Lydia removed her wire-rimmed eyeglasses and brought the thin stationery close. The letter opened, "Dere Cuzin," and closed, "Yrs respecfly, Ethan." In-between: "I bin wishen to see You sinc Mercy wint. I Thank You for Yr letr of Comfert at thet tim. Im on Dean Brk." Postmarked at Northumberland the previous Friday, October 14, 1825.
Cousins or closer, the family outliers, high cheeks, aquiline noses, narrow bodies, dusky hair. Lean fingers and tawny skin. Lydia thirteen at Ethan's birth. She'd seen him, what, four times since leaving Northumberland, where they drew stares apart and together. They had this common ancestry. Following the French and Indian War, their forebears migrated up the Connecticut River. Ma, Pa, and Aunt Sarah formed one party, Ma's cousin Mercy and her husband the second. The parties passed the Fort at Number 4, passed Hanover, and settled on the east side of the river near Fort Wentworth. They built cabins and cleared fields. Pa and Mercy's husband mustered at the fort when called, but saw no action. The Indian threat had ebbed with the English controlling Canada and the French no longer paying for scalps and hostages.
Lydia replaced her eyeglasses and folded Ethan's letter. She walked to the window of her second-floor boarding room and looked across the road over leaf-covered lawns to the ruddy bricks of Dartmouth College. What would Ethan have to say that she didn't already suspect? Fine, this weekend she'd go, due for a visit anyhow. She'd hire a buggy, look in on brother Willett at the homestead, and find her way up Dean Brook.
Lydia looked at the backs of her hands and saw Jack, Ethan's natural father, in point of likelihood hers too. What Lydia knew or thought she knew about Jack was that he entered life through a French trapper and an Abenaki squaw from inland New Hampshire, that he'd been fostered some years at the Indian school here in Hanover before it became Dartmouth College, that he spoke French and English, that he roamed the river trapping and trading. He behaved with manners and bonhomie, but English eyes fell to slits upon his appearance. The men believed he was scouting the area, charting roads and farm locations for future mischief. Plus, he was a handsome rascal, prone to drop in at a cabin when its men were in the fields.
Once, Jack came by their cabin. It was a late April day, patches of snow in the woods still. Lydia remembered her age as nine or ten, must have been '72 or '73. Aunt Sarah, ax in hand, told him to get on while Ma stuffed powder and ball in a musket. Jack smiled, bowed, and told them au revoir. He had narrow features and didn't chop his hair like the Algonquian and Abenaki warriors, let it hang to his shoulders, thick and black.
After he'd backed off and turned away, Lydia said, "Why'd you chase him away? He give me a smile."
Aunt Sarah put down the ax and set her hands on Lydia's shoulders. "Child, you ever see that no-good, you run from him, hear?"
Aunt Sarah was Ma's younger sister, unmarried, and looked after Lydia more than Ma did. They all lived together in a one-room log cabin with a loft—Ma, Pa, Aunt Sarah, brother Emmett, an older brother, Lydia, and two toddlers. They had a milking cow named Roxana, two pigs, and too many hens and chickens to count. In the spring of 1777, Pa dug a root cellar in the middle of the cabin, constructed a lid, and tamped dirt over the lid. There they put their stores. The thought was if they had to abandon the cabin, the Indians wouldn't know about the cellar. For troubles had begun anew. A rebel American army had invaded Canada. The invasion failed, and now the English were attacking down Lake Champlain. The French and Indians were upon them again, siding this time with the English against the Americans.
In August 1777, the militia, including Pa and the older brother, marched off to fight Burgoyne, leaving a skeleton company of rangers at Fort Wentworth. Pa left two muskets for the cabin. Aunt Sarah and Ma could shoot, as well as Willett, who was upset he couldn't go to war. Willett was thirteen, Lydia's senior by eight months. Lydia was a poor shooter, but could prime and load two muskets a minute.
Mid-morning, September 15, a runner from Fort Wentworth burst upon the cabin. A war party had been spotted upriver, four or five Algonquians and the Abenaki half-breed known as Jack. Get to the stockade. The runner was a scrawny boy of sixteen or seventeen in a homespun hunting shirt that hung to his knees. He carried no musket, the better for speed.
