CHAPTER EIGHT

A concussion could bruise the brain, a distant voice recited, sometimes destroying all function of the limbs. A crack in the skull plates made vital fluids hemorrhage, causing slow death as the victim descended into lunacy. Duncan hovered in a distant place, where lecturing voices seemed to come down a long pipe. He had the sense of being carried, but he was strangely disinterested in reacting, simply wanted to linger in the warm, welcome lethargy of this lightless place. Duncan wasn’t conscious, he was having a strange dream of being conscious. In his dream came the sound of water lapping on rocks, a wetness on his legs. He was dropped onto something hard, with an object protruding so painfully into his belly that it seemed to stir a new voice, one screaming at him to awaken.

“Duncan!” came the frantic, forlorn cry, followed by splashing. “You must come back to us!”

His eyes flickered open. As he floated away Duncan watched dreamily as Conawago frolicked in a pool of water.

A gust threw cold water onto his face. He blinked, becoming aware of the river and the log that was rapidly carrying him out into the treacherous main current. He shook his head and saw Conawago struggling in the water as he tried to save Duncan, then saw his friend disappear under the water. Suddenly he was painfully awake, and he saw death before him. He rolled off his log and dove.

Conawago had never learned to swim. He had told Duncan that his spirit protector was a creature of land, as if it excused him. As Duncan swam he could not see his friend through the clear river water, could only see one of the many deep holes that pockmarked the bottom of the Susquehanna. He surfaced, gulped more air, and dove again. Downward he went, deep, into the hole, flipping his legs like the seals he had swum with as a boy, down until the light began to fade. Then finally Conawago was there, not trying to swim, his arms extended as if to embrace someone, his eyes open and puzzled as he hung suspended in the murk.

Duncan emerged coughing, with barely strength enough to drag his friend’s body onto the pebble shore, frantic that he could see no movement in Conawago’s chest. He turned him over and pounded his back, wondering at the strange voice beside him until he realized that the desperate prayer in Iroquois was coming from his own mouth.

Then suddenly, miraculously, the old man was coughing, spitting up great quantities of water, and there were feet running on the pebbles, hands reaching down for them as Duncan collapsed onto the beach.

He awoke under a stack of blankets on a cot set next to a blazing fireplace, basking in dull, splendid warmth.

“God’s bones, McCallum, you both nearly died.” Van Grut handed him a steaming mug.

“Conawago-“

“Is just beyond the door, drying in the sun.”

Duncan sat up, sipping the mug. It was not tea but a beefy broth. He drank half then quickly surveyed his surroundings. He was in a spare but comfortable room. The split log that served as fireplace mantel held a small wooden cross, a Bible lay on a plank table surrounded by rough-hewn benches. The needlepoint sampler hung by the door spelled out a blessing in German. From one of the two partially closed doors behind him wafted the smell of baking bread.

“Moravians?” Duncan asked as he drained his mug, referring to the German missionaries who often lived among the Indians of Pennsylvania.

As if in answer a girl with two blond braids stepped into the house, accompanied by two Indian children, a boy and a girl. All three carried small writing slates, covered with chalked words from the Bible in English and German.

The children watched in apparent fascination as Duncan swung his legs onto the floor. The boy wiped his slate clean and began working with a piece of chalk.

“Did you see who did this?” he asked Van Grut, rubbing his throbbing head.

“Greta-” the Dutchman nodded toward the blond girl, — saw Conawago running into the water, shouting in fear, and ran for us as we sat with her parents. We saw you lying limp, adrift on the log, and realized he had gone to rescue you.”

“He can’t swim,” Duncan said, shuddering at the memory of his friend suspended as if dead in the clear river water.

“But you!” the Dutchman exclaimed. “You were like a beast bred in the water.”

“I nearly was,” Duncan absently said as he stepped to the doorway, checking his clothes. The small pouch that usually hung from his belt was gone, and with it the evidence taken from the murders. “We were a clan of the islands.” He could see Conawago now, sitting cross-legged on a flat ledge stone jutting over the broad river.

“Do you suppose I could get another?” he asked, extending his mug toward Van Grut. He found himself shivering. The cold of the water had seeped into his bones.

“The kitchens of the Dutch and Germans overflow with warm concoctions,” Van Grut replied with a smile, and he disappeared behind the door nearest the fireplace.

