The Baltimore Post-Examiner is pleased to present an excerpt from Eliot Pattison’s Blood of the Oak, available at Amazon. Pattison has been described as a “writer of faraway mysteries,” partly because of his worldwide travels where he has trekked millions of miles, visiting every continent but Antarctica. Today Pattison favors off the beaten paths and lesser known historical venues where he draws upon to produce some wonderful stories with fascinating characters.
Amazon Summary: The fourth entry in the Bone Rattler series advances the protagonist Duncan McCallum to 1765 and into the throes of the Stamp Tax dissent, which marked the beginning of organized resistance to English rule. Duncan follows ritualistic murders that are strangely connected to both the theft of an Iroquois artifact and a series of murders and kidnappings in the network of secret runners supporting the nascent committees of correspondence—which are engaged in the first organized political dissent across colonial borders. He encounters a powerful conspiracy of highly placed English aristocrats who are bent on crushing all dissent, is captured by its agents, and sent into slavery in Virginia beside the kidnapped runners. Inspired by an aged native American slave and new African friends Duncan decides not just to escape but to turn their own intrigue against the London lords.
Included in the novel’s cast of characters are figures from our history who have their own destinies to fulfill in the next decade, including Benjamin Franklin (writing from London), Samuel Adams, the early Pennsylvania rebel James Smith, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and, very briefly, a soft spoken militia officer named Washington. The Song of the Oak takes a fresh view on the birth of the new American nation, suggesting that the “freedom” that became the centerpiece of the Revolution was uniquely American, rising not just from unprecedented political discourse but also from the extraordinary bond with the natural world experienced by frontier settlers and native tribes.
The 1760s were a time of seismic shifts on the North American continent. The mantle of the Old World that America had worn for a century and a half was becoming tattered and ill-fitting. If, as I have suggested in the prior chronicles of Duncan McCallum, the seeds of the American Revolution were planted during the French and Indian War, then this was the decade during which those seeds germinated. Great Britain, basking in the victory over France which made it the first global super power, was blinded to the currents that were stirring the population of its most important colonies. For generations it had dumped onto
American shores scores of thousands of emigrants with complaints about religious and political intolerance, people being marginalized for opposing the government, including thousands of displaced Scots, and victims of an overbearing criminal justice system. Almost by definition, these were spirited, determined people who often had little inclination to bow to British overlords.
In hindsight the rise of American independence may seem inevitable but the drama of the 1760’s stage was not about colonists conceiving a bold new form of government, it was about discovering what it meant to be American. A deep sense of freedom had already become instinctive in America, especially on the frontier, but it took the heat of new repressions to forge that instinct into a new identity.
As this novel opens, five years have passed since the defeat of the French. Duncan McCallum has established a peaceful existence in the seclusion of the western frontier, and is content to remain far removed from debates on politics and the workings of empire. Little does he know that secret plans hatched in London are about to sweep him into the tide that will launch the American nation.
Early Spring 1765
The forest embraced him as another of its wild creatures, sending its steadying power into each long stride. Duncan McCallum had learned the ways of forest running from his tribal friends but he had never experienced its deep joys until he had begun his own solitary treks among the farms and settlements of the frontier. There were roads, more and more of them stretching out from the Hudson, but he preferred the ancient trails of the tribes. With his pack on his shoulder and his long rifle in one hand, Duncan glided along the old Mohawk path with the carefree joy of a young stag, oblivious to the troubles of the world of men.
It was the rarest of days, when the sun, as if stretching from its winter sleep, burst through the budding leaves to ignite the wildflowers with blazes of red, blue, and yellow. His smile grew as the miles fell away. He would be in Edentown for supper, back with Sarah Ramsey and his particular friend Conawago, elder of the Nipmuc tribe, whom he had not seen for nearly a month. He would speak with Conawago about the new patches of medicinal herbs he had discovered and at sundown would walk hand in hand with Sarah, inspecting the new foals and lambs in their pastures.
