PALE GHOSTA Joseph Fisher
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Cover art by NC Wyeth
Joseph Fisher Main Page
In 1703, war scorches the Maine frontier.
French Soldiers and Mohawk Indians raid American villages, scalping, burning, pillaging, and kidnapping.
Yet as Joseph Fisher picks through the rubble, he finds a murdered man among the dead - and knows the killer is from the village.
Sickly and frail, yet with a mind keen as a tomahawk, the outcast "White Indian" risks grisly torture, Puritan justice, pirate savagery, and drowned ghosts to hunt down the truth - or die trying.
The thundering colonial mystery is finally here!
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“Too late. They’re all dead. Or took.”
Under clouds that bunched and tore like melting lead, a homestead burned. House, small barn, a mountain of cordwood, a smokehouse and wash house and even the privy were aflame. The house had been a small garrison, two stories of squared logs, but not strong enough. A body lay near the road, another not far from the door, another half-inside the burning doorway, all three scalped. Yard and gardens and twenty stumpy acres fenced by slash were quiet except for the crackle of flames. The forest all about was wreathed with morning fog. Smoke drifted off through bare branches.
“Damn.” The bigger man’s breath puffed at every word. He wrinkled his nose at the tang of burning flesh. “It’s war all over again, another ten years of it.”
“A world of eternal sorrows.” The thin man knelt by the woman. Had to kneel anyway, for running had him dizzy and wheezing. Heat from the burning house made him wince. The victim’s scalp was gone. Her white skull was smeared with gore and frilled by blonde hair. Sagging skin made her face ugly. A tomahawk had shattered her throat and breast and drenched her clothes with blood. Bulging blue eyes stared at Heaven. Gently he pressed shut the eyelids.
“Damn all Indians!” The big man clenched his fists. “Whyn’t the hell can’t they stay in Canada?”
The two were students, stylishly sloven in snuff-brown coats and waistcoats with many pewter buttons, shabby hose, and broken shoes with cheap laces, yet different as two men could be. Paul Hopkins, child of the frontier, was big and burly and tanned, and topped with a black hat cocked on three sides. Joseph Fisher, child of misfortune, was slight and pale and hollow-eyed, his only color bright spots like bruises on his sharp cheekbones. He went bareheaded, long brown hair spilling down his back, his only vanity. Blanket rolls were looped over their shoulders. Tramping the rock-ribbed track called the King’s Road, they’d heard shots and had run the last half-mile. To find this.
Joseph Fisher traced a depression in the dirt by the woman’s head. The dish was bisected by a ladder pattern. Small dimples showed above and below. “An Iroquois took her scalp. Likely un domicile from Kahnawake.”
“A what?” Paul Hopkins bent to touch the dead woman, then didn’t. “You mean Mohawks? Jesus, the worst of a bad lot... This smoke’ll fetch the militia, fat lot that’ll do.”
Joseph touched the woman’s fingers and found grease, yellow and blue. “Warpaint. She died fighting.”
Rising, Joseph backed away from the burning house. He coughed, for the air was hot and dry, but he coughed all other times too. “Why was she killed and not captured? Why put up such a ferocious struggle?”
“That’s why,” said Paul. “She tussled and some bastard hatcheted her. But how did they breach the door?”
“They didn’t.” Joseph stood by the man farthest from the door. He toed prints in the mud. “Phoebus here opened the door and loosed the dogs. They galloped for the barn. When they didn’t bark, he ventured out and was shot. The raiders rushed the door from blind angles. The family was too slow to bar the door again. The old story.”
Shaking his head, reading the ground, Joseph backtracked prints to a chopping block and squatted. Picking a bit of charred fluff, he sniffed. “A French Marine sat here and smoked his pipe. An officer.”
“Oh, come on, Joe. Pull the other one.” Paul Hopkins loomed over his small friend. “A’right, he’s wearing shoes, so he’s white. But what –”
Joseph touched a hole jabbed in sawdust and dirt, then an oblong print. “A scabbard tip made this. A musket buttplate touched here. Small and narrow, it must belong to a fusil de chasse such as officers carry.”
“Damn the French too, then.” Paul Hopkins stamped an impotent circle. Clothes lay scattered about: children’s shoes, a cut-down coat, an apron. Not far from the barn lay two dead dogs lanced with swords. A yellow milch cow had suffered longer. Its throat was cut, its belly and milk bag slit, yards of guts yanked out, udders sliced off, even the tail chopped short. The air reeked of scorched manure and flesh. “Lord Harry, those savages just can’t kill enough.”
“Cruelty is an Indian failing.” Joseph shook his head sadly. “Though the tongue and liver have gone for trail food. See the tracks of les coureurs des bois, the woodsrunners. Long prints of white men, but in mocassins, with the toes turned out...”
