The King’s Beast by Eliot Pattison: New Excerpt

In Eliot Pattison's The King's Beast a simple task to retrieve some artifacts turns into a nightmare of deceit when Duncan McCallum finds himself the target of those obsessed with keeping America under British rule.

Read on for a new excerpt of this thrilling historical novel from Edgar Award-winning author Eliot Pattison's Bone Rattler series.

Preface

The revolution that transformed the Thirteen Colonies into the United States was in many ways one of the great mysteries of human history. This wasn’t simply because no one knew what the outcome would be—there was no precedent for a successful democratic uprising against a powerful government—but also due to the extraordinary new threads being woven into the American tapestry. The period leading up to the American Revolution was a time of extraordinary intellectual exuberance. The edge of the vast American wilderness was being probed and mapped, the boundaries of natural philosophy—which only in the next century would be called “science”—were rapidly expanding. The proliferation of printing presses, schools, and economic opportunity were empowering individuals in ways never before experienced. As important as this unleashing of knowledge was to the process of revolution, so too was the self-discovery occurring among the two million men and women of the colonies.

Years later when looking back on the struggles that led to the birth of the United States, John Adams observed that “the Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people.” From the perspective of 1769, when this book opens, the American colonists are already engaged in subtle forms of rebellion, as they begin to realize that their traditional British identity is less and less important to their hearts and minds. That transformation is being accelerated by an out-of-touch king who pursues policies designed to inhibit the economic and intellectual freedom of the colonies and permanently weaken the native tribes.

As a vital bridge between the tribes and the colonists, and secret operative of the Sons of Liberty, Duncan McCallum finds his life growing increasingly complex. The British troops occupying Boston have grown to staggering numbers, equal to nearly twenty percent of the city’s population. The Townshend Parliament has imposed punishing duties on key imports, prompting the Sons of Liberty to organize pacts for the boycott of British goods and develop secret plans for the expansion of American industry. As liberty poles—rallying points for patriots—proliferate, Parliament has invoked a law from the reign of Henry the Eighth to order colonial dissenters transported to England for trial. The economic and intellectual pursuits of America are poised to explosively conflict with the policies embraced by the distant king, and despite being in the Ohio wilderness Duncan unexpectedly discovers himself at their treacherous point of collision.

As with all my books in this series, my storylines are built around actual events of the period. As the story opens in 1769, tales of the mysterious incognitum fossil creatures found in the Ohio country are stirring excitement not just in East Coast settlements but in Europe as well. Daniel Boone has just arrived in those frontier lands, foreshadowing new tensions with the tribes, which London is keen to exploit. British repression has precipitated the Virginia Resolves, a statement of colonial outrage at Parliament that becomes a unifying cry throughout America. Benjamin Franklin’s role as London agent for several colonies has been jeopardized by his rift with the aristocracy. At least the greatly anticipated astronomical event of the year, the transit of Venus, is devoid of the volatile politics that contaminates everything else—until Duncan painfully learns otherwise.

 

The King’s Beast

Spring 1769

The Kentucky Wilderness

Chapter One

The chain of men worked feverishly, passing bucket after bucket of muddy water from the pit that Duncan McCallum stood in. The youngest members of their keelboat crew ran the buckets back to the pit as they were emptied, excitedly handing them down to the broad-shouldered man who stood beside Duncan, thigh deep in the muck of the pit. Ezra’s good-natured calls to the crew above them were becoming forced, Duncan realized, for he saw an unexpected cloud on his friend’s countenance and had begun to hear whispered prayers in the tongue of his African tribe.

“Praise God! T’is a miracle!” came a cry in an Irish brogue from above as Duncan once again pulled at the slippery object of their attention and it began to rise into view, raising a chorus of enthusiastic cheers. Duncan looked up at the strange gallery of keelboat crewmen and Indians standing by the hole of muddy water, then reached under the surface and with a heave lifted four more inches of the huge knobby bone into the air.

Magnifique!” exclaimed Pierre Dumont, the French scholar who had accompanied Duncan from Philadelphia. “A leg as stout as an oak!”