He had been visiting the northernmost of the Edentown dependencies, a farm built around a promising orchard, when he had been summoned by a message from the Iroquois. Adanahoe, mother of all the tribes, lay dying and had asked for him. Duncan had assumed the gentle old woman had sought him for his medicines but as she greeted him from her bed of furs, she had dismissed the healers from her lodge and announced there was something far more important than easing her discomfort.
“The embers burn low, Duncan,” she had confessed to him, meaning the centuries-old Council fire that bound the tribes of the Iroquois confederation, “but as long as the spirits watch over us I will not fear.” The frail old woman, who more than anyone embodied the heart of the Haudensaunee, the Iroquois people, had asked Duncan to carry her into the sacred lodge, the structure at the town’s highest point where the masks of Iroquois ritual were kept. He had cradled her like a child in his arms, pausing at the doorway to let one of the protecting shamans cleanse them with fragrant cedar smoke before stepping inside.
He had been in the lodge once before, so knew to brace himself for the distorted, grotesque masks that hung on the walls, each above altars that held offerings of feathers, small skulls, crystal stones, and animals fashioned of wood or cornhusk. The spirits that inhabited the masks were beloved and protected by the Iroquois, each responsible for one of the critical elements of tribal life. Insisting on being lowered to her feet, Adanahoe hobbled along the altars, leaning heavily on Duncan’s arm. As they walked, Duncan recognized the maize spirit, the squash spirit, the healing spirit, the fire spirit.
Small pots of burning fat stood on each altar, their flickering flames giving movement to the gods above. Adanahoe halted at a corner where a pot burned below an empty space.
“He was here in the night when my grandson Siyenca and I replenished the lamps,” the matriarch explained in a mournful tone. “At dawn he was gone. And my grandson too.” She scrubbed at a tear. “They brought Siyenca’s body to me at noon that day. He was found floating in the river ten miles south of here, with this in his hand.” She opened her palm to show Duncan a large bear claw sewn into a piece of black-and-white fur. “He wears a necklace of claws and bones.”
Duncan realized she was no longer speaking of her dead grandson. “May I know his name?”
“The old ones have many names, some of which may never be spoken outside the secret societies. But at campfires he is called Blooddancer, or sometimes the Trickster. He lives in a long slab of curved oak painted red as blood, with twisted eyes and a snout of birch wood into which the teeth of a catamount are set. He has eyelashes made of four bear claws and bear claws below his chin like a beard.” She lifted the claw in her hand. “This was one of them. And he has a rattle with four claws attached to it, which has always been kept on his altar—his ceremonial weapon.”
Duncan was guarded in speaking about the lost spirit, for fear of breaking one of the tribes’ complex taboos. “And when you pray to him what do you ask for?”
“It is hard to explain. His is an old warrior’s spirit from days of long ago. In my father’s time he had accompanied our warriors on many successful raids. But it wasn’t bravery you asked him for, it was the strength inside the bravery.”
“Fortitude,” Duncan suggested.
The old woman nodded. “Yes, but more. Like the marrow of our people. Like the heartwood of the oak. He is one of the anchors that keeps us safe and lets our tongues be heard by the spirits of the forest. He is old, and irritable, but he provides our link to the ancient ones, the link that makes us who we are.” Her heavy wheezing breaths filled the silence. Outside the lodge a drum beat a slow rhythm.
“They say my grandson Siyenca stole the mask because there are Europeans who would pay silver coins for it. They would not help me with his death rites.” She pointed to a brownish stain on the altar. “When I explained that this was still wet and crimson when I came here that morning, they said the god had wounded Siyenca in his theft.”
The old woman’s pain knew no depths. The Council embers were dying, her god was stolen, her grandson was dead, and now the younger generation of Iroquois were arguing with the venerable matriarch.
“You mean blood had dripped on the altar.”
