Cochecho, New Hampshire
Early September, 1676
The late summer air wore the perfume of wild honeysuckle and carried the steady, changeless rhythm 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 would twirl the button on its tether until it became a hypnotic blur. She carried the toy everywhere, and 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 Pennacook tribe, who had lived peaceably with the whites for many years under the leadership of Wanalancet. The sachem of the Pennacooks had 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, followed by several 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. Her parents had been killed by Indians three years before, when she was only six and her sister Alice was thirteen. The girls survived the attack because they had been picking ears of corn in the field. They heard the whoops and cries of the Indians and watched in horror as their home was set ablaze. Terrified, they listened to their mother’s screams as they huddled among the corn stalks, praying they wouldn’t be discovered. They hid for hours 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. Instead, she had seized her little sister’s hand and fled to the nearest neighbor’s garrison. The neighbors sent word 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. Nightmares in which she heard the Indians’ war whoops and her parents’ terrified cries, though less frequent, 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 being told to tuck them in. Her nose was just a stub. Worse yet were her eyes, which were sky-blue but rimmed with brown. In another face they 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, and she was often mistaken for being several years older. Alice had her mother’s sparkling violet eyes, delicate nose, and mild disposition. She kept her nut-brown hair neatly hidden beneath her coif without any escaping strands to ruin her grown-up appearance. Alice was content to churn butter and spin flax, which endeared her to the Heard household. Grace, on the other hand, was too restless and found herself unable to focus on one tedious chore for very long—another trait she had inherited from her father. The whirligig’s soft music always brought her parents to mind, and her throat thickened as she remembered her loss. Whenever she had a spare moment between chores, she would 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 sixteen-year-old boy.
“Give it back, Johnny Horne!”
Hot tears scalded the backs of Grace’s eyeballs as the gangly sixteen-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 nearby 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. The commotion drew the attention of other children, including Grace’s sister Alice, who ran to the base of the tree, a look of concern on her pretty face.
“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 looked around for any nearby adults. Finding none, she wiped her dripping nose on her sleeve and helplessly looked 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. She stepped forward and formed a stirrup with her hands, into which Grace placed her small foot and hoisted herself onto the lowest limb.
“Oh, Grace!” Alice warned. “Don’t! You’ll get a beating if you get caught climbing trees again!”
Ignoring her sister’s admonishment, Grace 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 branch. She gave Johnny Horne a defiant look as she perched among the leaves.
“Watch out!” Alice gasped anxiously, pressing her fingertips to her mouth. “The branch is weak. You’ll fall!”
The dead limb 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 dark 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 farther 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 his 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 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. “T’was 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 welling inside her. 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 had squeezed 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, fearing she would lose 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 cool flagstones and peered into the hole. She was about to coax the kitten out when she heard men talking in low, hushed tones. Startled, she reared back. She thought everyone was still celebrating at Waldron’s garrison. After taking a quick look around to make sure no one saw her, she pressed her face against the hole.
Sunlight illuminated the millhouse through several narrow windows and Grace recognized the men gathered around the giant millstone. The two Massachusetts officers sat on fat sacks of ground meal while Major Waldron stood in their midst. Grace smelled tobacco smoke from their pipes 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 linen tail tantalizingly close. She wondered if she could reach the strand 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.”
Wanalancet was the peaceful sachem of the local Pennacook 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 knotty pine 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 couldn’t remove herself from the millhouse without being spotted if they came through the front door, and Waldron would see to it she was whipped if he knew she had been eavesdropping. To her great relief, the men exited through the rear and headed back to join the other guests.
After they vacated the millhouse, Grace released her breath in a whoosh. Whatever her nine-year-old mind thought about what she had just overheard, it was readily eclipsed by the return of her whirligig.
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
A curl sprang from her coif and she dropped the whirligig in her lap before tucking it back inside her coif. Then she resumed twirling the button, once again mesmerized by the singing whirligig and oblivious to her surroundings. She wasn’t aware someone was behind her until a dark shadow enveloped her where she sat.