“God protect us! Lucifer rises!” hissed the diminutive man in black homespun who hovered above Duncan. The captain of their keelboat, true to his devout Cornish roots, had agreed to accept the Reverend Podrake as a passenger exploring sites for new missions because he had hoped the man would act as chaplain for their remarkable expedition. The thin, sour man, however, was proving more of a burden than a blessing.

Duncan and Ezra found a grip on the mud-covered bone and pulled together, raising it another few inches. Nearly two feet of the bone, which Duncan took to be a giant femur, extended from the pit, and much of it was still buried in the slime. A low whistle escaped the tall, loose-limbed man in buckskin at the end of the pit. “Could have fed a settlement all winter,” he observed in his languid manner. He seemed to be conversing with the long rifle in his hands, which he held in the direction of the forest. The frontiersman had met them at the Ohio River landing, confiding that he had been sent to aid the Sons of Liberty, but seemed more interested in the tree line around the large, sulfur-smelling clearing than in their extraordinary excavation. Duncan was not sure if the gruff man named Boone was watching for his two tribal companions who had disappeared when they had exposed the bone, or for something more menacing. Three days earlier they had steered their keelboat toward a burning farmhouse but arrived too late to do anything but dig graves. The region had become a refuge for many displaced tribes and wandering warriors, some of whom had not accepted the terms that had ended the tribal rebellion a few years earlier.

“Get a harness ‘round the treasure!” shouted one of the excited crewmen gathered around the pit, drawing a frown from Duncan’s companion Ishmael. The men of their keelboat spoke often of the rumors that aristocrats in London and Paris were paying fortunes for ancient relics like that Duncan was uncovering. “Worth its weight in silver, I wager!” the man crowed.

Ishmael, nephew of Duncan’s closest friend Conawago, shouldered the man back from the edge of the pit. “This bone is for Dr. Franklin,” the young Nipmuc tribesman growled.

“I don’t see why this particular—” the riverman’s protest was interrupted by a clap of thunder. He jerked about at the sound and his eyes went round as a bolt of lightning sliced off the limb of an oak at the far end of the clearing.

“You must be familiar with Dr. Franklin’s work,” Ishmael said with a satisfied grin, nodding toward the smoldering limb.

The riverman glanced with sudden worry at the smoking tree, then turned wide-eyed toward Ishmael, as if realizing the young Nipmuc tribesman was suggesting the distant Franklin had dispatched the lightning. He backed away then, as rain began to fall, and beat a hasty retreat toward their camp, to the laughter of the others gathered around the pit.

The downpour quickly reversed the progress they had made in emptying the pit and gave poor prospects for advancing their task further that day. The crew from the keelboat soon abandoned their work, and Dumont ran off to a smaller bone that was being exposed by the torrent with the exuberant, now familiar, cry “incognitum!” Journals in London and Paris had taken to calling the mysterious creature whose remains had been discovered by travelers on the Ohio the American incognitum, the American unknown.

Soon only Duncan, Ezra, Ishmael, and Boone remained at the pit. As the frontiersman tied a leather cover over the firing pan of his rifle, Ezra climbed out of the muck then extended one of his huge mahogany hands to help Duncan up. Ishmael extended Duncan’s tricorn hat, grinning at the muddy water that sluiced out of his britches and down his bare calves. Duncan cuffed Ishmael with the hat and was about to make a jest about the long arm of Dr. Franklin when he noticed the surprisingly somber expressions of his other two companions. The man in fringed leather had fixed the immense bone with an uneasy, almost frightened gaze. It wasn’t fear that Duncan saw on Ezra’s face, however, but something that hinted of shame.

Duncan was about to speak to the African, who had been such a jovial companion on their voyage down the Ohio, when Ishmael touched his arm. He saw now that Ezra’s lips were moving, his soft words drowned by the torrent. One of his hands had slipped inside his tunic and was grasping the necklace he wore underneath.

Ezra’s action seemed to disturb the lanky woodsman, and Boone took a step toward him, raising an arm as if to pull him away. Then Ishmael stepped between the two men. “Not your concern, Mr. Boone,” he warned.

The woodsman cast an irate glance at the young Nipmuc, then retreated several steps and once again silently contemplated the knobby end of bone that still protruded from the rapidly filling pit. “T’ain’t worth the blood,” he declared, then turned and disappeared into the sheeting rain.

