they neared the creek he did let her go and swung his musket stock hard with both hands. It struck her head with a sharp crack. She crumpled like a wingless bird with her blood melting the thin layer of snow. The man glanced around him before he shoved rocks inside her coat and dragged her into the ice-skinned water. After he pushed her beneath it, he strode away, but the boy clung to the oak until he could no longer hear the boots.
And then he ran.
That was in the time of the Crow Moon. Now was the time of the Strawberry Moon, and the boy thought it would be safe to go back and look for the woman. He found where she fell when the man hit her and the creek where the man pushed her under the ice, but he could not find her. Then he saw something across the creek that had not been there before. He started to wade into the water when, on the road beyond the oak woods, came galloping hooves and a clatter of the daily stagecoach.
Before he could see the coach through the trees, he heard musket fire, the shrill, fearful whinny of horses, and more musket fire and men screaming. His heart thumped like a war drum as he splashed back to willows along the creek bank. After he crawled under a tent of weeping branches, he parted them the width of a feather so he could look out.
He fell back in terror when he saw the man with the musket.
John Hawke mistook the first hint when he glimpsed dark flecks sprinkled like pepper over the bland June sky. He jounced along the dirt road in his peddler’s wagon, whistling tunelessly, and noticed the flecks as he might ants or flakes of ash, thus paying them scant heed. Harbingers of death never crossed his mind.
The sun warm on his shoulders, dogwood blooming like cloudlets over the hills, air fragrant with wild strawberries and honeysuckle, he was nearing Wakefield Tavern and its fetching proprietress. Deep in a pocket of his buckskin tunic lay a lustrous harlequin opal suspended from a silver chain, its rich blue streaks the color of her eyes. He had traded for it a beaver pelt and Lancaster rifle, plus four steel carving knives. When he found himself rethinking that, he shook his head. This newly discovered romantic impulse might have been costly, but for once a questionable trade had made him smile.
After his wagon rumbled a few more miles to a rounded hillcrest, the flecks resolved into black birds swooping over the Genesee River. Not foreboding but simple curiosity had Hawke pull his gelding Sorrel to a halt and reach for his spyglass, then stand on the floorboards for a better view.
The birds had the goodly size, long pointed wings, and effortless flowing flight that marked them as ravens. Despite Hawke’s elevation, he was unable to tell what drew them due to a stretch of oak woods that stood between him and their prey. The number was somewhat troubling; ravens would eat carrion, but one carcass, even of a bear or moose, should not attract that many.
He put aside the spyglass and urged Sorrel down the hill at a brisk gait. By the time his wagon rattled past the woodlands, the ravens had begun to light on an open meadow. He reined in the gelding and fired his musket into the air. Birds exploded upward in a dark screeching cloud, allowing him to see an apparently abandoned gray-and-white stagecoach, Rumford’s Coach Line painted across its side. Its wheels looked sound, but its door hung open on one hinge. Uneasiness made Hawke reload his musket before tapping a rein over Sorrel’s left flank. The horse turned, the wagon behind rolling onto the clover-carpeted field.
The ground was uneven, but not much worse than the road, and he saw no protruding tree stumps or rock outcrops that could have disabled the coach undercarriage. Just as puzzling was the absence of horses; a conveyance of that size typically used a team of four. When he prodded Sorrel closer, the gelding shied and Hawke caught the smell of blood. He pulled up then, some yards from the coach, to see several arrow shafts protruding like harpoons in a lifeless whale.
After a long look around, he climbed from the wagon and went forward, musket in hand. It took no more than a few strides to confirm what he feared.
He had seen scalping before, but not since the late three-year war with Great Britain ended. When the Crown abandoned its native allies, many, though not all, Seneca-Iroquois had pushed north from western New York into Canada. As Hawke stood staring at the bodies of three mutilated men, facedown in blood-soaked clover, he heard the crackle of brush in the woods behind him. He spun around, dropping to a crouch as he raised his musket.
“John Hawke!” came a shout. “Don’t shoot!”
Four white men emerged from the trees, among them the one shouting, blacksmith Angus MacKenzie. The red-headed Scot was lean and wiry, but owned the strength of smiths twice his size. Beside him paced farmer Karl Van Laar, a big, handsome, flaxen-haired man who turned many women’s heads until his marriage broke nearly as many hearts. Hawke didn’t recognize the others.