Duncan turned to Greta. “You brought our rescuers,” he offered in a grateful tone.

“We prayed for your deliverance,” came the reply, not from Greta but from the native girl beside her.

The boy held up his slate. At the top he had drawn an image of a great fish spewing up two men. Duncan studied the trio. The Indian children were as well-groomed, as well-fed, as the German girl.

“God watched over us as he did Jonah,” Duncan agreed, then watched as the boy covered the fish with his hand, showing another image at the bottom, a series of concentric circles.

The boy, apparently lacking the language skills of his sister, pointed meaningfully to the strange circles. “Lenni-Lenape,” he said, then repeated the words, the native term for the Delaware Indians. Duncan was about to press the two girls to explain when Van Grut returned with another steaming mug, announcing that a meal would soon be served.

Duncan took the nourishing broth outside and sat beside Conawago. “Thank you,” he said.

“I was an old fool,” Conawago muttered. “Nearly got us both killed.”

The river had harrowed him to the core. Duncan had never seen his companion so pale, never heard before this hollow tone in his voice. He remained silent a long time, watching a flight of geese, staring at the living, rippling water of the mighty river, worrying with all his heart about the old Indian. “The cold of the deep water is like no other,” he said. “I’ve seen it affect people in many strange ways.”

Conawago did not reply, nor did he react when Duncan set the hot mug on his leg and wrapped his fingers around it. “Drink. Please.”

After a moment the old Nipmuc abruptly looked down at the mug, as if he had not heard the words, only sensed its heat.

“You need to push the chill from your belly,” Duncan urged, and finally Conawago complied, sipping at first, then quickly draining the contents down his throat.

Duncan watched with relief as the color slowly returned to Conawago’s cheeks. “Did you see who put me on the log?”

“Just their backs. Two bucks, one with an eagle feather dangling in his braid, the other with red leggings with tattoos on his back.”

“You saw them carry me from Rideaux’s compound?”

“No. I was behind it, circling it, trying to understand it. I have never seen such a place.”

“Nor I,” Duncan agreed, and he quickly described the clockwork creature he had found.

“It was meant to be a bear?”

“More like an amalgam of many forest creatures, or a symbol of all.”

“Or the mother spirit of the forest.”

“Yes,” Duncan said slowly. There had been benches facing it, as if the thing were an altar. He explained finding gears on the table, in addition to those in the machine. “In all the vast wilderness,” he pondered aloud, “where else could a killer find such gears?”

“With all the vast wilderness,” Conawago said, as if to correct him, “why would the killer trouble to find such gears?”

The ring of a small bell broke their troubled silence.

The dining table had been carried outside and extended with planks to accommodate not only the four visitors but also six Indian schoolchildren and four of their parents, including a somber middle-aged Onondaga named Moses, who led them in a long prayer before the bread was broken. Duncan suddenly found himself famished, but had difficulty keeping up with Hadley and Van Grut, as the good-natured German matron replenished their plates. The shad were running up the river, and the tasty fish, fried in cornmeal, seemed in limitless supply.

Duncan made polite inquiries of Reverend Macklin, their host, about the history of the mission and the sprawling settlement of Shamokin that was, he learned, the second-biggest community in the region after Philadelphia. The most cosmopolitan of Indian towns, it was home to a dozen different tribes, as well as European settlers, trappers, and merchants. An enterprising Welshman had set up a business employing Indians to make baskets and brooms for shipment to the European settlements, and a German settler had hired several others to harvest and dry the shad, which, split and salted, could be seen drying on long racks along the long curving bank of the river.

“You have the town well organized, it seems,” Van Grut observed to the missionary.

“Me?” Macklin laughed. “I am busy tending to our own small flock. The Iroquois Confederation runs this town, runs the region. It is for all intentions their southern capital. The Conoys, Conestogas, Delawares, Shawnee, Nanticokes, and the others all are subject to the Grand Council of the Iroquois, represented by the chiefs who reside in the longhouse villages nearby.”

“You make it sound as though the Iroquois have an empire, with subject states,” Hadley said between mouthfuls of shad and spring greens.