Duncan stared in the direction the taciturn Boone had taken, not certain he had heard correctly, not wanting to read alarm into the strange words he thought he had heard. He became aware of Ishmael tugging at his elbow. The Nipmuc raised an open palm toward Duncan, as if to say they must leave Ezra alone, and pulled Duncan toward their camp.

“What did he mean about the blood?” Duncan asked as they made their way across the soft, boggy ground.

“I don’t know. Last night when most had gone to sleep Boone freshened his powder and sharpened his knife, as if expecting trouble. I sat beside him and began sharpening my own knife. Boone nodded his approval. I thought he was worried about some of those rough characters in the village just down the river, but then he said ‘the Shawnee know there’s ghosts in the old Lick. Ancient ghosts. First man ghosts, monster ghosts, giant buffalo ghosts. And the ghosts,’ he said, ‘ain’t altogether happy about outsiders stealing their mortal remains.’ He said the Shawnee don’t call this the Bone Lick. They call it the Gods’ Gate.”

The chill that ran down Duncan’s spine was not from the dampness. He knew enough from his years of living among the tribes to recognize the importance they attached to relics of the dead. He never intended to be a bone stealer. He had come for the cause of freedom at the request of the Sons of Liberty.

The cook, Ezra’s cousin Gideon, had prudently rigged a large piece of canvas over their fire and the long flat rocks they used as eating tables. The crew of the Arabella, the keelboat they had taken from Pittsburgh, were now gathered around the crackling fire with mugs of tea while Gideon prepared an early supper.

“To hell with this,” one of the older rivermen groused. Duncan followed his gaze to the rivulet that had begun flowing under one of the tents where the crew’s bedrolls lay. “Beg pardon, parson,” the man added with a glance to Reverend Podrake, who sat reading his Bible with a smoldering expression. “But there’s dry bunks on the Arabella less than an hour’s walk from here,” he declared, then retrieved one of the bed rolls and gestured to the rest of the crewmen. “Unless ye want to spend the night like a mudpuppy ye should head for the boat with me,” he said. He laid a soggy hat on his head then set off at a rapid pace down the wide buffalo track that led toward the cove where the Arabella was moored.

The remaining men laughed as the youngest of their company darted off after the man, stumbling in a calf-deep mud puddle, then they laid a blanket over one of the flat boulders and began tossing dice. The Reverend cast a disapproving glance then stared out toward the rain-veiled Lick. As Duncan poured Ishmael and himself mugs of tea, he realized Podrake wasn’t gazing at the clearing as such, he was staring toward the dim ghost-like figure who was praying over the huge bone. Ezra had now raised his outstretched hands toward the sky and, as Duncan watched, turned to address the arches of ancient ribs rising out of the boggy ground. For weeks Ezra had shared his excitement about their mission, but his joy had inexplicably disappeared after arriving at the Lick.

Duncan retreated to the small tent he shared with Ishmael, grateful that the young tribesman had not only erected it on a ledge above the camp but had also lined the floor with dry pine boughs and moss. He sat in the entrance, nursing his tea as he watched Ezra with new foreboding. The miasma over the Lick seemed to be worming into Duncan’s brain. It was as if the appearance of the first ancient bone had jarred open a dusty chamber in his mind he had never known to exist. He had been taught by one of his Highland uncles, and later by the Iroquois, that the earth had places of great spiritual power, secret sites where men encountered mysteries of the planet that were greater than themselves, where powers from under the earth could work miracles or strike terror. Duncan and Ishmael had sensed it immediately when they had arrived at the Lick at sunset the day before. In the center, casting shadows of eerie black arches down the wide clearing, had been the massive rib cage Ezra now spoke toward. The creature would have been as large as a cabin. The Lick was more than just some mineral-rich clearing that attracted animals. Its deposit of massive bones could be explained by neither European nor tribal knowledge. The tribes were inclined to call such places mysteries sent by the gods, and tended to treat them more as a miracle than a problem to be solved. Among the scholars of Europe the Lick had begun to cast a shadow, for some suspected they were glimpsing creatures that were mightier than man, and others warned that they were witnessing the ongoing work of God, a divine workshop which no man should tamper with.

