Baltimore Post-Examiner is proud to present Original Death by Edgar Award-winning author Eliot Pattison. Described as “a writer of faraway mysteries,” Eliot Pattison is an international lawyer who brings his social and cultural concerns to his fiction in three acclaimed mysteries series.
Original Death is Eliot Pattison’s newest installment in his Bone Rattler Series. It was voted one of the Top 10 Mysteries & Thrillers of 2013 by Publishers Weekly and has recently been praised by NPR’s “All Things Considered” book reviewer Alan Cheuse for its excellent prose and portrait of “the heart of pre-colonial America.” It is set in 1750s in upstate New York during the French and Indian War and offers profound insights into the forces that shaped America’s early history. Please purchase the book at Amazon.
A Mystery of Colonial America
Late Summer 1760
The dead Highlanders lined the road for as far as Duncan McCallum could see, swaying from the English gibbets as crows pecked their flesh. He recognized the lifeless, sunken faces as he stumbled along in the chill grey dawn, seeing his grandfather, his uncles, then the bayoneted bodies of his mother and sisters heaped on the ground below a gallows lit by a solitary shaft of sunlight. From it his father raised a skeletal arm to point an accusing finger at him, then shouted angry words Duncan could not understand.
The cold water hit him like a violent slap. He sat up, gasping, looking into the worried, weathered countenance of his friend Conawago. The old Nipmuc Indian extended a hand to help Duncan to his feet. “You were crying out again. Your clan?”
Duncan, his heart still thundering, managed a short, sober nod. For years he had suffered nightmares of the English slaughter of his clan, but after arriving in the New world they had subsided until he had been nearly free of them. Suddenly, as soon as Duncan and Conawago had set out on their northern quest two weeks earlier, his dead family, some killed in battle, others executed as Jacobite rebels, the remainder brutally murdered by English plunderers, had come back, the nightmares growing more and more frequent. Conawago, revered among the tribes as a reader of dreams, had declared that his family on the other side was telling him it had unfinished business with him. As they moved ever closer to the bloody battlefields of the North, however, Duncan could not shake the nagging sense that they were summoning him to join them. Dreams were always messages from the other side, the people of the forest believed, and those messages had to be obeyed.
He watched as the old Nipmuc stepped to a wide, flat rock lapped by the shimmering lake and looked up to the sky, a hand on the amulet around his neck. Not for the first time he was invoking his totem to protect Duncan, the pitiful European who had not yet learned how to take a protector deity of his own. when he finished, he turned with a weary grin and gestured the young Scot toward the lake.
“These waters have been touched by the spirits today,” Conawago declared. “we go no farther until you wash your darkness away.”
Duncan quickly stripped off his waistcoat and shirt, shoes and stockings, then took two long strides and dove into the shimmering waters of the lake called Champlain.
The spirits were indeed in the lake that day. The water seemed unnaturally clear as he swam through it, invigorating in a way he had not known since swimming the Hebrides waters of his boyhood. As he surfaced for a breath and looked back at Conawago sunning on the rocks, he felt his foreboding fade. He resolved to speak no more of his nightmares. He would do nothing that might disturb the joy on the old man’s face. Never in all the time he had known the Nipmuc had Duncan seen him so contented.
“Only eight or nine more miles,” Conawago declared as Duncan pulled himself out onto the rock. “Fifty years of searching, and I am but two hours away.” with boyish energy he tossed Duncan an apple and went back to the tattered letter in his hand, even though by now, after weeks of repeated reading, Duncan was certain Conawago had committed the extraordinary words to memory. He himself could have recited them.
Brother of my clan, the letter began. The four simple words had changed Conawago’s life forever.
Once a year before the harvest moon I send this letter to a different location in the hope of reconnecting the chain of our blood. Some say you are still in Europe with kings and queens. Some say you stayed with the Jesuits and became a monk in Canada. Some say you lie in the sea in the hull of an English ship blasted by the French. Last year a woman told me she saw you making firkins in Boston. Now another says you may be teaching children in Edentown, in the Catskills. The one I seek is the last of us Nipmucs, the Conawago taken by Jesuits from the banks of the Hudson in the year 16 and 90, the one Europeans call Socrates Moon. If you are that one, I am Towantha, the son of your dead brother, though most know me as Hickory John. With me is my grandson Ojiwa, named Ishmael by those of the second world, whose parents died when he was an infant. He is twelve years of age this month. The seed of our tribe is not dead. We two yet breathe and can be found in Bethel Church, near the southern shore of Lake Champlain, on the army’s new road to Ticonderoga.