Yet Joseph was distracted. Something wasn’t right. Bending, wheezing, always coughing, he read the ground in wider circles. Tracks milled everywhere. As many as twenty Mainers might have lived in the garrison. A dozen victims had been dragged away by twice as many captors. Others must have burned with the house. Yet overlapping the blur, plain as a signpost, Joseph saw –
“Mon dieu! My God!”
“What?” Paul turned a half-circle. “Where’re you going?”
Half-bent from coughing, shambling like a scarecrow, Joseph Fisher dodged the burning woodpile and ran behind the house. In an instant he returned and ran straight for the burning barn. Joseph shucked off his blanket roll, broke the rawhide knots, flipped his personal oddments aside, and soaked the blanket in a water trough.
“Joe, what the hell –”
“Sop your blanket! Be ready when I return!”
“Return from –”
Joseph slung the sopping blanket over his head, gauged the distance, and jumped the flames into the burning barn.
The barn was barely long enough for four animals with a cramped hayloft above. Old manure and chaff sent smoke and dust swirling. It clawed Joseph’s throat and stung his eyes. There were no windows, only daylight from the doorway and the light of flames. Hacking, Joseph crawled into mucky stalls, groping with his hands, blind. “Mes enfants! Children! Where – are you? Children!”
No answer but the crackle of flames and Paul shouting. Squinting, stumbling, Joseph banged into a ladder. He scampered up it like a squirrel.
“Children!” It was black aloft, ripe with smoke thick as sea fog. Joseph’s lungs ached. “The raiders – are gone! My friend and I – are from York! The militia is called! Come – out, please!”
Whimpers. Joseph groped in darkness, found two warm huddled bodies, and hauled. Children, Joseph, and spilled hay tumbled down the ladder. Wrapping the youngsters in the wet blanket, Joseph chivvied them toward the doorway filled with fire. When they balked, he snagged hanks of hair and plunged into the flames.
“Shitten Christ on a cross!” Paul Hopkins dragged all three refugees to the water trough and soused them to the skin with his wet blanket. The children, a girl and boy ten and seven, sputtered and shivered. Joseph collapsed, coughing as if his chest would split. Paul gasped, “How did you know?”
Joseph’s teeth chattered as he pulled himself upright. “Their mother – fought like a tiger – on her doorstep. I wondered why. She – protected her children – hiding inside. When the house was fired – they jumped out the back window. Their tracks – ran into the barn but – did not exit. Next time you hide in the woods, eh?” Gasping, Joseph smiled like a skull. The stunned children trembled. Paul nudged them near the burning barn to dry off.
Joseph picked his precious books out of the mud, swiping absently, then stopped. “That’s what’s wrong. Too many tracks, yet not enough...”
Stalking like a stork, Joseph again scanned the ground. Away from the fire the air was cold, for this was March, or Mozokas the Moose Hunter as Joseph thought it. Rotten snow lined furrows. Cat ice crunched underfoot. Crossing the stumpy field, the student entered a forest of girdled pines undershot with spruce. A ruffed grouse drummed his wings against a log to summon a mate, so Joseph knew no enemy lay in ambush. Watching the ground, he found a spot where churned needles revealed dark soil. Behind a tree were cached a half-dozen packs and blanket rolls, stolen muskets, and other loot.
“Paul!” Joseph pelted toward the dooryard, mud flying from his broken shoes. He grabbed his friend’s beefy arm with a bony hand. “We must hide! Quickly!”
“Hide?” The big frontiersman let himself be towed by the arm, towing the children in turn. “The militia’ll be along any minute!”
“Hurry!” Joseph snatched up their blankets and possessions, making sure nothing was left behind, then pushed, shoved, steered the trio to a stand of staghorn sumac. He made them circle and burrow like groundhogs rather than bruise the brush facing the farmstead.
Joseph flipped the wet blankets over them all and sprinkled leaves atop. “Not a sound. Not a word. For your lives!”
Just in time.
Paul stiffened. The children mewed.
Into the clearing trotted a party reeling from exhaustion. Mohawks and Abenakis in blanket coats, their shaven heads and scalplocks painted red and blue and yellow. French Marines like musketeers in boxy gray coats and black bicorns. Canadians with beards and parti-colored coats and hats of lynx fur. All bristling with muskets, swords, bayonets, tomahawks, scalping knives, bows and arrows.
And captives. American settlers were bloodied and stunned into submission. Hands bound, they were saddled with bags of booty like mules, then pricked from behind with knives or pulled from before by nooses around necks and wrists. Some were smeared with warpaint. Some lacked coats and hats. A young woman was smudged with ashes and tears, her red hair awry. A boy labored to lug a cask. An old man limped. Children stumbled and sniffled. A babe squawled in Indian arms. Nine captors, six captives, Joseph counted.