Adanahoe nodded. “It was taboo for Siyenca to be in here without one of us, but he must have seen the thieves. They hit him when he tried to stop them. He had a cut on his head. Then he followed to take back old Blooddancer and the thieves drowned him for it.”
She turned and clamped her hands on Duncan’s shoulders. Her voice was hoarse but urgent. “I had a dream. You and Conawago appear limping out of a fog, scarred and battered, nearly dead, as if from a great battle, but you bring Blooddancer back to us. Our people will drift apart without the old anchors. Siyenca will never have peace on the other side.” Her eyes were full of moisture.
“I will be gone before you return, my son, but I will linger by my body until he is safely home.”
As he dipped his hand in a stream, his instincts cried out and he spun about, his gut tightening. There was nothing there. It had been like this ever since leaving Onondaga Castle, capital of the Iroquois League, two days earlier. He would find his stride, envelop himself in the harmony of the forest, but then with the abruptness of a rifle shot, an unnatural fear would seize him, and just as quickly fade. Duncan sought to calm himself by playing the game Conawago favored when doing chores, seeing how many birdsongs he could identify, then how many of their Iroquois names he could remember. The throaty melody of a wood thrush, the soft call of a waxwing. He paused. One of the songs had a human voice.
He crept stealthily along the trail, at first just curious, trying to make sense of the strangely familiar, forlorn words. But as he crested a low ridge his foreboding returned. There was danger here. He freed the thong that secured his belt knife and checked the priming in the pan of his rifle.
Near the bottom of the hollow a boy leaned against a log. He was Iroquois, but his words were French. “Non je n’irai plus au bois,” he sang in a tiny, frightened voice, “Non je n’irai plus seulette.”
The words seized Duncan, loosing a flood of painful images. His father the Scottish rebel hanging on a British gibbet. His mother and sisters raped and killed by British soldiers. Even after so many years the haunting scenes still seized him like this, descending like an abrupt storm. Sometimes he would wake up shouting at their campfires and he would sit like a lost child as Conawago kept vigil with him, singing calming songs of the tribes.
It was a melody of Duncan’s youth, one often sung by a French chambermaid in his Dutch boarding school, where he had heard of his family’s destruction. No, I’ll not go into the woods again. No, I’ll not alone be going.
The Iroquois boy was singing a lonely French ballad. There were Mohawk clans who lived in Quebec, but it was rare to find one of their number so far south.
Duncan was two steps away when the youth spun about and, with catlike quickness, sprang at him. He saw the flash of the blade in enough time to deflect it from his chest, but not soon enough to avoid a slice across the back of his hand. With a swing of his rifle butt he knocked the boy to the ground, pinned his wrist with his foot, aimed his rifle at the boy’s heart and pulled back the hammer.
The boy’s thin, soiled face filled with tears. “Go ahead,” he said in English, “It is the way of you cowards. Shoot warriors from ambush. Kill the child who scares you.” With his free hand the boy crossed himself then, to Duncan’s horror, pulled the gun barrel to his chest so abruptly Duncan’s finger almost pulled the trigger.
“Warriors?” Duncan asked, then glanced back to the log where the boy had sat, seeing now a moccasined foot among the wild violets. He darted to the figure’s side, the instincts of his medical training taking over. He checked for a pulse, felt for warmth on the man’s forehead, but the dull unseeing eyes were all that he needed to know. The shot that had killed him had ripped into the back of his neck. The moss he had fallen onto was stained crimson.
The man was an Iroquois in his prime, his broad shoulders, sinewy arms, and calloused thumb the marks of one who still used the bow. The narrow scalp lock at the crown of his shaven head held red pigments, matching the red that covered his ear. The tattooed image of a snake coiled around one arm, an intricate design of curving and jagged lines around the other. On the breast of his sleeveless brown waistcoat was a quillwork image of a leaping deer. On his cheek were four parallel slash marks from which blood still oozed.