In the parchment envelope had been a short strand of white wampum beads, a tribal warranty to the truth of the words. Conawago had collapsed onto a chair when he had first read the letter, uttering syllables of surprised joy as tears ran down his cheeks. For two hours the Nipmuc had not left the chair in the kitchen of the Ramsey great house in Edentown, reciting the letter again and again as Duncan sat grinning, with Sarah Ramsey, proprietress of the town and holder of Duncan’s bond of indenture, at his side.
Not for the first time Duncan recalled the bittersweet smile on Sarah’s face when he had looked up after the first reading. Her hand had gone to his and squeezed it. She had instantly known that Duncan would have to leave again, had known that Duncan would accompany Conawago to the settlement near Lake Champlain to at last complete his decades-long quest to reconnect with his family. Conawago’s hope of ever doing so had died to a tiny flickering ember, and seeing it rekindled in the gentle old man’s eyes had been the closest Duncan had ever been to witnessing a miracle.
The years had fallen away from the wrinkled old face.
Conawago looked up and returned Duncan’s gaze. “I have seen many men swim in my time,” he declared, cocking his head in curiosity. “They have always stayed on the surface. But you always seek the full embrace of the water spirits.”
Duncan grinned. “My grandfather,” he explained. “His idea of swimming was diving for oysters and clams.” He grinned at the memory of the sturdy old Highland Scot, of whom Conawago so often reminded him.
“My grandfather,” Conawago replied in a whimsical tone, “taught me the magic of their feathers.”
Duncan paused, then realized Conawago was now gazing over his shoulder. He turned just in time to see a huge white-headed eagle land in its nest on a tiny island a hundred yards offshore.
“It would be a gift of great power for my nephew,” Conawago suggested.
Duncan hesitated, not understanding until he realized his friend stared at the bird. Conawago raised a hand to stop him as he took a long step toward the water. “There are words to be spoken,” his friend said, and he quickly recited a prayer in the tongue of the Mohawk, the Iroquois tribe whose land they journeyed through. Duncan repeated it back to him and then with a running leap dove back into the cool water of the lake. He cleared the shore with a few powerful strokes then drew in a deep breath and slipped beneath the surface.
It was a world all his own, with a wonder and freedom he knew nowhere else. He glided through the diamond-bright water, pulling with cupped hands, working his feet like the seals he swam with among the islands of his youth. Schools of small fish scattered before him. Huge trout, each a living kaleidoscope, paused to watch his passage. From the shadows at the edge of his vision, one of the lake’s hulking sturgeon watched like a wise old sentinel.
Only his eyes and nose breached the surface as he reached the island. The great eagle cocked his head at him but did not move. Duncan eased forward, well aware that before he had met Conawago, his presence would have frightened the bird. Something new, wild yet calming, had quickened inside him during his months in the wilderness with the old Nipmuc.
He slowly rose, pulling his lanky six-foot frame onto the stone shingle of the island, the water running off the dark blond tail of hair at his nape. “I am Duncan, chieftain of clan McCallum,” he announced to the majestic creature, and then he spoke the words Conawago had given him.
“I come to honor you and your kind, as a poor human who cannot soar with the gods.” He spoke the words in English and Mohawk, then added a prayer of his own. “I come to ask you to bless the blood bond between two great men,” he said, thinking of the glorious reunion that would come later that day.
When he lowered his head, he spied what he sought, a long tail feather, brilliantly white, lying on the ground below the huge nest. He looked up and returned the intense stare of the bird. The eagle had the air of an expectant teacher.
“I fear for the bloodlines of both our clans,” he confessed to the bird.
“If you find us worthy, I ask that you watch over them, the Nipmuc and the McCallum.” His own clan, like that of Conawago, had grown nearly extinct at the hands of the English.
Duncan stepped to the long feather, and when the bird did not react, he slowly bent to lift it, raising it up toward the sun before dipping it toward the water and then to the great bird. “Tapadh leat,” he said. I thank you, first in gaelic and then in the tongue of the Mohawks. The eagle watched with interest as Duncan carefully stuffed the feather into the tight leg of his britches, then the huge creature abruptly swooped down, nearly touching Duncan’s cheek with the tip of its massive wing before gliding over the water.
He watched the graceful flight and was about to turn away when the eagle circled and swooped again, dragging its feet in the water a stone’s throw from the island before pulling sharply upward. At first Duncan thought it had taken a fish, but then he saw its talons were empty. The bird cut a long arc in the sky, wheeling as if to see if Duncan watched, then glided down to precisely the same place where the water still rippled and touched it again before rising and returning to its nest. It turned to Duncan with the same expectant gaze.