The student heard an animal growl. From Paul. Fearful his friend would explode like a powderkeg, Joseph grabbed his friend’s shoulder and squeezed, a plea. Paul subsided. Joseph sipped air, not daring to cough.
The raiders hurried and harried the captives towards the woods. The night-worn French and Indians were now the prey, frantic to drive their prizes into deep woods before the local militia caught up. In Mohawk and French they berated their captives, kicking, yanking hair, wrenching rawhide that chaffed wrists and necks.
The old man with the limp crumpled. Joseph groped under the blanket to push the children’s heads down. Paul hissed like a rattlesnake.
A tirade was heaped on the old man’s head. The unfortunate cursed and wept at the same time, but he couldn’t rise. Finally an Indian whipped up a tomahawk and crushed the old man’s head. He flopped like a poleaxed steer. In seconds the warrior incised his skull and ripped off the gray scalp, worth eight pounds to the Intendant of Quebec.
With no more delays, the raiders reached the pine woods, donned their packs and blanket rolls, heaped and hung more loot on their hapless captives, then pressed into the woods, bound for Canada.
A crow cawed from atop a dead pine. A timber fell in the house with a shower of sparks.
Paul Hopkins rose like a corpse from a grave, shedding the wet blanket and leaves, sucking air as if he’d drowned. He indulged in cursing while Joseph indulged in coughing. Finally he helped the children rise, brushing at their filthy clothes with big craggy paws. “God Almighty! I gotta admit, Joe, you’re smarter’n I’ll ever be. Not enough tracks went into the woods, hunh?”
The girl suddenly yelped and bolted before Paul could catch her. “What –”
“Hoy!” The York militia trotted into the dooryard, lugging muskets and fusils and swords and blowing like race horses. They were dressed in faded coats or workaday smocks. Their captain, grizzled and gray and portly, wore an old-fashioned breastplate and lobster-tail helmet. A middle-aged man, an uncle, enfolded the sobbing children.
The captain carried a hanger sword in his hand. He jabbed the air. “Who the devil are you?”
“Paul Hopkins, from up in Hull, not that it’s any of your damned business.”
The captain shifted his glare to the bedraggled Joseph. “And you?”
“Never mind him. He’s white and a good Christian. You should get after them raiders.” Paul told of the war party just past. Quickly the captain tolled off younger men who raced after. Joseph watched them depart with sadness: no good ever come of pursuit. The big-bellied captain and elders should know that from the last war, but they watched the force stream into the forest and nodded.
Paul Hopkins sighed as if suddenly tired. He surveyed the sky. “Rain’s coming. Get your gear, Joe.”
A cry of “Ho!” echoed up the road. Men turned. Five latecomers pushed before them three sulky Indians. A militiaman called, “We found these skulking just off the road!”
Despite cool weather, these Indians wore only loincloths and leggins, for their skin was smeared with fish oil and ochre. One man went head-shaven with a roach of red deerhide tied under his chin. The others wore long braids shiny with bear fat and soot. The militia had confiscated their tackle: tomahawks, rusty muskets, and deerhide bundles. The three halted before the captain. At rest, the Indians squatted to talk, but a musketman kicked a rump and brought them upright.
The captain snagged the roached man’s bangle earring and towed him to the dead woman. “This your handiwork, heathen? I see you termagants all got tomahawks. You fetching scalps as well as skins?” He hoisted the earring, bringing the Indian to tiptoe, but the native merely shook his head to show he had no English.
The captain pointed his sword at the deerhide bundles. “Rip them open.” Men cut the thongs and kicked the bundles apart. Pelts of otter, beaver, and red and gray fox spilled out.
Rain started. Fat drops dappled the Indians’ red hides and Joseph’s brown hair. A drop in temperature threatened sleet.
“What do we do with ‘em?” asked a militiaman.
The captain didn’t answer, just stared hard at the ruining homestead and the scattered pelts. Some men growled. A few walked away.
In the lull, Joseph addressed the Indians. “Kwai, nebodak. Nodah Moninowis. Awanigia? Hello, my friends. I am Silver Cat. Who are you?”
The Indians blinked to hear fluent Abenaki. The cockscombed man spoke. “Kwai, nijia. Hello, brother. I am Pennabit, Crooked Teeth. These are Zazigoda, Lazy One, and Chegnal, Frog. Your tongue is Penobscot?”
“Unh-honh. Yes.” Joseph’s accent was northern, theirs southern. “You are Pigwackets?”
“No, no. Pennacooks.” The roach atop Pennabit’s head wobbled. “Why do these men hold us? We did not slay this white family.”