“Murderer!” The boy was on his feet now, coiling as though for another assault.
Duncan ignored the knife in his hand. “I know this man,” he said in surprise. “I sat with him once at the fire of the Great Council. His name was Red Jacob, of the Oneida people.”
The boy halted. His hand was shaking.
“There are words to be said,” Duncan continued in a level voice. “We should catch a snake or a bird so it can carry word to his family on the other side.”
The boy seemed about to speak when a branch snapped on the slope above. His face drained of color and he crouched beside the log as if for cover. “If it comes back we will die,” he declared in a fearful whisper.
“The demon. The monster who eats men’s bones, who plays with their bodies like dolls. I know about him, from the campfires. If you hear the shaking of his rattle you will know that you are dead.”
Duncan scanned the slope uneasily, then pointed to a shape in the shadows. “It’s just a stag. The smell of blood makes it uneasy.”
“But it attracts others. The wolves are probably with the demon now, sharing the bones of Long Runner.”
Duncan’s head snapped up. “Long Runner?” He had not heard the name for two or three years, and had almost forgotten it.
“There were three of us.” The boy spoke slowly, as if only half hearing.
His eyes were locked on the face of the dead Oneida. “Long Runner was taken first and as he went down he shouted for us to run, that we had to make Edentown at all costs.”
Duncan stood and reached for the boy, shaking him by the shoulders.
“You mean an Englishman? A soldier?”
The Iroquois youth nodded. “But he speaks the Iroquois tongue like he was born to it. I only met him last week at Johnson Hall. They call him captain sometimes.”
Duncan lifted his gun. “Where? Tell me where Long Runner is!”
The boy pointed up the trail that intersected from the north. “Near the top of the ridge.”
Without another word Duncan sprinted away.
It was nearly a mile to the crest of the ridge, through a field of huge misshapen boulders that would have made for a perfect ambush. Duncan’s instincts blazed with warning. The Oneida had died less than an hour earlier. His killer might still be near. He slacked his pace, an eye on the boulders he passed, pausing once to listen. The forest was constantly speaking, Conawago had taught him, if only you knew how to listen. Birds kept quiet when intruders were close. Carnivores were drawn toward the dead and dying.
The wolf’s gaze was so intent on the base of the outcropping he did not notice Duncan until he had thrown a rock. The creature yelped as it struck his shoulder, and then faded into the shadows. Duncan ran to the limp form the wolf had meant to claim.
“Patrick!” he groaned. His friend the Long Runner showed no sign of life. Blood oozed from multiple wounds. A musket ball had ripped into his thigh, another had pierced his right side, and he had been struck in the head with an ax.
Patrick Woolford had been a captain of a company of frontier rangers during the war with France, nearly as famous as Major Rogers for accomplishing impossible feats. Declining frequent offers of positions in England and at headquarters units, he had gone west to fight in the recent rebellion of the western tribes. Even now, with the hostilities long over, he would disappear for weeks at a time with the Iroquois and frontiersmen who served in the small, elite ranger unit he commanded. It had been years since Duncan had seen him in uniform and despite the fact that, excepting Conawago, he had no closer friend, Woolford always found a way to change the conversation when Duncan asked how he served the king on his long treks in the forest.
With a sigh of relief, Duncan found a pulse. It was weak and irregular, but Woolford was alive. Duncan quickly straightened his long limbs and set to work. With a strip of cloth torn from Woolford’s linen shirt, he tied the thigh above the wound to slow the hemmoraging. The ball had pierced the muscle and exited the back of the leg. He gazed forlornly at the chest wound. If a ball had gone through his ribs, there would be little Duncan could do but prolong his suffering. Slowly Duncan unbuttoned his friend’s shirt then stared, disbelieving. Woolford had fastened an apparatus of oak slats around his torso, held together with knots of sinew. It was a form of Iroquois body armor once worn by the tribes in battle, before the arrival of firearms. Duncan had seen such artifacts on longhouse walls, even seen some, intricately decorated, under the sacred masks of the spirit lodge. Woolford’s oaken vest had the patina of age and every one of its slats was inscribed with symbols. Europeans tended to speak down to the woodland natives, dismissing them for their lack of education and written language, but Duncan knew better. Some of the wisest, most intellectually active men he had ever known numbered among those tribesmen, and their wisdom flowed from a fount much deeper than those of European institutions. Such symbols, moreover, often told stories more eloquently than many European books.