The university-trained Scot within him knew better than to think the bird was communicating with him. But he had spent too long with Conawago to ignore such a sign. The tribes believed birds to be messengers of the gods, and he and Conawago were on a tribal quest. when he turned back to the water, he saw something floating a few feet away. He lifted the little swath of bear fur, thinking it was likely something that had adorned an Iroquois warrior, but then he saw the winding of thread that bound it to a little brass pin. It was a cockade, worn on the bonnet of Highland troops, and someone had fastened a small dried thistle into the fur.
He lowered himself into the lake and with quiet breaststrokes moved to the point where the eagle had touched, then dove.
No fish were to be seen. The patch of water was like a clearing in the forest where all the creatures had been frightened away. He pulled himself deeper, ten feet, twelve feet, and suddenly the death was upon him. He jerked backward, choking, and shot to the surface, coughing and spitting up water.
Duncan looked back at the eagle, who still watched, then gripped his fear, caught his breath, and dove again.
The man lay on the bottom as if resting, looking up at the thin blue sky. He was not much older than Duncan, with red hair tightly braided at the back. The military sash over his shoulder held a dirk but not the usual broadsword. His waist belt did not hold the regulation cartridge box, only a sporran, the front pouch worn over Highland kilts. The red and brown tartan he wore was pressed tight to his legs by the rope that bound him to the spokes of a heavy wheel. Another rope around his neck clamped his head against the iron rim of the wheel. Duncan could not bring himself to touch the body, but he gripped the wheel to study it with the more deliberate gaze of the doctor he had trained to be. The man’s face was badly bruised. His right calf had been savaged, probably by a musket ball shot at close range.
There were no other wounds, no apparent deathblow. He had drowned.
The Highland soldier had been dead only a few hours at most. He had been disabled with the shot, then beaten and tied to the wheel before being dumped into the lake while still alive. Seeing a clan emblem on the dirk, Duncan grabbed it before drifting up to the surface.
When Duncan emerged from the water, Conawago was carving a small piece of wood, which he quickly hid. The Nipmuc hesitated, a strange foreboding in his eyes, then he brightened and nodded his gratitude as Duncan extended the feather. He accepted the treasure, holding it in both hands toward the eagle, still watching from its nest, then whispered in the words of his people.
There had been an unspoken vow between them not to speak of the war on their journey. This journey was more important than the battles between distant kings. They had become like pilgrims who spoke no unpure thought, lest they disturb their sacred quest. Duncan dared not break the magic by speaking of his own foreboding or of his grisly discovery in the lake. The man was a casualty of the blood-soaked war between the French and British, and they were removed from that war, worked their hardest to have nothing to do with it. But as they moved back up the trail that hugged the shoreline, the image of the dead Scot haunted him. The death had a slow, organized aspect to it, not the quick work of the raiders who hit supply convoys and outposts then fled, undermining the British while their main forces were in the North, preparing for the looming battle at Montreal. But, Duncan reminded himself, the French relied heavily on irregular troops, trappers and natives of the Huron and Abenaki tribes, some of who clung to the old ways of honoring a victory by the slow death of captives.
As they paused, Duncan checked the flint of his long rifle and freshened the powder in the pan. Conawago watched him but said nothing. He too would not break the magic.
The old Nipmuc increased the pace, consuming the lakeside trail with the steady loping gait the people of the forest used to traverse long distances. Conawago was more than three times Duncan’s age but never lagged, never was the first to call for a rest. Although he had traveled to both England and France, spoke several languages, and could articulate as well as any scholar Duncan had ever known, this was his home, here was where he was most comfortable, here was where he honored what the natives called his true skin. He was an aged sinewy stag who moved with graceful instinct through the forest.
That instinct had saved Duncan’s life more than once, and he knew to respect it without hesitation. As Conawago abruptly halted and stepped behind the cover of a tree, Duncan dropped beside a boulder, raising his rifle as he followed the old Indian’s gaze through the birches that lined the shore.
The boat they saw was broad in beam and shallow in draft, powered by four long oars on either side. It was surprisingly close to shore, no more than fifty yards away, in a channel between the shore and a long narrow island. Between the rowing benches, crates and barrels were stacked, covered by canvas.
“Army supplies,” Conawago declared with relief, and stepped away from the tree. The boat was clearly one of the squat supply bateaux that plied the water passage of the long lakes, bound for the forts at Ticonderoga or Crown Point, perhaps even the depot at the far northern end of Champlain that supported the regiments in Quebec.