“You have seen this terrible thing?” Karl Van Laar said. “Never thought to have such bloodshed on my land.”
“So you own this field?” Hawke shook Van Laar’s extended hand and that of MacKenzie.
“Didn’t work it this spring, couldn’t do it, not after my wife . . . she just . . . she disappeared.”
“Karl, I’m sorry. I didn’t know about your wife.”
The farmer only shook his head and when Hawke asked who first found the bodies, Van Laar turned to the smith.
“I’d just gotten to Karl’s cabin back there a ways,” MacKenzie said. “Was s’posed to shoe his mules, when he comes running from his woodshed, hollering that Indians attacked the stagecoach.”
“You saw them?” Hawke asked Van Laar.
“Four of ’em. I’d been splitting logs at the shed when I heard screaming. By the time I got here they were riding off north with the coach horses strung behind. Couldn’t do anything—didn’t have my musket with me.”
Hawke, frowning in thought, said, “When was that?”
“Maybe an hour ago,” MacKenzie said with a glance at the sun. “I know ’cause I was some late getting here. Been in Canandaigua last two days shoeing horses.”
“So you two weren’t around at the time?” Hawke said to the strangers. One was swarthy, muscular, and broad-shouldered, with an aquiline nose. The other, slight of frame, had small greenish eyes, a long, thin-lipped mouth, and, with no discernible chin, resembled a lizard.
In answer to his question, both men shook their heads, and the muscular one thrust out his hand. “I’m James Tyler, work for Rumford’s Coach Line,” he said. “This fellow here’s Vern Drucker—turns out he’s just been hired by Rumford’s. We met up in town, waiting for this stage, when MacKenzie rode in to get the constable.”
Hawke turned to the others. “Did you look for anything to tell you who these men are?”
“What, with all that blood?” Karl Van Laar said. “We didn’t touch ’em. Thought we should wait till Angus came back with the constable.”
“Is he here?”
“He’s about. Thought he saw something in the woods. It was just before you—” He stopped, flinching, as MacKenzie leveled a musket blast at descending ravens.
“Hold your fire!” The shout came from the youthful-looking constable, Franz Jaeger, his ruddy complexion flushed from exertion as he rode out of the trees with a length of rope trailing from his saddle. At the other end of it was a young boy, the rope knotted around his waist.
When the constable reined in, James Tyler said with surprise, “You caught one of ’em?”
Hawke doubted that. The boy appeared to be nine or ten years of age and, like himself, wore buckskin leggings and tunic. At first glance, Hawke thought he was Iroquois, but another look suggested he might be a Breed; half Indian and half something else. His black hair was curly, not straight, and his cheekbones sharp, unlike the flat ones characteristic of most Iroquois.
Vern Drucker had no such doubt. “We got us ’nuff rope, so we might’s well string up this redskin right now.”
This met with an uneasy shuffling of boots. Hawke glanced at the constable, expecting a forceful response. Jaeger, dismounting, said nothing.
“C’mon,” Drucker urged the others. “Let’s git it done with.”
Hawke walked over to the constable. “Franz, are you going to make that fool shut up? Or I will.”
“Go ahead. I don’t give a damn what he does. Maybe you didn’t notice those bodies.”
“That’s only a boy you’ve got there.”
“Why the hell’re you stickin’ your nose in this?” Drucker said. “And what’re we standin’ round here for—so his tribe can come rescue him?”
“He could be right,” James Tyler said to the others. “They might come back.”
Hawke didn’t wait to hear more. He brushed past Jaeger’s mare and pulled a knife from his belt sheath, slicing the rope that tied the boy. “Don’t try to run away,” he warned. “Just get in my wagon over there.”
He pointed lest the youngster did not understand English. The boy had the impassive Iroquois expression, but his dark eyes reflected fear.
“Go on!” Hawke said, giving him a push.
“Hey, what’re you doin’?” Drucker yelled. “Constable, who does this jackass think he is?”
“He’s a peddler.” Jaeger’s voice held its usual dour edge, but he said no more and made no move to stop the boy.
