Cochecho, New Hampshire
Early September, 1676
The late summer air wore the perfume of wild honeysuckle and carried the steady, changeless sonance of the nearby Cochecho Falls to Grace Hampton’s ears as she sat beneath a locust tree. She was entranced by the mother-of-pearl button suspended on a length of tow linen, a gift from her late father and her most prized possession. She’d twirl the button so fast it would become nothing but a blur. When she wasn’t playing with it, she always wound the string securely around her wrist so that the button would easily drop into her palm.
Around her, other children played while the adults conversed about things that didn’t interest a nine-year-old girl. Major Richard Waldron, proprietor of the town’s mill and trading post, was entertaining two companies from Massachusetts who had come to collect several hundred refugee Wampanoag Indians who had fled the Commonwealth during recent fighting. The townspeople of Cochecho called the Wampanoags “Strange Indians,” to distinguish them from the local Penacook tribe, who had lived peaceably with the whites for many years under the leadership of Wanalancet who’d converted to Christianity and was thus called a Praying Indian. Grace knew the adults were concerned about the number of Wampanoags who entered the town, and vaguely assumed that was what Major Waldron and his guests Captains Syl and Hathorne were discussing so intently. Waldron entertained his guests with a feast of roast pig and games. Finding a shady spot beneath a dying locust tree, Grace unwound her whirligig from her wrist and sent the button twirling.
Whzz whzz whzz
The toy was the only thing she had left of her former life. Both parents had been killed by Indians three years before, when she was only six and her sister Alice was only ten. Their little farmhouse near Salmon Falls was raided and burned. The girls survived the attack only because they’d been playing in the cornfield. When they heard the whoops and cries of the Indians, they watched in horror as their home was set ablaze. Terrified, they heard their mother’s screams as they huddled there, praying they wouldn’t be discovered. They spent hours hiding until all was quiet and nothing was left of their home but a pile of smoldering ash.
Alice wouldn’t allow Grace to go near the ruins of their home. Instead, she’d seized her little sister’s hand and fled to their nearest neighbor’s garrison. News was sent to their next of kin, Captain John Heard, who immediately sent for his cousin’s daughters to come live with them in Cochecho. The transition had been difficult, but after three years, Grace was beginning to adjust to her new life. Persistent nightmares in which she heard the Indians’ war whoops and her parents’ terrified cries were growing less frequent, but still tormented her from time to time.
She was starting to forget what her parents looked like, and that frightened her. She knew she had her father’s coloration; ruddy with a colony of freckles so plentiful they sometimes blended together. Her hair was as red as an autumn leaf. Errant curls often sprung rebelliously from beneath her coif and she was always told to tuck them in again. Her nose was just a stub. Worse yet were her eyes; sky-blue, but rimmed with brown which in another face could be considered alluring. But in Grace’s situation, they were small and closely-set, which seemed to put people off.
Her sister Alice, however, was budding into feminine loveliness. At thirteen, her heart-shaped face had lost its childish features. Alice had her mother’s sparkling violet eyes and delicate nose. She kept her nut-brown hair neatly hidden beneath her coif without any escaping strands to ruin her almost grown-up appearance. Alice was content to churn butter and spin flax, which endeared her to the Heard household. But Grace was too restless and found herself unable to focus on one tedious chore for very long. That was another trait she had inherited from her father, while Alice embodied her mother’s softer qualities.
The whirligig’s soft music always brought her parents to mind, and her throat thickened as she remembered her loss. She carried the toy with her everywhere, wrapped carefully around one wrist when she wasn’t playing with it. Whenever she had a spare moment between chores, she’d unwind the linen cord and let the opalescent button transport her to a happier place. Overcome with fresh sorrow, she didn’t notice another child’s approach until he snatched the whirligig from her hands. She looked up into the pimply face of a thirteen-year-old boy.
“Give it back, Johnny Horne!”
Hot tears scalded the backs of Grace Hampton’s eyeballs as the gangly thirteen-year-old boy dangled her precious whirligig just above her reach. He was a bully with large front teeth and mocking hazel eyes.
“Crybaby Grace!” the bully jeered as other children observed the exchange. “You want it so badly, see if you can get it now!”
With those words, he flung it up into the lower limbs of the locust tree. There it hung, suspended like a luscious fruit too high for even the tallest child to reach.