The old Indian stepped toward the water onto a narrow pebbly beach and waved good-naturedly toward the men on the boat. A man at the bow instantly snapped up a musket and aimed at him.
“No!” Duncan cried, and sprang forward in a long desperate leap, pushing his friend away as the musket fired. Conawago’s body jerked as it fell to the ground. without conscious thought Duncan raised his own rifle, still in his hands, and aimed at a second man who was raising another musket at them. He shot an instant before the musket fired. The man spun about, his shot gone wild, dropping his gun to clutch at his upper arm.
Duncan pulled Conawago into a thick clump of cedars that obscured them from the water. To his relief the old Nipmuc began to stir. “I am a fool,” he groused as he clutched at his shoulder. “Of course they would think we were raiders. They saw those canoes.”
Duncan only half heard his words. He pulled away Conawago’s fingers, soaked in blood. He ripped apart the linen where it had been torn by the ball, muttering a gaelic curse as he saw the ugly gout of flesh. The ball had scraped along the top of the shoulder, breaking the skin along its passage before digging into the flesh at his back.
“It’s still in there,” Duncan declared in an apologetic tone, “lodged between the skin and the shoulder blade.”
Conawago grimaced, then reached into his belt and handed Duncan his skinning knife before taking a stick in his mouth and leaning over to tightly grip a thick root with both his hands. Duncan had nearly completed the full course of medical studies in Edinburgh before being arrested and transported to America for harboring a Highland rebel, yet he often sensed
Conawago had a better understanding of the ways of healing. He tore the shirt another few inches and bent over his friend’s shoulder with the blade.
He sliced the skin quickly but had to press against the wound to force the ball out. He gritted his teeth as Conawago moaned, cursing the luck of the shot. He would have gladly taken the wound himself to keep the old Nipmuc out of harm’s way.
As was often the case, Conawago seemed to read his mind. He spat the stick out when Duncan showed him the ball. “If you hadn’t pushed me, my friend, it would have been in my chest.”
“But why?” Duncan asked as he wiped the bullet on his britches and dropped it into the pocket of his waistcoat.
“The Canadians grow desperate. Disrupting supplies means disrupting the British attacks in Canada.”
“Canoes. You mentioned canoes.”
“Where the shore curves around ahead of us. In the shadows of a big sugar tree hanging over the water.”
From his pack Duncan pulled out the small copper pot they used for cooking. “I need to wash the wound,” he said, gesturing toward the lake.” Before stepping away he reloaded his gun and placed it within reach of Conawago.
The supply boat was disappearing behind the curve of the shore Conawago had described, beyond the huge maple. Not for the first time he marveled at his companion’s eyesight. If he had not known what to look for, he would never have seen the four bark canoes. They had been pulled into low shrubs so that only their ends were visible.
When he returned, Conawago had his sewing kit in his lap, tying a piece of thread onto a needle. “we can still make it before dusk,” he said to Duncan.
“Nonsense. We’re making camp here. You’re in no shape.”
“It was not my leg that was shot. Of course we are going on.” He handed Duncan the needle and thread. “You can return the favor.”
Duncan’s hand unconsciously went to the long scar along his hairline, where a raider had tried to scalp him the year before. Conawago had saved his life for the first time that day, then sewn up his wound. Duncan returned his friend’s expectant gaze and grimaced, but found himself unable to argue. “This is going to hurt,” he warned.
A quarter hour later they were under the shadow of the massive maple, studying the canoes with new worry. They had not been pulled from the water for safekeeping. They had been disabled with several holes in their bottoms, then hidden.
“Why take an ax to a perfectly good canoe?” Duncan asked.
“Because you don’t intend for it to be used again. That is not the real question. If you smash a canoe you no longer care about it, no longer need to travel on the water. But why does someone smash a canoe and then hide it?” without waiting for a reply Conawago wrapped the deerhide strap of his pack around his uninjured shoulder, hitched the arm with the injured shoulder into his belt, and set off down the path. Duncan cast a worried gaze down the lake, where a young Scot had been killed that day, then followed.
Conawago’s wound kept him from running, but he set a fast walking pace for the last miles to Bethel Church. Duncan saw the effort it took for the old Nipmuc to push back his pain, but he succeeded in doing so, murmuring once more the joyful songs of the woodland peoples reserved for reunions between long-separated family members. Half a century before,
Conawago had returned to his clan’s home after years of studying and travel with the Jesuits only to find his people gone, the little valley where they had lived decimated by farmers. He had never seen his people again, and all the emotion he had pushed down after losing his mother and siblings and failing to find any trace of them for so long was rising to the surface.
There was weariness in his voice now, sometimes a hint of melancholy, but most of all there was joy.
