My first Joseph Fisher story that shows his never-say-die tenacity.
"Where is he?"
"There he goes! Get him, Joe! Block him!"
Lacking a musket, tangled armpit-deep in sumac, pin oaks, and bittersweet, Joseph Fisher saw a gray blur lolloping straight at him.
He glimpsed a striped muzzle and molten golden eyes, flapped his arms and hollered to slow the wolf, but the canny animal bounced on its toes, skipped sideways in mid-air, bounded a rod's length. Joseph heard thrashing from either hand, men swearing in two languages. He dove headlong.
Twin muskets exploded KA-BUFF! KA-PLAM! above his head. Buckshot shredded branches and a lead ball slammed the earth. The wolf vaulted over Joseph and vanished into the puckerbrush, a loping shadow, gone, unharmed.
Strong hands hoisted Joseph to his feet like a child. English boomed, "Woof! Almost tagged you 'stead'a that chicken thief!"
Algonquin joked, "Your head would look ill adorning the longhouse door!"
Coughing, Joseph brushed his shabby snuff-brown coat and breeches, combed back his long brown hair. Big Paul Hopkins sported a tricorn, stained hunting smock, shot bag, powder horns. Opechee, or Robin, wore a deerhide mantle, blue breechclout and leggins, a coating of vermilion and fish oil, a cockscomb black with soot. He toted a scalping knife, bearskin warbag, and short musket gaudy with brass tacks.
"A circle of hunters like ducks in a pond," swore Paul, "and that bloody wolf picks the only fellow not carrying a firelock!"
"No accident," Joseph husked. "A wolf can recognize - a man - without a gun."
"Malsum is brother to Glooskap, so also a trickster, but without any goodness." Opechee spoke in Algonquin, for he had no English.
"What's he say?" asked Paul.
"He said - a shoemaker should stick to his last. And a student to - his books -" Tumbling in old leaves set him coughing, and he doubled in pain as his lungs spasmed and throbbed. Sallow, sharp-cheeked, sunken-eyed, Joseph was cursed with consumption.
Paul handed Joseph a pine canteen, then Opechee a musket ball big as a hickory nut. Joseph sipped to quiet his wheezing while his companions reloaded with ramrods and horns. But when Opechee tried to drop Paul's musket ball down the bore, he found it too large by an eighth of an inch, so returned it. He told Joseph, "Your friend is generous, not like most white men."
"He shares because he owns little. Their good book says, `Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth.'"
Paul switched the musket ball for eight pellets like dried peas. "Not surprised it don't fit. English guns run .75 caliber, throw more lead'n anyone's. But buckshot'll drop a deer, tell him." Without understanding the words, Opechee nodded thanks.
Brush thrashed as the villagers of Hull gathered. Paul's father, head of the wolf hunt, rasped, "It'd be you beetlebrains the bung to spill the ale! Curse God and die, one a head of wood and the other wool, and now an Indian with worms in his skull!"
Joseph could understand the elder's petulance. The marauding wolf had pestered the village for weeks, filching lambs and chickens and cats, digging up middens, scratching at doors, making dogs bark all night. Finally fifty men and boys had come a'hunting, beating the bushes and hallooing the day long, sweeping from the forest towards the seashore to drive and encircle the wolf. Joseph had been the weak link in the chain.
Yet he was secretly glad. Up close, the student had felt those golden eyes bore into his, sensed bravado and fear and a plea for pity, known a kinship. A lone wolf driven from his pack, struggling to survive without home or family. Like Joseph himself.
Men smoked and chewed. Opechee ignited kinnikinnic rank as scorched manure. Joseph shared his pipe while checking the sky. Though only midafternoon, dusk was near, for it was March, or Mozokas the Moose Hunter, on the Maine coast. Grainy snow lingered under holly and hemlock, yet the spring air was tangy with pine pitch and oak tannin.
Mister Hopkins pointed his pipe stem at anvil-shaped thunderheads. "Weather's makin'. Best turn for home. 'Haps we'll try again tomorrow, if it don't rain and the womenfolk'll let us."