“That was mean, Johnny,” little Emmie Ham pouted, her arms full of white kitten. She was eight years old and Captain Heard’s granddaughter. She was also Grace’s best friend. “I’ll tell your papa on you.”
Grace peered around for any nearby adults. Finding none, she wiped her dripping nose on her sleeve and looked helplessly up at her toy. The branch from which it dangled was leafless and appeared to be dead. Inhaling deeply, she tucked her skirt into her apron before reaching for the lowest limb. “Give me a leg up, Emmie.”
Emmie set down the kitten, which promptly scampered off in pursuit of a white moth. Emmie stepped forward and formed a stirrup with her hands for Grace to place her foot into. With her friend’s help, Grace hoisted herself up onto the lowest limb.
“Oh, Grace!” her thirteen-year-old sister Alice warned. “Don’t! You’ll get a beating if you get caught climbing trees again!”
She flung her stockinged legs around the limb and hung upside-down for a moment. Her untied coif strings dangled from her shoulders. She felt the linen cap slip from her head and tumble to the grass below. A stream of red-gold curls spilled from her bare head as she clambered to straddle the limb. She gave Johnny Horne a defiant look as she perched among the leaves.
“Grace, don’t.” Alice gasped anxiously, pressing her fingertips to her mouth. “The branch is weak. You’ll fall!”
The branch quivered under her weight, sending the whirligig dancing in midair. She inched closer, and reached out as far as she could. Her prize remained just inches from her grasp. She leaned forward more, until she lay prone against the tree limb.
“The branch is going to break!” Alice cried.
Grace felt the limb begin to give way. Instinctively she grasped it with arms and legs as if she were astride a wild horse. Little Emmie Ham’s face paled and even Johnny Horne looked worried. “Yonder comes Old Dick!” the boy warned, pointing at an older man approaching them. “Old Dick” was what the children called Major Waldron, but never to his face.
“What are you children doing there?” The angry man bellowed. “Get away from my tree!”
Major Richard Waldron strode purposely towards them, his face red with rage. At sixty-seven, he owned most of the land in Cochecho and treated the settlement like it was his kingdom. His black brows swooped over his face like two blackbirds about to collide above his large nose. In his wake were the two captains from Massachusetts, who looked slightly embarrassed for him.
Determined to retrieve her whirligig, Grace inched further towards the end, the branch giving way a little more. Her little fingers grasped her prize just as Waldron approached. The other children fled to avoid Waldron’s wrath, except for Alice and Emmie, who cowered in the angry man’s presence.
“Grace Hampton!” he yelled, reaching up and plucking her forcefully from the limb. “Look what you’ve done! You’ve broken that branch. Captain Heard will hear about this and I’ll see to it I’m compensated for damages. And if he refuses to give you the thrashing you need, I’ll beat you myself!”
He’d set her down firmly on the ground. Placing his hands on her thin shoulders, he shook her for emphasis until her teeth rattled in her skull. The damaged limb slanted downward, partially detached from the trunk.
“Please sir,” Alice entreated. “”Twas not my sister’s fault. Johnny Horne threw her toy up into the tree. If anyone deserves punishment, ‘tis he!”
“Ignore this small matter with the children,” Captain Syl suggested with some impatience. “We’ve business to discuss.”
Waldron’s eyes still snapped with rage. “Very well,” he grumbled. “We’ll seek a more private place to converse.” Releasing Grace’s shoulders, he said, “Away with all of you!” He lunged towards Alice and little Emmie, who shrieked and ran toward the direction of a group of women. Alice remained, looking chastised, but Grace felt a sob ready to tear from her throat. Snatching her coif from the ground, she ran to the riverbank, the mother-of-pearl button pressed against her palm.
I hate it here! Her mind screamed as she plopped heavily on the riverbank. I miss Mama and Papa and Salmon Falls. She’d been squeezing the button so tightly it left an impression in her palm. Sniffling, Grace jammed her coif on her head. She sat near a smooth sumac bush, still trembling from a mixture of emotions. Determined to forget about the tree incident, she grasped the two ends of the string and prepared to send the pearly button singing.
Emmie’s white kitten approached Grace with an upturned tail and pointy pink ears. It eyed her curiously.
“Why, good day to you again, Kitty,” Grace said, happy for the unexpected company. “I suspect Emmie is looking for you. Do you want to play?”