After Waldron and the two captains left, Alice stood alone at the base of the locust tree. She felt responsible for her sister, and Grace’s constant antics were an embarrassing affliction to her. In one sense, she coveted her sister’s impetuous behavior and wished she felt free enough to act out. Too old to climb trees but too young to be considered a grown woman, she was uncertain of her place within her community. With a sigh of resignation, she headed toward the Heard’s garrison. She caught the sound of boisterous laughter as two Massachusetts soldiers approached her from the opposite direction. “Pretty maid!” one of them called, lifting a tankard aloft. “Come drink with us!”
“Watch us during the knife-throwing competition!” the other invited, searing her face with his foul-smelling breath.
Realizing she was alone with the soldiers, Alice’s face flushed and a cold sense of dread enveloped her. There was no one else around, and she hid her trembling hands in her skirt as the second reached for her arm.
“Nay, sirs,” she said, ashamed at how frightened her voice sounded. “I’m needed at home.”
“Don’t be a prude!” the first slurred, making a grab for her other arm. He leered at her, displaying a mouthful of rotten teeth. “’Tis a day to frolic, wench!”
“They call me Hiram,” the other said. “He’s Jackson. Come now. Let us have fun.”
“Please,” Alice implored, shrinking away from them. “Pray, leave me be!”
Their hands on her arms repulsed her, and a scream formed in her throat as both men began forcibly dragging her away.
“Is there a problem here, gentlemen?” a deep voice inquired from behind Alice.
The two stopped, barely relaxing their grip on Alice as they turned to face the voice addressing them. Alice struggled to free herself from their grasp, turning her head and gazing upward into the somber face of Absalom Hart, a lieutenant in the local militia and a constable in Cochecho. He was an imposing figure, at twenty-four years of age standing head and shoulders above most men.
“Nay,” replied Jackson, the dregs in his tankard sloshing. “We only mean to escort this young maid to the knife-throwing competition so she may cheer us on.”
Tears welled in Alice’s eyes as she looked pleadingly at Hart, too afraid to speak out.
“She’s too young,” Hart said, drawing closer. “Leave her alone, or I’ll have you incarcerated.”
Her assailants released her arms, turning their attention now on Hart.
“She looks of age to me!” Jackson argued.
“I’ll not warn you again,” Hart said, taking another step toward them. “Leave her and be on your way.”
While the two soldiers exchanged looks, Alice held her breath, afraid to make a move. Her heart pounded wildly in her chest as she looked into Hart’s brown eyes. Despite an air of melancholy, Constable Hart, she realized, was a very handsome man.
“C’mon, Hiram,” Jackson said finally. “She’s not worth a stay in whatever jail this hamlet has.”
Hiram nodded in agreement. After the men retreated, Alice exhaled and released a sob of relief. Absalom Hart stepped closer and with a concerned look on his face, handed her a linen handkerchief.
“Don’t cry, Miss Hampton,” he said softly. “They’ve gone now.”
Suddenly ashamed of her tears, Alice wiped her eyes and nose. “Thank you, Constable Hart,” she managed.
He looked embarrassed for her, and gave her a gentle smile. “’Tis nothing,” he said. “Did they hurt you?”
“N-nay,” she stammered, her arms still burning from their contact.
Awkwardly, he gave her arm a reassuring pat. But unlike the soldiers’ touch, his did not revolt her. His was one of honest respect, and it sent a warm current through her that quieted her pounding heart.
She looked up at him as his dark eyes surveyed their surroundings. Then his eyes met hers again.
“What were you doing out there, unchaperoned? He asked with obvious concern.
“I was trying to keep Grace out of trouble and failed miserably,” Alice replied, her cheeks flushing hot again.
“If you allow it, I’ll escort you home, Miss Hampton,” he said. “These soldiers are getting drunker and rowdier by the minute, and it’s not wise for a young maid to wander alone.”
Alice smiled and nodded in agreement. As they headed toward the Heard garrison, she noticed he shortened his pace to match hers, his eyes scanning their surroundings for any potential threats to her.
He’s the kindest, most respectful gentleman I’ve ever known, Alice thought. Why had she not noticed it sooner? Because he is eight years my senior, she answered herself. To him I am a child. But in two years I’ll be eighteen, and mayhap then he’ll see me as a peer!