Men muttered about missing chores, but hunting wolves beat pushing a plow or jerking stumps. Joseph doubted they'd see the wolf tomorrow. Close to, he'd seen the beast was heavy-bellied, gorged to his blood-flecked nose, and would den up. Idly, the student wondered what the glutton had caught, since a late spring after a hard winter made deer and timber elk scarce.
Shouldering muskets sloppily, the villagers bashed through puckerbrush like bug-mad moose. One man fired at crows. Others yelled coarse jokes. Opechee shook his head. "They wander like children picking wild strawberries."
Joseph nodded. "I try to warn them, but they do not listen. Mayhaps when the Arosaguntacooks or Kennebecs pluck a few scalps they will attend. But white men are like red. Stubborn." He enjoyed the low lilting Abenaki tongue, which reminded him of Greek. "Will you join us on the morrow, brother?"
"I think not, Monminowis." Silver Cat was Joseph's Abenaki name. "The Sheepscots smoke shad at their summer camp at Pemaquid. I was blood brother to a Sheepscot once, his totem the same as mine. Perhaps they will take me in. If you are Penobscot, why do you live amidst the English?"
Joseph shrugged. "There are many trails in the forest, yet a man can only walk one. I was captured and raised by Penobscots, then given to the Jesuits in Quebec, but peace returned me to the English. A woman sent me to a house of learning to become a missionary, but the smoky longhouses of Boston inflamed my coughing sickness, so Paul invited me here to build ships. I rescued him from books, he jests." A final shrug. "It is no different to live among white men than red."
"Wagh! As different as Mikowa the squirrel lives from Tummock Quauog the beaver! So you have no real home."
Joseph stumbled. "That is what I try to say."
"Neither have I a place to hang my bow. My tribe, the Nipmucks, were driven from Massachusetts. We joined my wife's people, the Pigwackets, at the head of the Piscataqua to winter. But my wife died giving birth when last the leaves turned."
"I am sorry," said Joseph. "So you too are a lone wolf, like him we chased. And like me." Opechee nodded.
"You two gabble like dogs over a bone," rumbled Paul. "Makes a fellow lonely. And hungry."
Joseph chuckled and translated. Opechee laughed deep in his belly. "Tell Young Bear we three mighty hunters might together kill a porcupine."
After translation, Paul replied, "Pour maple syrup on it and I'll eat it. Can't stick any worse than my sister's cooking." The three laughed again.
The party struck the road, just a widened game trail that skirted trees and humped over granite ledge. Hull didn't need a proper wagon road because supplies came by sea from Portsmouth. And Hull was now frontier, the northernmost English settlement, because more distant villages had been abandoned in the renewal of war. The spring of 1703 had already brought raids on isolated homesteads; men butchered, women and children captured by "French Indians" and coureurs de bois, savage Canadian trappers. So today's wolf hunt doubled as a militia training day.
Yet in this lull before the storm, Opechee had been welcome peddling venison and turkeys, for white men were notoriously bad hunters and now shunned the woods. And rather than squander his money on rum, the clear-eyed Opechee bought only buckshot and powder. Joseph had translated his transactions, then invited Opechee to sleep by the Hopkins's hearth. Warmed by rum and cider, the three young men had talked the night away, the translations growing blurrier and funnier.
Casually, Opechee commented, "There would be room at the flakes of Pemaquid. Extra hands are always welcome."
"I understand, and appreciate your - generous invitation." Walking and talking set Joseph wheezing. "But `a man may not serve two masters.' And they need me to - help protect the village."
"That is true. It is amazing the English let their pallisade rot. Are they children lost in the wilderness, to believe praying will keep the red hatchets at bay?" He took another tack. "If the Sheepscots do take the warpath, many young women left behind will pine."
Joseph joked, "There are enough women in Hull to suit me."
"Young Bear's sister, who knits badly from watching you and not her hands? She is wrapped in wool like a green sheep! The women tending the flakes will wear only breechclouts, which peel off easily."
"Gutting fish makes women slippery. Too hard to hold onto."
Opechee almost smiled. "You would fare better with an Abenaki woman. English woman are cold, I hear, like fish taken through the ice."