Duncan had been struck dumb when arriving at the Lick, for he had not anticipated the strange majesty of the place, but he also had felt an icy knot in his gut. Ishmael too had halted, wordless, at his first sight, and begun whispering a Nipmuc prayer. Duncan had struggled to put words around his own unexpected reaction until Ishmael had spoken. “It’s like stepping into the church of someone else’s god,” the young Nipmuc had said.

They had assuaged their odd sense of guilt by walking reverently among the bones in the twilight of that first day and paying homage to each exposed skeleton by burning a small mound of fragrant leaves before it. A solitary buffalo had looked up from a patch of snow-white soil and stared at them with an oddly expectant expression. It was a place where the earth was reaching out, his old friend Conawago, Ishmael’s uncle, would say of the Lick. Not for the first time Duncan wished Conawago were with him, but the gentle old Nipmuc had declined to join the expedition, and Duncan had not pressed him, for he had suspected his closest friend was about to leave on one of his periodic spirit quests in the deep forest.

He desperately wished now he could ask Conawago if it was proper to remove the ancient bones, for he increasingly wondered if by pulling up the enormous bone that day they had opened an entrance to some world they did not belong in. The Lick spoke to something deep inside him, something from his clan’s primeval past, a world populated by fairies and banshees. Why had these mysterious creatures, these outliers of nature, congregated here? Was this a place of ancient butchery or ancient reverence? And why, asked the voice that had been nagging him for weeks, were the bones of the incognitum so vital to Benjamin Franklin and the Sons of Liberty that they had urgently sent him on this mission?

Duncan watched Ezra performing his ritual for several more minutes, trying to make sense of what the former slave was doing. He had come to greatly admire the quiet, stalwart man whom he had first met in the house of Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia during a late-night meeting hosted by Franklin’s wife, who often played her husband’s surrogate while he was in London. Duncan had raised no question when the sponsors of the expedition had told him Ezra would join Duncan and Ishmael, for they had explained that he had been on the Ohio before. He had simply assumed Ezra had been selected for the combination of that knowledge and his great physical strength. But now Duncan reflected on how Ezra had been on surprisingly familiar terms with the leaders of the Sons and wondered if there had been more behind the choice of the freedman, who had been a cheerful companion on their voyage but always guarded when Duncan asked about his past. At the landing the day before Duncan had thought he had seen a flash of recognition between Ezra and the Shawnee warrior traveling with Boone. But that seemed impossible, and if it were true, why keep it secret?

He extracted a tattered letter from inside his waistcoat and read it for what may have been the hundredth time since leaving Philadelphia:

 

The threat to the colonies grows more acute each day. If they could bend the Prime Minister into silence I swear they would make membership in the Sons of Liberty a capital offense. Only one path, both secret and treacherous, remains if we are to avoid the bloodletting. You must bring me the relics from the Great Lick in the Kentucky lands. Time, and secrecy, is of the essence. American incognitum and its mortis antiquae may save us yet. God speed and God preserve our liberty.

B Franklin.

Craven Street, London

 

Franklin’s wife had thrust her husband’s letter to the leaders of the Sons, already tattered from circulation within their circle, inside Duncan’s waistcoat as he left her house that night, bound for Pittsburgh. Duncan was not sure why he had been selected for the strange mission, but the leaders of the Sons in that Philadelphia meeting had spoken with desperation in their voices and pleaded with Duncan to carry out the mission so urgently requested by Franklin. Sarah, his betrothed, had bit her lip and tearfully nodded when he had told her they had to delay their wedding once more. Now, arduous weeks later, he was at the mysterious Lick, facing the American mystery creature. The incognitum and its ancient death may save us yet, Franklin had written.

The sun was rising into a clear azure sky as they set out across the Lick the next morning. Deer browsing on the salt at the edge of the sulfurous bog looked up then bounded into the shadows. A raven flew low and dismissed them with a raucous caw. The ground underneath was boggy and the sulfur smell more intense after the rain, but the men were not to be discouraged. They walked in a line, swinging buckets and leaning shovels on their shoulders, singing one of the French ditties Pierre Dumont had taught them during their long days of poling the Arabella downriver. The ebullient Frenchman led three men carrying a scaffold of lashed logs with a mounted pulley he had devised to erect over the pit.