When at last the little settlement came into view below the long ridge they descended, Conawago paused. “I almost forgot,” he declared, and Duncan watched in confusion as he settled onto a fallen log and extracted the eagle feather Duncan had retrieved. Then he saw the little jars and pouches Conawago produced from his pack, and he understood. The feather, meant as a gift to Conawago’s long lost nephew, had to be blessed and adorned with the marks of their tribe. The old Nipmuc looked up for a moment with the smile of an excited boy. “within this hour I will have embraced members of my tribe!” he exclaimed, then bent to his solemn task.
As Conawago offered the feather up to the four points of the compass and began a chant, Duncan turned toward the buildings in the distance. They questioned those they had met in their rapid passage from the Catskills, learning that Bethel Church was a community of Christian Iroquois constructed on the army’s supply road between Albany and Ticonderoga, two miles from the lakeshore. The settlement had been built around a small church established by one of the Anglican missionaries who had started competing with the Jesuits and Moravians for the souls of the woodland tribes. The inhabitants of the mission had taken up farming and wagon building as a means of livelihood, and to Conawago’s obvious pride a teamster near Albany had proclaimed Hickory John to be the best makerof wheels in the Champlain Valley. It was a hard life for the natives who embraced their new faith so fervently. They were often treated as outcasts by their own people and never fully trusted by the Europeans, though often they were the most devout Christians Duncan had ever met.
As Conawago drew a pattern with ocher on the feather, Duncan settled onto a boulder and studied the little collection of log structures half a mile below them. So late in the afternoon he would have expected to see more activity. As Duncan tried to recall what day of the week it was, his gaze settled on a square structure in the center of the settlement, marked by a timber cross fastened above its roof. The inhabitants were no doubt in church.
His friend was changing his shirt when Duncan turned around, wincing as he struggled to pull the bloodstained one over his shoulder.
Duncan sprang to his side to help, then held the little mirror they shared, suffering Conawago’s warning glances, as if the old Indian dared him to comment on his unusual show of vanity in wiping the grime from his face and straightening his long greying hair.
At last Conawago wrapped the precious eagle feather in a piece of doeskin, hitched the hand of his injured arm into his belt, and with an
eager grin led Duncan down the narrow path. His journey of five decades had come to an end.
“A handsome creature,” Conawago declared of a draft horse grazing in the pasture where the trail met the road. “A noble village, Duncan,” he added, gesturing toward the sturdy houses they approached. He was going out of his way to show pride in the settlement, where more Nipmucs lived than any where else on the planet. It was indeed a tidy, well-kept community, the hands of craftsmen evident in the construction of its dozen buildings. Firewood was stacked neatly by each house. A well with a long sweep for dipping buckets stood near the little church. Smoke threaded lazily out the chimney of what looked like a smithy.
“An animal to treasure,” the Nipmuc said of a large brown cow that called out as they passed. He said nothing about the expectant way the cow stood beside the large barn. Its swollen udders meant it was overdue for milking.
Their heads snapped up at movement at the far end of the village. Two dogs were tussling, each pulling an end of a small red scrap. Duncan’s contentment began to wane. He glanced uneasily into the trees. A flock of crows watched the buildings.
“We can wait outside the church,” Conawago suggested. “No need to disturb them.”
But when they reached the building its door hung open, a solitary shoe on its side at the threshold. when Conawago hung back, Duncan stepped past him to enter the little structure. The chamber was empty. He approached the simple altar and turned to face the rough-hewn benches.
On one, two prayer books lay open. On another, knitting needles had been dropped on top of what appeared to be a child’s sock. Four wide-rimmed black hats occupied the row of pegs along the back wall with new foreboding he stepped out the door and discovered that
Conawago had disappeared. Tightening his grip on his rifle he ran out into the road. He jogged to the far end of the little community, seeing nothing but the two dogs, now fleeing into a patch of pumpkins, and then he turned and quickly paced back down the road. The doors of the houses he passed were open. The cow called out her discomfort. The crows stared at him.
At first Duncan thought the sound he heard was a rustle of wind, but he saw no leaves moving. He began running, glancing into the empty barn, then stopped to survey the buildings again. The sound, now an anguished moan, grew louder—a human moan. He quickened his pace and followed it toward the building with the smoking chimney. Two wide bay doors on the side hung open. He reached the entrance and froze.
Conawago had collapsed onto the floor, the bloody head of a man in his lap, the mourning chant of his people coming from his throat in sobs. Before him was a line of bodies that extended into the shadows. The gentle folk of Bethel Church had all been killed.
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.