As they walked on, she grew more and more aware of his presence. A bachelor, he made his dwelling in a small cottage at the base of Little Hill, and was thus the Heard’s nearest neighbor.
“Alice! Alice, where have you been?”
Her best friend, Sarah Follett, waved to her from a distance, her pretty face registering surprise when she saw Alice being escorted by the tall man. Sarah was also sixteen and was being courted by Jack Meader. Sarah often shared with Alice delicious tidbits of what it was like to be wooed. Alice longed for a romance of her own, and was surprised to find herself annoyed at her friend’s presence as Sarah approached them, giving Absalom Hart a small curtsy.
“Good afternoon, Miss Follett,” Absalom Hart said, tipping his hat to her. “If you’re heading up Cart Way, please join us.”
Alas, Alice thought with sudden despair. He’s respectful to everyone, and doesn’t regard me with any special tenderness.
“Thank you, Goodman Hart,” Sarah said, her eyes widening as she gave Alice a curious look. “I was walking up to Heard’s to retrieve mother’s gravy boat.”
As they resumed their trek, Hart walked on ahead of them. Alice’s gaze settled momentarily on Hart’s broad shoulders and narrow hips. She was lost in her thoughts until Sarah nudged her with an elbow, breaking her reverie.
What’s got you so flustered? Alice could almost hear her friend’s thoughts. Tell me!
Later! Alice mouthed back.
As they passed Elder Wentworth’s home, Dog greeted them with ominous growls. The massive dog strained at his rope from the far side of Cart Way, his barks making conversation impossible until they began their ascent up Little Hill. The gate to the Heard’s garrison had been flung open, and Absalom Hart paused just outside it.
“Here you are, Miss Hampton, Miss Follett,” he announced. “I trust no one will accost you the rest of the way, but I’ll keep watch until you’re through the gate.”
“Thank you, sir,” Sarah said, nudging Alice again with her elbow. Sarah’s smile told Alice her friend suspected her infatuation with Goodman Hart, and Alice pleaded silently for her friend to say nothing.
“I must get back to my duties,” he said with a gentle smile. Did she detect a hint of regret in his voice? “But Captain Heard has enlisted my help in repairing the broken shutter, so I’ll be supping with your household tomorrow night.”
Oh yes! The broken shutter! She had completely forgotten about that, and her eyes traveled to Captain Heard’s workshop, where the damaged shutter hung askew from its hinge. An expensive pane of glass had shattered due to Grace’s careless antics, and Captain Heard had ordered Grace to remove the broken shards before sending her out to cut her own willow switch.
“Tomorrow night then,” she smiled, ignoring the amused snicker that escaped Sarah’s lips.
He tipped his felt hat to both of them once more before descending Little Hill with his slow, easy gait. Alice watched him leave, once again lost in thought until Sarah grasped her shoulder and shook her.
“Have you gone sweet on Goodman Hart?” Sarah asked urgently, her eyes sparkling with mischief.
Alice kneaded her hands restlessly. “Oh, Sarah, don’t tease me! He rescued me just as two drunken soldiers were making advances--”
Sarah’s eyes widened. “Do tell all! Did he strike them to preserve your honor?”
Alice smiled, letting out a wistful sigh. “He didn’t have to,” she said. “He diverted any need for violence, and was so--”
“Gallant?” Sarah finished for her. “Chivalrous?”
Alice’s heart ached sweetly. He was indeed that, she thought. Like a knight of old.
“Aye, Sarah,” she replied, watching Absalom Hart turn onto Cart Way. “Exactly like that.”
Dame Elizabeth Heard gathered the dirty wooden trenchers and eating utensils that belonged to her household, glad the celebratory feasting was over but dismayed at the inebriated state of most of the men. At fifty, she was a well-respected lady in the community, renowned for both her piety and compassion. The Massachusetts soldiers were getting particularly rowdy, encouraging similar behavior in Cochecho’s own male citizens. Her firm jaw was set in disapproval as her daughter Mary came with her own voiding basket of dirty dishes. Mary’s clear blue eyes scanned the surrounding area briefly before asking her mother, “Pray, have you seen Emmie about?”