“Ivory!” one of the rivermen shouted and half the line broke away to investigate a small horn-shaped object that protruded from the ground. Pierre pushed through the men and dropped to his knees, then with sudden, intense effort began scooping away the wet earth with the small gardener’s shovel he carried. By the time Duncan arrived he had exposed several inches of the curving ivory.

Mon Dieu, Duncan! Can it be a tusk?” Dumont exclaimed. He happily agreed to Duncan’s suggestion that he stay with four men to excavate the new discovery while Duncan and the others recovered the large bone they had discovered the day before.

It took nearly an hour to raise the scaffold and lower the water to the level of the day before, and Dumont and his men were already prying their tusk, nearly seven feet long, out of the mud by the time Duncan had rigged a rope to the pulley and lowered himself into the muddy pit. He attempted to reach under the huge femur to fasten the rope but something new, probably a root, was blocking it. He paused to scan the flat once more for Ezra, who had left the Lick but not appeared at breakfast, then pushed with his back against the bone’s exposed end, bracing his feet against the wall of the pit. The bone shuddered then began to rise. Duncan watched the pulley, calling for the men to pull in unison but a moment later the rope went slack and the man closest to the pit staggered backwards, crossing himself. Another dropped to his knees with a terrified groan and vomited.

“The demon is among us!” Reverend Podrake gasped and thrust his hands together in prayer.

Duncan followed their gaze to where the bone crept out of the water. Clutching the femur was a huge muddy hand.

In his horror Duncan flattened himself against the wall of the pit. He did not even realize that he was struggling to push himself up over the edge until Ishmael jumped in beside him and grabbed his arm to calm him. The young Nipmuc took the gourd of fresh water that hung from his belt and emptied it over the hand, washing away the grime. The flesh was newly dead, the skin a mahogany color.

“Not ancient,” Ishmael declared in a grim tone. “And not a demon.”

“Ezra!” Duncan cried, and struggled forward, dropping down to futilely grope for his friend’s body.

“Stay,” he heard Ishmael say. The word was directed at the rest of the crew, who were backing away. “He was our friend,” Ishmael said. “We must do the right thing. Pull the rope as we planned.” He took the rope that Duncan had left dangling and, submerging half his head in the process, fastened it lower down, around the breadth of the bone.

Minutes later they had pulled the great artifact out of the pit, releasing the body that had been pinned under it. The mask of mud on Ezra’s face made him appear more like some horrid gothic statue than the joyful traveling companion whose deep bass voice had often echoed in song down the river at night.

Duncan could not recall a task more painful, or more hideous, than transporting the body of his friend out of the pit and across the fetid bog. He first tried with three others, one man to a limb, but as they sank to their shins in the mud the riverman holding one of Ezra’s legs pitched forward and fell sprawling across the dead man. He spat frantic curses as he struggled to his feet, then retreated, wanting no more of the task. Finally they cut pieces of rope to cradle the body but Ezra’s head kept lolling down, dragging his face in the mud. At last Gideon, tears streaming down his face, brought a section of canvas for a litter and several more men came to carry the corpse to camp.

An hour later Ezra’s body lay on one of the slab-like table stones. After bringing buckets of fresh water the rivermen retreated to the Lick, where Dumont, having expressed his deep regret over Ezra’s fate, had reminded Duncan of the urgency of their mission and resumed the retrieval of artifacts. Gideon, murmuring prayers in his native language, refused all help in cleaning the body, except from Ishmael, who had been whispering his own prayers in a different tribal tongue. As they finished their task Ishmael inserted fragrant cedar stems between the lifeless hands Gideon had crossed over Ezra’s heart.

Duncan struggled to push down the agony of the death as he looked over the Lick, trying to understand the tragic accident. He had not seen Ezra since sunset the evening before, when the freedman had continued his vigil in the fading light. Worried about the former slave, he had risen in the night, when a dense fog had settled over the Lick, but when he had stepped toward the flat Gideon had appeared out of the shadows to stop Duncan. “Not yet,” Ezra’s cousin had cautioned. “He be back when it’s done, can’t interfere when a man speaks with the gods.”