He knew the peddler only as an Albany lawyer who gave up the practice of law. But Hawke suspected that Jaeger, being of sceptical mind, did not entirely believe this. Being no dullard either, he once opined that Hawke, a military courier during the war, could be working for the state government.
He had been wrong, but not by much. Hawke was a covert scout for New York’s former lieutenant governor, and current gubernatorial candidate, DeWitt Clinton. In his peddler guise, he was able to gain information and hearsay which might otherwise be denied someone with known ties to Albany. But irrespective of his assignment, this stagecoach attack would do grievous harm if it inflamed white settlers subjected to brutal Iroquois raids in the past. The killers needed to be found before violent indiscriminate retaliation was provoked by fools like Drucker.
“Hawke,” Angus MacKenzie said, “do you have cause to b’lieve this boy’s blameless?”
“Look at him, Angus. The rest of you, take a good look!”
“I’m lookin’,” Drucker scoffed. “Don’t see nothin’ but a sneaky redskin.”
Eyeing him coldly, Hawke said. “You see so well, Drucker, tell us this. If the boy took part in that slaughter, he should be covered with blood. So where is it? There’s none on him—not a drop!”
Drucker just grinned, earning a look of disgust from the constable. And when MacKenzie turned away, Hawke thought the threat had passed.
He said to Jaeger, “Did you find anything that named those dead men?”
“No, and I didn’t look very hard. I’ll wait till our would-be undertaker cleans them up. Need to borrow Van Laar’s wagon and get them into town.”
Since the undertaker was also the town mayor, with no qualifications to be either, Hawke said, “Doc Overveld should have a look at those bodies first. All right?”
Jaeger shrugged, nodded agreement, and Hawke started for his wagon, saying, “I’ll meet you in town.”
He climbed aboard to find the boy crouched behind a tethered pickle barrel. “If you’re hungry,” he said and pointed, “there’s sourdough bread in that canvas bag.”
There was no response.
Before they reached the road, he pulled up the gelding, glancing back toward the stagecoach where ravens still circled. Drucker and Tyler hadn’t moved. Hawke wondered what employees of Rumford’s were doing in a little town south of sparsely settled Rochesterville. The stagecoach company’s office was in Canandaigua, the largest town within a few hours’ ride.
He left the wagon to walk back and forth at the road’s edge. Though he found plenty of hoofprints and wheel ruts, nothing indicated a reason for the coach driver to turn into the field other than the obvious one of pursuit. Dissatisfied, he climbed back into his wagon to see the boy squatting on the floorboards eating a chunk of bread. Hawke again tried to engage him. “Do you understand English?”
“I can take you back to those men if you want.”
“Well, that’s something,” Hawke said as the wagon bounced onto the road.
Beside the carriage lane leading to Wakefield Tavern and Inn, he halted the gelding under a towering shagbark hickory. A shiny green-and-gold stagecoach that Hawke didn’t recognize stood at the tavern entrance, the name Genesee Travelers displayed on its side. Five people eating at a table beside the creek were likely its passengers. When he saw a lithesome young woman with swirls of dark hair disappearing into the extended kitchen ell, he smiled and fingered the silver-chained opal in his pocket, picturing its luster against her skin. But then he spotted a stake wagon labeled Peet’s Piggery parked beside the kitchen and was momentarily distracted by the prospect of roast pork for supper.
The boy lay over a pile of burlap bags and looked to be asleep. Hawke left him there when he jumped down to the tavern’s greensward. Coming toward him was Widow Peet, an angular, uncommonly tall woman of perhaps thirty-some years, a clay pipe in her mouth. She removed it to say, “I have more deliveries to make, but I’d be obliged if you could stop by the farm later. I need a new cleaver if you have one.”
“I do, and I’ll come by—” He broke off as he realized the woman was staring past him, eyes fixed on the wagon. He turned to see his young passenger clambering into the driver’s seat.
“Where did you find the boy?” she said, not moving her gaze.
He was spared an answer when a familiar voice called from a kitchen window, “John! I’ll be right out.”
Widow Peet gave him a crisp nod and strode back to her wagon.