“But they do, boy. Many an Indian village along the river was bathed in blood in the last century until the tribes pressed for peace with the Iroquois League. The local tribes can run their local affairs, but may not meddle in relations with other nations, European or otherwise. No treaty concerning the realm from the Saint Lawrence to the Ohio country gets signed without the approval of the Grand Council and the marks of its leading chiefs. Several passed through just last week to join the new treaty negotiations.”

“Old Belt,” Duncan offered. “Long Wolf.”

The German slowly nodded, studying his guests with new interest. “You are involved in matters of state?”

“Did the chief named Skanawati ever put his mark on such treaties?” Duncan ventured, with a worried glance at Conawago. His old friend, who had remained taciturn for the entire meal, seemed to be sinking lower and lower. His thoughts were secret, his mood growing morose. Something Duncan did not understand had come between them. It had started with Skanawati’s confession but had been strangely magnified by his near drowning in the river.

“I daresay no treaty would ever be signed without his approval,” Moses explained. “He may not sit at the first place, whose seat is always left empty in honor of long-dead Dekanawidah, our league’s founder, but his position would be no lower than fifth of the fifty great chiefs who sit on the council.” Duncan listened carefully.

“The fifth seat, and the most important in this region,” Moses continued. “I was born in Onondaga, the capital of the Iroquois League,” he added. “And even though he may be fifth, there is no other chief like Skanawati.”

Duncan glanced at Conawago, who still appeared lost in other, darker thoughts.

“The chiefs of our council are called peace chiefs,” Moses continued in his rich, careful voice. Not for the first time Duncan gave silent thanks to the missionaries who had for decades been teaching the Indians to speak English. “They are the wise ones that guide the tribe, in consultation with the wives and mothers. It is no good for a people to be governed by those who feel the heat of war, so the supreme chiefs like Old Belt never lead war parties, seldom even lift a battle ax. Except for one. For as far as memory serves, only Skanawati has the honor of being both a war chief and a peace chief, for his skills are needed in both realms.”

Conawago abruptly rose and left the table.

Hadley restarted the conversation as new planks of shad were passed around the table. “Do you sometimes join with the mission on the hill?” the Virginian asked the Moravians. The words were slow to register in Duncan’s consciousness, for he was watching his friend disappear around the corner of the Germans’ cowshed.

“Mission?” Reverend Macklin asked.

“I believe there is a Jesuit compound above the town, is there not?” Hadley asked.

It was the Moravians’ turn to be struck dumb. The Indians pushed their food about on their plates, glancing uneasily at their spiritual leader.

“There is no mission,” Reverend Macklin corrected in a tight voice. “There is no Jesuit. There is a tormented soul whose deliverance we pray for daily.” With that the German rose and directed the children to begin clearing the table. The other adults, seeming eager for an excuse to leave now, quickly joined in. Only Moses, sitting across from Duncan, lingered.

“But Rideaux was a Jesuit,” Duncan said to the Onondaga, “he was a missionary.”

The Iroquois nodded his head. “Though the Jesuits were aligned with the French, my people allowed them to have a mission in our country, so long as they did not seek to assist their army or their king. I was there when it happened,” he added. The Onondaga’s wife, a handsome middle-aged woman in a red dress decorated with quillwork, appeared and settled on the bench beside him.

“When what happened?”

“When the frock was ripped from his back,” Moses replied. “They even made him surrender his crucifix. We thought he would kill himself.” The Indian’s wife nodded sadly.

“Why would they do such a thing to him?”

Moses’ face darkened. The question seemed to torment him. His wife spoke a low, quick sentence in their native tongue. Her husband nodded. “Because he loved his flock too much.”

Hadley, who had been helping the children, sat down beside Duncan. Van Grut had retreated to a bench by the shed, working with his sketch pad.

“You mean,” Duncan ventured after a long moment, “he became closer to the Iroquois than to his church.”

“A clock. He lost his black robe over a clock.”

Hadley’s head shot up. Duncan leaned closer.