Dame Heard smiled wryly at the mention of her eight-year-old granddaughter. “Nay, Daughter,” she replied. “But wherever she is, Grace Hampton is too. I was just about to search for them both. We’ve every dish in the household to wash.”
Mary nodded. “I’ve retrieved all my household possessions. I haven’t as many dishes to wash as you have, so Emmie is welcome to sleep at your garrison this night.”
The older woman acknowledged this with a nod. “That sounds agreeable, daughter. God be with you.”
Her granddaughter and Grace Hampton were inseparable, and she often worried that Emmie’s docile demeanor was being corrupted by Grace’s willfulness. Grace’s sister, Alice, on the other hand, was quiet and obedient, as a young girl should be. Someday, Dame Heard hoped for the millionth time, Grace’s behavior would emulate that of Alice’s, although she had little confidence that that would happen anytime soon.
As if summoned by Dame Heard’s thoughts, Alice Hampton approached, accompanied by her friend Sarah Follett. “Dame Heard,” she implored, “may I take that voiding basket inside for you?”
“And I’ve come for Mother’s gravy boat,” Sarah Follett added, smiling pleasantly.
Elizabeth handed Alice the stack of wooden trenchers she was holding. “Aye, Alice. Take these inside. Your mother’s gravy boat is on the side board, Sarah. I’ve already washed it.”
“Thank you, Dame Heard,” Sarah said with a curtsy before she and Alice disappeared into the garrison.
She turned to retrieve a ladle that had dropped to the ground when three men passed through the palisade door. “Dame Heard! Whereabouts is your husband?”
Elizabeth stifled a groan as she saw Major Waldron stomping towards her, the two Massachusetts captains trailing behind him. Waldron’s hard-set expression was one she had come to know well. What has Grace done now?
Before Dame Heard could answer his question, Waldron ranted, “That demon charge of yours damaged my locust tree, and if neither you nor Captain Heard can discipline her, I’ll take it upon myself!”
“Major Waldron,” she said, standing at her full height, which was as tall as he. “Captain Heard will be home later this afternoon. He’s gone to Portsmouth to deliver a cabinet, if it’s any business of yours. Pray, how did Grace damage your tree?”
“Climbing on it like a little savage!” he fumed, blasting her face with his foul breath. “Broke a limb. I seek compensation for the damage done.”
Elizabeth squared her shoulders. A tall woman, she met Waldron’s eyes levelly. “I’ll have a word with Grace before we sup, and I’ll tell Captain Heard. He’ll see to it the girl is rightfully punished and that you are compensated for the damages.”
“You do that!” growled Waldron, peering at her beneath the brim of his hat before stomping off like an angry bull.
Elizabeth Heard exhaled, expelling the stench of his breath from her nostrils. Such unhealthy temperament will be the death of that man. At that moment she glimpsed her granddaughter Emmie skittishly making her way toward them. Her eyes were downcast and she looked like she herself had recently been chastised.
“Emmie,” Dame Heard called. “Emmie, come hither.”
The little girl drew closer and stopped in front of her grandmother, fidgeting with her apron.
“Grandmother,” the little girl sniffed. “I’ve lost my kitten! Old Dick scared it away—”
“Never mind that now, Emmie,” Dame Heard said. “And don’t refer to an elder in such a disrespectful manner. Go find Grace and be quick about it. I’m headed to the garrison now. I wish to speak with her.”
“Yes, Grandmother,” Emmie croaked. “But please don’t be too hard on Grace. That tree limb was dead anyway, and she didn’t mean to damage it.”
Grace never means to cause any sort of trouble, Dame Heard thought tiredly. But trouble is that child’s constant companion.
The nine-year-old boy looked on helplessly as his grandmother convulsed with fever. A smallpox epidemic the year before had taken over half of the Pennacook tribe, including the boy’s parents. His name was Menane and his grandmother Maliazonis and brother Kancamagus were his only remaining family. The rest of the tribe looked upon him with pity, and that filled him with indignant rage.