"Only their feet are cold," Joseph chuckled. "Other parts are warm."
The joke was so good Opechee's laugh was audible to Paul. He said, "Bustin' a gut, you must be gassin' about girls."
"No," Joseph teased, "only food. Sweetmeats."
Paul snorted. "Call Anne sweetmeat and she'll box your ears till they ring. That girl can hit hard. Trust her brother."
Men swore as the road dissolved into a wallow of lacy hemlocks where black flies swarmed. The party hopped over puddles and tripped over knobby roots, dancing as they slapped and swatted. It was four miles yet to the village when a choked cry rang from the front. "Good lord! It's - Elias Somers!"
White-faced villagers stumbled backwards. A boy turned from the trail to be sick. Paul cursed. Joseph shouldered to the fore and learned what the lone wolf had feasted upon.
Elias Somers sprawled in the road in two halves. Ribs and backbone shone white where the wolf had scavenged organs and cracked bones for marrow. His blood-smeared musket and hunting tackle lay scattered about. A porcupine had gnawed the musket grip for the salt-sweat.
Despite a lifetime of butchering livestock and game, these hardened pioneers swore and prayed as they swatted flies. Yet Joseph squatted over the remains and opened his clasp knife. Propped by his musket, Opechee scooched to watch.
"For chrissake, Joe," Mister Hopkins growled, "don't muck about with your eternal questions. It ain't right to desecrate a body."
"`The physicist is a ripper-up of natural bodies and of nature.'" The student poked the ribs into order. "We needs determine what killed him."
"What?" barked several. "It's pretty damned obvious! The wolf et him!"
Squinting in black flies, Joseph plied his knife. "No, sir. A starving pack may pull down a man, but a lone wolf would never attack a man in full fettle, especially one with a gun." He repeated this to Opechee in Algonquin.
The Indian grunted neither yes nor no. "Perhaps the man set his gun aside to relieve himself. Or tripped and struck his head. Malsum might risk attack then. He is hungry after a long winter. Perhaps he smelt the gun was empty."
"Indians, likely." A man looked sidelong at Opechee. "A party of Frenchies on the warpath could'a snuck up on him."
"They'd not leave his scalp and musket." As if toying, Joseph fit bone fragments together.
"Probably he fell down drunk," muttered a man.
"Aye," Paul added, "Elias and Rob always took grog in their canteens to keep 'em from freezin', even in July." At the first threat of war, Elias Somers and Robert Macintosh had shooed their families back to Massachusetts, given up farming for frontiering.
"So, hey, where is Rob? Could the wolf'a got both?"
"Eureka!" Joseph held up a curved rib. Both ends looked gnawed, but when he fit the fragment to the ribcage, a neat half-moon appeared along the upper edge.
"Bigod! A musket ball!"
"Square in the brisket!"
Paul muttered, "Damn, but you've got good eyes, Joe."
In Latin, Joseph quipped, "`Nothing is so difficult but that it may be found out by seeking.' A ball broke this rib and dealt the deathblow. I doubt the wolf was armed."
"So who done it? And where the hell's -"
"Hoy, there he is! Hey, Rob! D'ja hear the..?"
The hail died in the air. Stamping down the road came a haunted scarecrow in a filthy hunting shirt and floppy hat. His face was unshaven and insect-bitten, his eyes sunken from a night in the woods. A rusty musket trailed in his bony right hand.
Men fell back from the apparition, leaving Joseph and Opechee to rise slowly to their feet. Opechee cradled his musket. "What does this woods man -"
Rob Macintosh halted, raised his musket, racked back the hammer, and pulled the trigger.
Smoke puffed from the pan, burst from the barrel. Opechee spun and slammed to the ground. He kicked, writhed, flung out a hand, but before Joseph could touch him, the Indian was dead.
Mister Hopkins ripped the warm musket from the frontiersman's grasp. "Rob, what the hell are you doing?"
"He killed Elias!" rasped the frontiersman. "Shot him from ambush! Dead center from behind these hemlocks!"
Confused and angry words. Paul Hopkins bellowed, "You got no right to kill that man!"