The vest would have been useless in a closer battle with guns but the ball aimed at Woolford had come from afar, as if the captain had anticipated such an attack. Although it had smashed through the vest, he saw amidst the splinters of wood and bone the metal gleam of the bullet. The vest had kept it from reaching a vital organ.
More troublesome was the tomahawk blow Woolford had taken to the head. The strike had been a glancing one, as if the ranger captain had been struggling, but the gash was deep and had nearly taken off his ear.
Duncan lifted an eyelid. The pupil did not respond. He whispered Woolford’s name as he poured water over the gash on his head. A patch of bright white, his friend’s skull, gleamed through the ragged tissue. Death hovered over the ranger.
A stone rolled on the path and Duncan looked up to see the Iroquois boy staring fearfully at Woolford . Duncan pointed to a little stream twenty paces away. “He lives. Get me moss from that bank,” he ordered the boy in the Iroquois tongue. “Then find some spiderwebs.”
The boy seemed not to understand. Duncan tried again, more urgently. “What is your tribe, boy?” he finally asked, in English.
“’Cadian,” the boy replied in a low voice, as if wary of being overheard.
Reminding himself that the boy was of the Canadian Mohawks, who sometimes spoke a different dialect, he explained in English what he needed.
Half an hour later Duncan had done what he could to staunch the bleeding and clean the wounds. The needle with silk thread and the sterile bandages he needed would have to wait until Edentown. For one short moment Woolford stirred toward consciousness. He reached up, grabbing Duncan’s arm, though he showed no sign of recognizing his friend.
“They’re all going to die! Every last man will die!” he uttered with desperate effort, then collapsed.
A terrible chill rose along Duncan’s back. “Edentown is less than eight miles away,” he said to the boy. “Down the southern trail. You’ll see its cleared fields and barns to the east after the trail passes a high waterfall. I want you to help tie the captain onto my back then run for the town. Take my pack, they will recognize it there. Go to the great house and tell them Captain Woolford is hurt bad. Bring four strong men and a litter.”
“But Red Jacob—” the young Iroquois protested.
“We have to tend to the living, boy.” Duncan saw the anguish on his thin face. “But we can set his body in repose, lay down some cedar to attract the spirits.”
The boy gave a solemn nod, then pushed the flour sack looped over his shoulder to his back, and bent to help lift Woolford.
As they walked, Duncan, bent under the weight of his unconscious friend, pointed out strands of ground cedar, which the boy retrieved as Duncan explained how he should place a ring of the fragrant plant around the warrior. The youth ran ahead as they approached the log where the Oneida had died, and had begun the task when he cried out and backed away.
Red Jacob’s left arm was gone. The eater of bones had returned.
Described as “a writer of faraway mysteries,” Eliot Pattison’s travel and interests span a million miles of global trekking, visiting every continent but Antarctica. An international lawyer by training, he received “the Art of Freedom” award along with Ira Glass, Patti Smith and Richard Gere for bringing his social and cultural concerns to his fiction, published on three continents. He is the author of thirteen mystery novels, including the internationally acclaimed Edgar award-winning Inspector Shan Series, set in China and Tibet and the Bone Rattler Series, set in Colonial America. His books have been translated into over twenty languages.
A former resident of Boston and Washington, Pattison resides on an 18th century farm in Pennsylvania with his wife, three children, and an ever-expanding menagerie of animals.