“Nokomis,” he asked softly, wiping perspiration from her wrinkled brow, “kagwi lla? Do you need another maksa?”
“Wlioni, noses,” the old woman replied weakly. “This is the only maksa I have,” she said, pulling the worn woolen blanket up to her trembling chin. “Feed the fire so it doesn’t go out.”
Menane obeyed, but it was obvious to him that another blanket was needed to warm his shivering nokomis.
“I will get you another one.”
“We don’t have enough tmakwaawa to trade for one,” Maliazonis protested.
Menane looked at the three small beaver pelts bundled in the back of the wigwam. He knew it took at least five large tmakwaawa for one woolen blanket. But he was just learning to set traps and hadn’t been very successful. He was forbidden to go into the white settlement alone, although he often accompanied his uncle Wanalancet, and he had learned to speak English quite well.
He was aware of a gathering in the town that day, where the soldiers would play games and eat good food. He had often observed such happenings before, and had coveted the white men’s weapons and full bellies. He would watch from the forest as the soldiers lounged on blankets and drank from earthen casks until they fell into a stupor. And that gave the boy an idea. “I will get you another one,” he said again. “Rest now, Nokomis. I will be back soon.”
A handful of Waldron’s militiamen assembled near a large oak tree, a target etched onto its broad trunk. Joining them were several of the Massachusetts soldiers. Every man carried a hunting knife, and anticipation was high as they drew lots on who would throw their knife first.
One Massachusetts soldier had offered his hat, and every man etched his initials on a flat stone. The stones now clattered as the soldier jostled the hat. “One of you locals draw,” he invited. “You there—big fellow!”
The other men turned to look at Absalom Hart, who had been observing the games with quiet interest, arms folded across his massive chest. He had just returned from escorting the two young women, and the offending soldiers Hiram and Jackson gave him resentful looks. Although his size was intimidating, he emitted an air of gentleness. The crowd parted as he strode toward the stone-filled hat. Averting his eyes, he plunged one hand into the hat and withdrew a single stone, which he passed to the waiting soldier, who read the etched initials.
“S.O,” The soldier announced. “Who among us is S.O?”
“Here!” called a voice, and Hart watched a fellow militia member step forward, his own hunting knife poised in his hand. “Stephen Otis, at your service!”
Stephen was solidly built, but shorter than Hart. His blue eyes shone with merriment in deep contrast to the melancholy that emanated from Absalom’s brown ones. Despite their differing dispositions, the two men were best friends. They both worked at Major Waldron’s mill by day and took turns policing the streets of Cochecho. Stephen slapped his friend jovially on the arm in passing, and took several paces from the target.
Hart watched as Stephen threw his knife. It sailed hilt-over-blade with perfect trajectory before plunging into the tree trunk, almost eight inches from its mark.
The other men chortled as Stephen shrugged sheepishly at Hart. “Never was the marksman you are, my friend!” he laughed good-naturedly.
A bow-legged Massachusetts soldier was next. Rising from the folded woolen blanket upon which he sat, he reeked of rum as he passed by Hart. His blade also missed the target by several inches.
“You fare better drunk than sober, Duncan!” one of his fellow soldiers joked as the inebriated Duncan stumbled back to where he had lain.
When it came to Absalom’s turn, five knives protruded from the tree, the nearest being almost two inches from the target.
“Show them how it’s done, Hart!” Stephen Otis cheered as the big man stepped up.
Absalom took a deep breath. Aiming carefully, he flung his knife at the tree. It soared in a graceful arc before striking the target dead-center. Behind him, his fellow militiamen cheered and Otis gave him a congratulatory slap on the back.
“None can beat Hart here!” Stephen boasted while the other men shook Absalom’s hand. “We’d ought to have placed some kind of wager.”
Absalom’s cheeks flushed. He preferred not to be the center of attention, and accepted the compliments with awkward grace.
“My blanket!” Duncan roared, disrupting the celebration. “What the devil? Someone took my—there goes the thief now!”
Absalom looked over the heads of the other men to see where the raging Duncan pointed, only to glimpse a small figure disappearing into the woods.
“After him!” Duncan bellowed, galvanizing his comrades in pursuit.