"He ain't a man!" Macintosh's breath smelt of rum. "He's an Indian! He murdered Elias!"
"There's murder, all right, and you done it!" Paul roared back. "That Indian spent the night with us! He was mild as milk!"
Macintosh shook his head as if at flies. "He must'a been spyin'! Sent on ahead'a the war party! You was lucky he didn't unbar the door to let 'em hatchet you in your sleep! We're at war!"
"He was selling venison and buying ammunition!" Paul Hopkins spat on the ground. "If Opechee killed him, he'd'a taken his scalp and musket! But then walk into town bold as brass? Walkin' the woods's addled your brain, you Johnny-Come-Lately!"
"You go to hell! You ain't out here watching your hair! You're locked in a safe-house where you don't know nothin'!" The frontiersman whipped out a scalping knife with a staghorn handle.
Thinking he was attacked, Paul trapped the man's arm in a meaty fist. "Do your worst -"
Macintosh yanked free. "I'm taking his scalp! It'll fetch twenty pounds in York, same as a wolf tail, and I aim to have the money for Elias's kin!"
"Be damned to that! You ain't scalpin' no one, you lousy lying -"
"Look out!" yelled half a dozen.
Hissing, Macintosh swung, but Paul batted his arm so the knife flew into the hemlocks. The two men grappled, punched, tangled and tumbled. Villagers aimed kicks at Macintosh.
Unnoticed, Joseph laid his hand on Opechee's breast, felt the flesh grow cold. "Walk on the light to Pemaquid, friend redbreast. May your soul feast on super-shad and sport with comely maidens." He rubbed his own chest and then Opechee's, the Abenaki handshake, then closed the bulging eyes. Gently Joseph slipped off the warbag and donned it, picked up the fallen trade gun, checked the priming.
Paul Hopkins and Rob Macintosh were yanked apart. Restrained, the brawlers hollered obscenities until they ran out of breath. Then Paul spruced his clothes and tackle, yanked on his tricorn. Macintosh rubbed a sore jaw, pointed at Joseph. "That warbag - and musket - are mine. Spoils'a war."
"Of course," said the student mildly. "I'll just carry them for you."
Mister Hopkins took his time juggling flint and steel and charcloth to light his pipe, then gushed blue smoke. "All right, Rob, let's have it."
"I told ya! We was huntin', and this Indian rears up and shoots Elias! I thought it was a war party! I got scared and run and I ain't ashamed to admit it! You look in his warbag, tell me you don't find a pewter crucifix!"
Joseph lifted the flap on the bearskin bag, sifted possibles. "No crucifix."
Mister Hopkins tapped his pipe on his teeth. "Could he a'been French, Joe?"
"No. His tongue lay in the south. He called the beaver tummock quauog after the Narragansetts, not tmakwa as we do up here."
Macintosh interjected, "That don't mean nothing! Any Indian'd kill a white man any chance he got! A white scalp's worth eight pounds in Quebec!"
Mister Hopkins looked to his Indian expert. Joseph didn't know what to say. Even after decades of friction and intrusion, many Indians were still ambivalent about the English settlers; pests like black flies, but a source of lead, gunpowder, copper kettles, rum. And unless poisoned against the English by Jesuits, Indians harbored their hatred for centuries-old feuds. A Nipmuck would hate Pequots and Mohegans; an Abenaki hate Tarrantines and Mohawks. But of personal grievances he could know nothing, and he'd only met Opechee yesterday... Nudged, Joseph sighed, "I don't know. Indians are as unpredictable as white men."
Paul Hopkins growled, "So it's Rob's word against a dead Indian's."
Macintosh snorted. He found his hunting knife, straddled Opechee's corpse, incised the scalp and yanked it free with a pop. Stuffing the grisly trophy in his belt, he picked up his rusty firelock, snatched up Elias's musket and tackle. In the brittle silence, villagers turned to go home.
Joseph's delicate cough arrested them.
"We should continue our pursuit. The wolf's belly is full,
so he won't go far. Together we can run him to ground. As Mister
Macintosh stated, a wolf tail fetches twenty pounds."
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