He rounded the two-story clapboard building as Tess Wakefield came from the kitchen. The piggery’s wagon had not yet pulled out, and the stagecoach passengers along the creek were in full view, so Hawke took Tess’s hand and drew her back inside for a more private reunion. The warm kitchen, though, was bustling with hired girls unwrapping pork loins and hulling strawberries, while the cook’s helper scraped roasting pans. Tess gave him a look that clearly said, “Not here.”
Hawke unwillingly released her hand.
“I wager you’re hungry,” she said, face rosy from the heat. “Rumford’s coach didn’t stop today, but did you see the new one? We’re serving its passengers roast chicken and asparagus.” She asked a girl to bring Hawke a plate of it and began pouring cider into a glass.
As she passed the glass to him, he raised his voice over the noise to say, “I need a room for the night.”
Her eyes met his and her dark brows lifted in question.
“I have someone with me, Tess. Is there anywhere else we can talk?”
He seized his plate before following her to the large dining room. Two hired girls at the far end were setting the tables for supper guests, but it was quieter than the kitchen.
“It better not be a woman you’re asking for,” she said with the trace of a smile.
He laughed and reached again for her hand. “There’s a boy in my wagon. He may be in some danger.”
Hawke pulled her down beside him on one of the dining-room benches and, between mouthfuls of chicken, told her in lowered voice what had passed at Van Laar’s farm.
“Dear Lord!” she whispered. “Those poor men. I can scarcely believe Senecas would dare do something like that.”
“I’m having a hard time believing it too, though that’s the way it looked. But it doesn’t make sense for Senecas to invite the reprisals this could bring.”
“I hope it doesn’t keep stagecoaches from coming through here.”
“That’s not all it could do. Election for governor is in less than three weeks. An Iroquois threat could hurt DeWitt Clinton’s candidacy if it jeopardizes the canal he supports.”
It was being called the Great Western Canal, an immense undertaking to be funded by the state, intended to run more than three hundred and sixty miles across New York from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. There was strong opposition to it from New York City’s fledgling Tammany Hall allied with state attorney general Martin Van Buren. They feared a successful canal might divert commerce from the City and vault Clinton into the United States presidency, which Van Buren planned to seek himself. The state legislature had passed a bill authorizing the first stage of canal construction, but now Hawke could imagine the crafty Van Buren influencing enough senators to bring it to the floor again, arguing that a resurgence of Iroquois raids would add more cost and peril to the project.
“I’ll find room for the boy,” Tess said. “You really think he could be harmed?”
“If a mob’s incited when word gets out, yes. And the boy refuses to talk, so I have to wonder if he saw the attack and is afraid to say so.”
“Then let’s bring him inside,” she said, rising from the bench. Hawke’s hand had closed around the opal, but this was not the time.
The piggery wagon was gone, and passengers had boarded the green stagecoach. Tess called, “Come back soon!” as the stage pulled out and she followed Hawke to the wagon.
The wagon which no longer held a boy.
“Where could he have gone, John?”
Hawke shook his head. As Tess looked around them, he saw her gaze shift toward the creek bank where a fair-haired woman sat alone at the table. A large-brimmed hat covered some of her hair and most of her face, and she turned away after noticing she was observed.
“Who’s that?” Hawke asked. “Someone who missed the stage?”
“No, it’s Miss Cameron. She started coming here in late winter for a day or two at a time. She told me a doctor said she needed rest. But shouldn’t we be searching for the boy?”
“Yes, though right now I have to go to Doctor Overveld’s and hope we can identify those bodies. If you’ll have your stableboy unhitch my wagon and water my horse, I’ll walk into town. While I’m gone, keep an eye out for the boy. He’s part Iroquois, nine or ten years old.”
When Hawke reached Overveld’s house off the main road, he went up the back steps to the doctor’s office, where Constable Jaeger opened the door to him. Hawke stepped inside to see, in a room beyond, two sheet-covered bodies on the floor and one on a long table.
“Any answers yet?” he asked Jaeger.
Before the constable could reply, Overveld called, “Is that you, Hawke? Come in here.”
Hawke followed Jaeger to where the doctor stood beside the table. The sheet was pulled back to expose the corpse’s face cleaned of blood. “Do you know him?” Overveld said.
With a harsh jolt of recognition, Hawke nodded. . . .
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