“I was in the mission as a boy,” Moses explained. “They taught me my first writing, taught us French but also English, so as not to alarm the English who sometimes visited. There was an old church building that was not used by us, a small chapel with an altar and a room at the back where one of the aged Black Robes, who had been in these lands for over fifty years, had taken up residence. He had a clock from France that rang every quarter hour. He put it in that old chapel on the altar with a cross over it. It was a trick the Black Robes used in the last century when they first went among the Hurons and other northern tribes. He still had the old ways in his blood, would sometimes treat the Indians who had not been baptized like dumb animals. Clocks were magic, they were sorcery, they were beyond the comprehension of the tribes. That clock proved the power of the European God. I remember being taken into that chapel by my uncle when I was no higher than his waist. Many of our old people would not go to the rituals of the Black Robes, but they would sit for hours in front of that clock, and whenever it rang they would exclaim in Christian words taught to them by that old priest. It became a god to them. My uncle told me a little sacred man lived in that box, who spoke to the Europeans at night. The Indians would leave him offerings, bits of fur and feathers, little carvings, in front of it. Every time it rang my uncle cried out `Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’

“Rideaux loved our people like no others among the Jesuits, began learning our language as soon as he arrived, soon was more fluent in it, in all our dialects, than any of the other Black Robes. He would sit up all night with our sick, wouldn’t stop our medicine men from doing their work like the other Jesuits did, even tried to learn Indian medicine.” Moses’ wife spoke again into his ear. She clearly understood the English but was not comfortable speaking it.

“She remembers the others would try to interfere with our burials,” Moses related, “try to sprinkle their holy water on them as our dying breathed their last, put rosaries in their hands when they died. But Rideaux never did. He would come to our death ceremonies but never recite the Christian words unless he was asked.”

“The clock?” Duncan pressed.

“Father Rideaux spent much of his time in other camps, traveling with the tribes. He never knew about it, thought it merely a matter of the older Indians going in to pray with the priest who lived there. Then one day he tried to find the old priest. He went inside, found twenty Iroquois worshipping the clock, the priest drunk on a cot in the back. He was furious, started shouting so loud the other priests came in. He declared we Iroquois were not puppets to be played with, that worshipping machines was like worshipping false idols, that his countrymen were arrogant sinners, pretending that owning better machines made them better people. He said he would match the soul of an Iroquois to that of a Frenchman anytime. He destroyed that clock with an ax, scattered the gears all over the floor.

“He was ruined. Some of the priests wanted him burned for a heretic. They did not wait for their bishop to act. He was thrown out of the order that very day.”

“But now,” Duncan observed, “he works with clocks himself.”

“Now,” Moses corrected, “he seeks to make the tribes understand that machines are not magic, that we can make them too. He bought a clock from some settler and took it apart for all to see, bought tools to work with it. He has Delaware and Iroquois carvers who make wooden gears, then he shows them how to assemble them. He shows them how such things are but products of their hands, like a good bow or a canoe.”

“You’re saying,” Hadley suggested, “that he wants the Indians to understand they can live without the help of Europeans.”

“Just as Africans can have lives without Europeans,” Moses added.

Moses’ wife finally tried her English. “He … stop the rum,” she said. “He stop the guns.”

“He runs off the gun and rum traders whenever he finds them here,” Moses explained.

“Does he know Skanawati?”

Moses hesitated before responding, his expression troubled.

“Last autumn Skanawati called a gathering of chiefs. He arrived with war paint on. He demanded they eject a natural philosopher from Philadelphia who was-” Moses searched for words, “doing experiments with Indians. I think that’s when Rideaux met Skanawati, when they realized they both were striving for the same end, trying to wean the Iroquois off the ways of the Europeans.”

“It is why I too try to reach out to him,” a new voice broke in. Macklin was standing at the end of the table. “I tell the Frenchman what he and I are doing is not so very different. But he scorns me, asks why our converts wear European clothing, live in European houses, are given European tools. I explain that it is only Christian to provide for their comfort. But he laughs, says his Bible provides for the comfort of souls but says nothing of German forges and British tea. He says all I am doing is forcing them to bite at the forbidden fruit. He said we fail to grasp the miracles of the wilderness. He ejected me the last time I tried to speak with his Indians, months ago. I have seen him do great kindnesses. He has the touch of Saint Francis in communing with animals. But he also can have the touch of the rabid dog. He has perverted our technology to create an abomination in his house, a monster of gears and fur.”

“People are being killed along the boundary line,” Duncan announced, with clock gears pounded into their hearts.”

Moses went very still. He translated in a hoarse voice for his wife. “They will look to Shamokin,” he said. Fear was heavy in his words.