She dangled the button in front of the kitten so that the afternoon sun glinted off it. The kitten batted happily at the toy, snagging the string on its sharp claws. Grace giggled until the kitten drew the button to its jaws and clamped down on it. With one swift motion, the little cat had yanked the string from Grace’s hand and took off towards the millhouse.
“Stop, Kitty!” Grace gave chase, afraid she’d lost her precious toy forever. The cat looked back at her once, but appeared to be spurred on when it realized she was in pursuit. It darted through the grasses with lightning speed and disappeared through a gap in the mill’s door.
Grace knelt on the flagstones and peered into the hole. She was about to coax the kitten out when she heard men talking in low, hushed tones. This surprised Grace. She thought everyone was still celebrating at Waldron’s garrison. Intrigued, she pressed her face against the hole.
Sunlight illuminated the millhouse through several narrow windows and Grace recognized three men gathered around the giant millstone. The two Massachusetts officers sat on fat sacks of ground meal while the third, Major Waldron himself, stood in their midst. The other two, Captains Syl and Hathorne, listened intently to Waldron, puffing away on their pipes. Grace could smell the tobacco smoke as it wafted out the door. Their grim, somber faces further piqued her curiosity, sending a shiver of foreboding down her spine.
Peering through the hole, Grace saw the white kitten scurry behind one of the sacks. Then she saw her whirligig lying just inches from the door, its tail tantalizingly close. She wondered if she could reach the string and withdraw the whirligig without the men noticing. The thought of doing something so daring thrilled her as she quietly thrust her hand through the hole. Her fingertips pinched the string just as Waldron began speaking.
“I’m in agreement with your proposal, Syl, but I don’t want my militia involved,” Waldron was saying. “Nay, nor do I want Wanalancet’s people to take part. And it goes without saying that all women and children will be confined to their garrisons during the sham fight. We want as few casualties as possible.”
She knew Wanalancet was the peaceful sachem of the local Penacook tribe, and a friend to the English. War games were often played between the whites and peaceful Indians, but nobody got hurt, so Waldron’s last statement sounded ominous. It was hard to hear the men speak over the roar of the falls. As each word was spoken, Grace held her breath and slid the mother-of-pearl button slowly across the floor, hoping the men didn’t hear the soft scuttle it made across the floor boards. The button disturbed the dust and chaff, tickling her nose so that she struggled to stifle a sneeze.
“Fair enough,” Captain Syl agreed. “But those we plan to apprehend might grow suspicious if none of the local savages are invited to the games.”
Waldron appeared to consider this. “Then I propose we invite all the savages---Wanalancet’s as well as your refugees.”
“Some of your local Indians could get caught in the crossfire,” Hathorne put in.
“Well if your men aim their muskets and cannons properly, there ought not be too many casualties,” Waldron smirked. “Wanalancet’s people do business at my trading post and I don’t want to lose customers.”
Grace pulled the button closer as the men chuckled softly.
“Rum and muskets, Waldron,” Syl said, plucking his pipe from his mouth and pointing at Waldron with it. “A bad combination to sell to Indians, friendly or not.”
Waldron dismissed this criticism with a wave of his hand. “As long as they bring in the beaver pelts, my purse is fed.”
Grace could feel the button now and her hand closed around its cool, familiar smoothness just as Waldron announced, “Gentlemen, I feel we’re in agreement. Pray, let’s return to the festivities afore we’re missed.”
Syl and Hathorne rose from their seats as Grace retrieved her toy. Oh, do go out the back way! She silently implored the men. She knew she couldn’t remove herself from the millhouse without them seeing her if they came through the front door, and Waldron would see to it she was whipped if he knew she’d been eavesdropping. To her great relief, the men exited through the back.
After they vacated the millhouse, Grace released her breath in a whoosh. Her nine-year-old mind didn’t quite grasp the severity of what the men were discussing, and anyway it was eclipsed by the return of her whirligig. Certain they had left, she prepared to release the suspended sneeze only to discover she no longer needed to.
Dismissing the men’s conversation and immersing herself in the joy of having retrieved her toy, Grace sat cross-legged on the flagstones and sent the mother of pearl button dancing on its string.
Whzzz whzzz whzzz
She sat cross-legged on the stones, once again so mesmerized by the singing whirligig she was oblivious to her surroundings. She wasn’t aware someone was behind her until a dark shadow enveloped her where she sat.