There was clearly a secret between the two Africans, something that touched on the sacred, and even now Duncan was loath to pry into it. Weakened by his hours in the rain without pause or nourishment, Ezra must have tried to remove the bone by himself, had slipped and been pinned by it. It was the only possible explanation. He had mired himself in the mud with no firm surface to push against, but in his struggle had slipped farther under the heavy bone and been transfixed by its weight. Duncan himself had once nearly died in a Virginia bog, being sucked into a pocket of quicksand, so he well knew the dangers of a mud pit. But why would Ezra think he had to retrieve the bone alone in the gloom of night? It made no sense. A crew was coming after sunrise to perform that very task.

Ever since agreeing to travel to the Lick Duncan had known there were secrets surrounding their mission. But those were secrets of Philadelphia and London, secrets of the Sons of Liberty leaders and Benjamin Franklin, secrets that surely did not reach hundreds of miles down the Ohio. He and Dumont had been trusted with a straightforward task that simply called for Duncan’s frontier skills and Dumont’s scholarly knowledge. Indeed, now that the sun was drying the ground Dumont was using that knowledge to assemble an impressive collection of giant ribs, huge vertebrae, and more long curving tusks. The giant femur had already departed with a party of four men carrying it in a sling with instructions to wrap it with blankets and a cushion of pine needles and moss when they reached the keelboat.

Duncan turned at the sound of whispers from the shadows beyond their camp. The woodsman Boone had returned, and stood under an oak with his two tribal companions. The three seemed to be arguing about something, and one of them was now pointing at Duncan. Boone grew silent, gazing uncertainly at Duncan, then hesitantly approached Gideon and whispered in his ear. Gideon too now stared at Duncan, and Ishmael took a step in Duncan’s direction as if he might need protection.

“This Seneca,” Boone said as he approached, jerking a thumb to the taller of the two natives, “says we must let the body speak to you. He says he has seen you at council fires and that the wise women of the League consult with you about these things.”

Duncan cast a new, appraising gaze at the tall warrior. If the man was of the western Iroquois, he may indeed have seen Duncan at one of his frequent visits to Iroquois council fires. “These things?” he asked Boone.

“Death.”

“Dying,” the Seneca said, as if correcting the woodsman.

Ishmael relaxed, and cast an apologetic glance at Duncan.

Boone scratched the stubble of his jaw and studied Duncan with new interest. “For some reason the Iroquois call you the Deathspeaker,” he said and shook his head. “Makes me shudder just to say it,” he added, and tightened his grip on his long rifle.

Duncan looked at Gideon, who nodded, then carefully washed his hands, rolled up his sleeves, and stepped to the body of his friend. “I was trained as physician in Edinburgh,” he explained. “I will have to touch him, to closely examine his body.”

“But it was an accident,” Ishmael interjected. “Surely that is obvious. A terrible accident.” His voice trailed off as the Seneca moved closer to the slab on which Ezra lay. The tribesmen were always uneasy when Duncan conducted what they considered his communication with corpses. They wouldn’t lightly ask the Deathspeaker to do so.

Gideon and Ishmael had already removed Ezra’s filthy shirt, and with clenched jaws they braced the dead man into a sitting position as Duncan examined his back. He paused over the web of old scars along the former slave’s spine, the work of an overseer’s whip, and felt the skin crawl along his own spine, which bore similar, more recent scars from months Duncan had spent enslaved on a Virginia plantation.

Probing the flesh along Ezra’s shoulders and neck, he discovered a soft, spongy spot at the base of his skull. Making no comment, he helped lower the body onto the slab and studied the rest of the dead man’s skull, pausing over another spongy spot along his left temple. He braced himself and opened Ezra’s eyes, now cleaned of mud and clearly showing the red stain of burst capillaries. Next he studied the lifeless arms and hands, which revealed several small cuts in the palms, and only quickly scanned the tattoos on his torso, knowing that since they were done by a tribe across the ocean they would be meaningless to him.

“He had always worn a necklace underneath his tunic,” Duncan said to Gideon. “Did he still have it?”

“I removed it,” Gideon replied with an edge of warning in his voice.

Duncan returned Gideon’s defiant stare a moment, then reached inside his own shirt and pulled out the totem he had worn since his early years with the tribes. “I am well aware of how to treat things touched by the gods,” he assured Gideon.