His companions had grasped what was at stake faster than Duncan. There seemed little doubt now. If the European settlers knew about the gears in the hearts-word would soon come outand the strange role of gears in Shamokin, they would not wait for soldiers or a magistrate, they would march on Shamokin in their own frantic fear, with guns and torches. Settlements of Indians had been burned for less.

“The first place they will go to is Rideaux’s compound,” observed Van Grut, who had joined the table. “Word was already spreading through the convoy when we left. Bythe’s murder may be the spark that ignites the powder keg.”

“Mokie!” Hadley cried out. “Do you have your gun, McCallum?” the Virginian asked.

Duncan looked up. “At the canoes with our gear.”

“We must get her out of there.”

Duncan had not forgotten Mokie but found himself dreading the prospect of returning to Rideaux’s compound. He lingered only long enough to make a quick inquiry of Moses, then led Van Grut and Hadley on a brief detour.

The two-story log cabin that served as a store appeared to be a prosperous establishment, with barrels and crates of goods stacked along its porch. Duncan did not hesitate when he spotted a stout European in an apron sweeping the end of the porch.

“It is a bold thing to be openly supplying runaway slaves,” he declared loudly, standing close as the man turned.

The man grabbed the broom like a staff as if to defend himself. “Surely I don’t know-“

Duncan seized the broom himself and used it to shove the merchant backward, pressing him against the wall. “I do not seek the slaves, but I will know who is paying for their supplies.”

“I am but a clerk, sir. If one of the blacks arrives the proprietor takes them in the back room, gives me a list of supplies to gather.” The clerk glanced uneasily at Hadley and Van Grut, who now flanked Duncan.

“Where do we find your proprietor?”

“Mr. Waller’s gone, sir. Left for Philadelphia. All of a sudden he said he had to leave, though last night he spoke of how he and I would scrub out the smoke house today.”

“Then I’ll see his books.”

The clerk took a deep breath and glanced in both directions to assure there were no eavesdroppers. “No need, sir. I have taken my own secret looks. There is naught but a credit shown. Runaways, it says, and when the account is low it is replenished from Philadelphia.”

“Tell me this,” Moses asked. “When exactly did Mr. Waller depart?”

“Not two hours ago.”

“Two hours,” Van Grut said as they walked away, “was when someone tried to kill you, Duncan.”

“Two hours, more precisely,” Moses observed, “was when someone failed to kill you.”

The faces of their little party were dark as they finally approached the palisade on the ridge, rifles at the ready. Van Grut’s eyes were round with wonder as he saw the carousel in the yard. Things were much as Duncan had seen before, with Indians cleaning skins and packing furs, but as the men in the yard saw Duncan they stopped, looking up in surprise, murmuring to each other. Reverend Macklin and Moses appeared out of the brush by the gate to step protectively to Duncan’s side. Conawago, though still withdrawn, accompanied them. The Indians, all appearing to be from the minor tribes, seemed to ignore the missionary but nodded uneasily at Moses. The looks the Christian Indian exchanged with them reminded Duncan of the complex relations within the tribes themselves. While the tension between them could simply be that between the baptized and the unconverted, it just as easily could be because Moses was Onondaga and they were of the tribes subjected by the Iroquois.

Rideaux seemed to be expecting them. He led them to his table, where a jug and cups awaited, then held a finger to his lips and pointed to the hearth, where two mounds of black fur again were arrayed in front of the coals. Curled up around them, her head on the back of the young bear, was Mokie, lost in slumber. As Macklin stepped inside the Frenchman hesitated, first fixing the missionary with a cool gaze, then frowning as he turned to Duncan.

“As you can see, there is no need for firearms,” Rideaux said in a near whisper.

Van Grut instantly set his fowling piece down, pulled out his sketch pad, and began drawing the sleeping figures.

Duncan did not give up his rifle. “The last time I visited someone tried to kill me.”

“The last time you were here I believe you frightened us more than we frightened you.”

Duncan returned Rideaux’s steady gaze, fighting an impulse to snatch away Mokie and flee from this unpredictable man. But suddenly a gasp of surprise came from Reverend Macklin. He was holding one of the slates Duncan had seen in the larger chamber. “You are devising an Iroquois alphabet?” he asked the Frenchman.

“We use the roman alphabet,” he replied with one of his unsettling grins, “just reduce the sounds to letters. So as not to handicap the Europeans.”