Joseph demurred. He doubted they were Pennacooks, a harmless people who’d retreated to the White Mountains under the great powahee Passaconaway. More likely they were Pigwackets, thorny hostiles from a stronghold far up the Saco River. Still, Joseph said, “I believe you did not slay them.”
Pennabit gestured. “Then tell this turtle man so we may go our way.”
“Patience, Cousin. Turtle men are slow to think, too. Where are you from? Where bound?”
The Indian’s eyes flickered at the joke, but he was unnerved. “We trapped all winter at the headwaters of the Piscataqua, the Swift River. Now we journey to the Aucocisco where the Sokokis make fish.” True as a compass, Pennabit’s arm swept south of west, then up the coast.
Voila, thought Joseph. The Outflowing, called by white men the Saco.
The militia captain interrupted. “Here now, enough prattle. What’re they saying?”
“That they are Pennacooks,” said Joseph in English, “and that they did not attack this family.”
“And you believe ‘em?”
“It was French Indians made this ruckus,” put in Paul. “Mohawks, Joe said. But how’d you know.”
Cold, wet, and weary, Joseph coughed, then crooked a bony finger. “‘Mark now, how a plain tale shall put you down.’”
Where the mother lay dead and scalped, Joseph made sure no one tread on the palm-sized dish by her left ear. He explained, “Here the killer knelt, being right-handed. See his knee print is striped like a ladder? Here and here, dimples? The People of the Longhouses wear mitasses, uh, leggins with the seam foremost and decorated with quillwork: this ladder pattern. Beads can be sewn around the leg, but never over the knee. Such are these round jots.”
Joseph pointed at the Pigwackets’ leggins, which after a winter of beating brush were puckered and scuffed white, and laced and gartered with plain rawhide, all decoration gone.
“See her fingers,” Joseph added, “smeared yellow and blue with warpaint?”
Again men looked. The accused wore only the oily ochre that inspired the name “redskins”.
The militia captain squinted, but the breastplate made him topheavy and he almost fell. “That don’t prove these louts weren’t in the raid and got separated or left behind.”
Joseph stifled a sigh and moved on. “Here. Have you seen how this first man fell? Have you looked?”
“Looked?” The captain spat. “His head’s stove in like an eggshell! That’s a tomahawk wound!”
“His second, yes,” conceded Joseph. He stooped beside the dead man and hooked his hands underneath.
The militia captain batted Joseph across the head, bowling him onto his rump. Paul snagged the man’s hand and squeezed. “You watch yourself! This fellow ran into fire to save those two buttons!”
“Are you both daft?” retorted the captain. “Let the poor man lie! Hasn’t he suffered enough without you mucking with his corpse?”
Rubbing his head, Joseph Fisher sallied on. “The dead must testify to preserve the living. Stand aside. Paul, help me roll him.”
“Jesus, Joe, but you’re a queer egg.” Yet Paul squatted. “What was his name?”
“About time you asked,” sneered the captain. “John Taylor. Indentured man. This’s the MacPheadris homestead. That’s Matt in the doorway. Sarah was his wife.”
“‘Their names shall live forever,’” said Joseph. No one interfered as the students rolled Taylor over. Splayed limbs resisted as if the corpse also protested. Dirt trickled from an unshaven cheek. But when the man flopped on his back, everyone saw the broken arrow jutting from his belly.
“An arrow strikes in silence,” said Joseph. “It explains how the raiders rushed the door. And you see just as well –”
“Them Pennacooks don’t carry no bows and arrows,” chimed Paul.
“They might’a thrown them away,” posed a militiaman.
“And the scalps too?” Joseph coughed into his grimy hands. “Are their fingers bloody? Or callused from pulling a string?”
“Never mind.” The militia captain flipped a craggy hand at the Pigwackets. “Get y’gone. But mind you stay out of trouble.”
Snorting and strutting, the Indians retied their bundles of pelts. Pennabit said, “Wliwni-ni kgamo, Monminowis. Mouchicke legamatch. Thanks for your help, Silver Cat. We hold friendship.” The Indians swung off down the road.
Joseph nodded, happy and homesick to hear the low and lilting Algonquin. “Wlipamkaani, nedobak. Travel well, my brothers.”
Disgusted, the captain and militia turned away. Joseph said, “‘We can learn even from our enemies.’”
“But some never learn.” Paul rolled his soggy blanket. “Come on. We got to get to Hull, Joe. They’ll need us.”
Joseph gazed at the shattered homestead. So must his family have been destroyed fifteen-odd years ago. His thoughts wandered into the forest, his heart aching for the captives who trudged the Indian trails in misery. He’d walked that way himself, a sad skinny orphan.
“Eh? Oh, yes, Paul. More than these need us...”
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