The cook gave a reluctant nod then stepped to one of the wooden boxes he kept spices in and extracted a braided lanyard from which a leather-bound bundle hung. The worn leather, pocked and with a greenish tint, was unfamiliar to Duncan. It bulged from an irregular shape inside, just as Duncan’s own quillwork totem pouch did. Gideon held it out as if he wanted Duncan to take it. Duncan leaned forward but did not touch the bundle that Ezra had grasped while praying. “Sometimes a totem is taken as a trophy,” he said. “I wanted to know if he still had it, and if so what people it was from.” He quickly saw, however, that the last inquiry had no simple answer. Tied around the bundle were several objects. He recognized the feathers of an owl, a solemn protector of the woodland tribes, fastened with a strip of black and white skunk fur along one side of the bundle, but the other side held objects unfamiliar to him. A three-inch claw was fastened tightly against the bundle, and a large white bead of what must have been ivory carved with intricate patterns was sewn into its end.

Gideon recognized Duncan’s confusion. He pointed to the pocked leather. “Crocodile,” he explained, then “Ingwe” as he indicated the long claw. “Leopard.” Lastly, he pointed to the beautiful bead. “Protector,” he stated.

“Protector?” Duncan asked.

“Protector spirit,” Gideon said in an insistent tone. He was clearly not inclined to explain further.

Duncan did not voice the question that leapt to his lips. Why would Ezra wear a talisman that combined symbols of his African tribe and those of the American woodland tribes? He examined the dead man’s legs and feet then stepped back so he could address not only Gideon but also Boone and his native companions.

“Ezra suffered two blows before he died,” he declared. “A slight one here,” he said, indicating the patch of slight discoloration on the left temple, “then on the back of his skull, more severely. “Perhaps he slipped,” Duncan admitted, “hitting the side of his head on the bone then fell backward onto an unseen rock. If he fell unconscious into the pit he would have quickly drowned.”

“You don’t sound convinced,” Boone observed.

“Both of the blows are well defined, rectangular in shape. They would have been rounder if his head had glanced off the bone and a rock.”

His companions chewed on Duncan’s words. It was Ishmael who broke the silence. “You mean he could have been hit with a club or war hammer.”

Duncan nodded. “The blow on the back could have been enough to kill him. There are many fresh abrasions on his hands and wrists. Perhaps they were all from his labors yesterday, but I tend not to think so.”

“And if not?” Boone asked.

“He was defending himself with his bare hands. He was attacked.”

“But the truth of it can never be known,” Gideon said forlornly.

Duncan leaned over the body. “Ezra can tell us the truth,” he stated. “I am going to push on his chest. If it was an accident and he drowned, water will be discharged. If he died out of the pit and his body was placed there to look like an accident only air will emerge.” When no one objected he pressed the dead man’s ribs. Nothing emerged, neither water nor air. Confused, he bent and tried again. The chest was tight, with none of the movement he expected from emptying lungs. He opened the dead man’s jaw, holding it open with one hand as he extended the fingers of the other down Ezra’s throat.

The rumble of protest from Gideon died away as Duncan drew out a rolled and crumpled piece of paper. It was stained with blood, saliva and, at the topmost portion, muddy water. The natives with Boone gasped and backed away.

Gideon groaned and a tear rolled down his cheek. “I don’t understand,” he said in a hoarse voice.

“He didn’t fall and hit his head,” Duncan replied. “He was knocked unconscious and this paper was forced into his throat. His windpipe was bloody, which means the paper was pounded down with a stick or a handle of some kind to be certain it blocked his breathing.”

“A handle?” Gideon asked.

“The handle of a tomahawk or maybe a pistol barrel,” Ishmael suggested, then looked back to Boone. The woodsman’s companions were gone.

The torn and bloody paper had been a letter, though most of its writing had been dissolved or rendered illegible. Duncan lay it flat at the edge of the rock. He made out the words Philadelphia and Covenant. Only the last line and signature, protected by being folded repeatedly, was fully intact. God grant you the protection of a worthy partner for your noble mission, it said in an elegant hand. He stared disbelieving at the signature.

Ezra had been choked to death with a letter from Benjamin Franklin.

 

Copyright © 2020 Eliot Pattison.

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