“We?”

Rideaux opened the door that led to the kitchen, revealing two Indian men busy with quills and paper at a large table, putting Duncan in mind of monks illuminating manuscripts. Moses rushed into the room, greeting the two men as old friends and leaning over the table to examine their work. Conawago looked on.

“When we are done,” Rideaux declared, “we will make a great library to memorialize the Iroquois civilization.”

“Civilization?” Macklin’s expression was skeptical.

The doubt in his tone brought color to Rideaux’s face. “You come to make them dream of the savior’s blood, but in the end you would put chains on them as real as those this poor girl’s family wears. In a hundred hundred ways the Europeans make them feel inferior, when it is we who should feel inferior to them for their uncorrupted souls.”

“The lambs of God enter his flock from many paths,” Macklin observed.

“I once gave last rites to an old Mohawk woman,” Rideaux shot back. “She said she knew she was going to hell. I asked why she would say such a terrible thing, and she said white people always said so, and they were the ones who could read words, the ones who would know such things.”

The former priest paused, surveying his uneasy audience, then lifted a small wooden chest, a traditional Bible box, from the mantel over the fireplace. He produced a key from his pocket, opened it, and began to lay tattered papers on the table. ” 1705,” he said. “A letter from the governor of Pennsylvania assuring the Nanticoke tribe perpetual use of the lands along the Susquehanna below here. Today it becomes crowded with settlements. 1720,” he continued, lifting another paper. “A Quaker deed purporting to show that the Delawares ceded them a huge tract at the Forks of the Delaware, though the Delawares insist they never signed such a document.” He lifted one more sheet from the box. “Someone in Lancaster gave a Conestoga family this in exchange for half their corn crop, saying it would assure them safe passage through all European lands forever. It is nothing but a receipt for a wagonload of lumber, but they didn’t know. They treasured it, kept it protected, wrapped in a sacred wampum belt for twenty years. An old Iroquois once told me all the storms and wars of the past century cause but minor troubles compared to the devastation done by the pens of the colonists. By quill and ink we commit the sins that break the souls of these noble people. We share the same shapes, but the hearts of Europeans and Indians are as of different creatures.”

“These noble people,” Hadley asserted in a near whisper, “have slaughtered thousands of settlers. Witnesses have seen them cut out the hearts of living men and eat them.”

“The ways of the forest are absolute. You may as well condemn the bear for his claw or the lion for his fang. They may draw the blood of a few of us, but we draw the words that deny their entire race their future. Is this what eighteen centuries of Christ has meant? That the country with more power has the sacred right to destroy the lesser?” Rideaux leveled his gaze at Duncan. “McCallum is a Highland name. Where is your clan today?” he asked pointedly.

Duncan shook his head. “There is no man here who is an enemy of the tribes.”

“Then stop interfering.”

“With what?” Duncan demanded. “Your secret protection of runaway slaves? Your efforts to keep Europeans from aiding the Indians? Murder of innocent men on the Warriors Path? The unnecessary hanging of a chief desperately needed by his people? Those behind the murders are seeking to make it appear Shamokin Indians are behind them. Your Indians in fact, for the killers are using the slaves you give shelter to, leaving clock gears behind. You would have us not interfere with the mob that will surely come looking to spill Indian blood? They will start here, I tell you. They will annihilate this settlement. And your compound will be the spark that ignites the flame.”

“You understand nothing.”

“I understand your notions of societies and civilization in the great frame of history are more important to you than the deaths of innocents here and now.”

Rideaux’s eyes flared again. “In that case, Scotsman, you do begin to understand me.” As he spoke the Frenchman looked toward the window, sudden worry on his face.

The sound outside had been growing steadily louder, nagging at Duncan’s subconscious, until suddenly it broke through. Conawago cocked his head then darted outside with Rideaux. Duncan was a step behind. The Frenchman cursed as he saw the yard had been emptied, and he cursed louder as he seemed to recognize the din rising from the other side of the ridge. Reverend Macklin and Moses pushed past, running toward town. The screaming, the musket shots, the frenzied whooping were unmistakable. The battle Duncan had dreaded had already arrived.

Rideaux darted back into the house, fear shining in his eyes now. “Tewaarathon!” he shouted at the Indians still inside. “Make ready!”

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