"What about Mercy?" Aunt Sarah said, pointing toward the river. Mercy was one farm over, alone with a girl and two small boys, her husband gone with the militia.
"She been told," the runner said. As he loped off, he called back: if they heard a drum roll, it was too late; hole up or take to the woods.
With haste, Ma and Aunt Sarah loaded provisions into a two-wheeled cart, and Lydia brought Roxana around. Willett stuffed squawking chickens in crates and set the pigs loose in the woods. The toddlers were still in the cabin when musketry erupted from the stockade, followed by the rolling of a drum. Too late to make the stockade, there was no debate regarding the alternative. They had a well-built cabin of thick logs and no windows, just slits for light that doubled as firing ports. Provisions were unloaded back to the cabin, along with the squawking hens and chickens. Roxana was let loose, driven into the woods, bag and teats swinging between disappearing rear legs.
They were behind the cart, Ma, Aunt Sarah, Willett, and Lydia, preparing to push it away from the cabin, when an Algonquian warrior appeared on the path from the river. Hair like a porcupine ran along the middle of his head, which was shaved on the sides; war paint, black and red, smeared his chest. He wore a breechclout, leggings, and moccasins, and carried a musket and tomahawk. Ma took up a musket. Aunt Sarah pushed the other musket into Willett's hands and put him next to Ma behind the cart. She set Lydia up with a cartridge box and ramrod, ready for the reload. For herself, Aunt Sarah took an ax and a wide-legged stance alongside the cart like a woodchopper about to topple a tree.
The warrior fired his musket, the ball passing without harm, smoke from the muzzle obscuring him as he shifted the musket and lifted the tomahawk. With a whoop, he rushed the cart. Aunt Sarah yelled, hold your ground, hold your fire. As the distance closed, the warrior took better notice of the muskets and ax. And like the black bear that roars and makes a false charge to scare its foe, stopped short when the foe failed to flee. Standing at thirty paces, he set his tomahawk in the crook of his left arm and, with studied insouciance, drew from his pouch a wad of ball and powder.
Aunt Sarah said, "Go ahead, Willett, take yourself a shot."
Willett needed no further inducement to pull back his hammer, followed by the trigger. The musket jumped. The Indian maintained a warrior-like stance but eyes shifted right as the ball passed at close quarters. When his eyes returned, Lydia was reloading Willett's musket, ramming powder and ball, and Ma was pulling back the hammer of the second musket. The Algonquian backed off a step, then additional steps, and had retreated to eighty paces when a figure in buckskin came up alongside him.
Ma said, "It's Jack."
Aunt Sarah said, "It's himself for sure."
A second Algonquian warrior joined them. Behind, smoke billowed from cousin Mercy's farm.
"Make for the cabin," Aunt Sarah said.
The cabin was dark, with chickens and toddlers screeching and running underfoot, and dust and stink rising from both. Aunt Sarah rested the muzzle of a musket on the firing slit to the left of the door, now barred and bolted. Ma and Willett reconnoitered from slit to slit on all four walls. Aunt Sarah could see Jack and three Algonquians at the cabin's front. Keep checking the sides and back, she said, but she wasn't frantic. Approaching the cabin was perilous—a warrior couldn't tell if he was under observation from a firing slit until he saw the musket smoke. If he gained the cabin wall, what then? Attempting to see through a slit into the dark cabin was suicidal. The roof was a greater peril—a warrior trying to break through or set it afire would take a ball from below.
From the front of the cabin came a shout, followed by a flow of English with French harmonics. "Is that you, Sarah, ma petite chérie? Do not be shooting. Someone will get hurt."
"They don't come no smoother," Ma said.
Aunt Sarah responded with equal suaveness, like the flow of maple sap in early spring. She asked Jack to come a bit closer, chérie. He laughed and said he would, un peu. Aunt Sarah said a little more, but Jack said he was close enough to inform Aunt Sarah their situation was hopeless. If they surrendered, the Indians would take them unharmed to Canada to await ransom. Otherwise, he couldn't help what the warriors would do. Aunt Sarah said she was having trouble understanding him; that he needed to come closer. Jack gave another laugh and said, to the contrary, it was time to back off.
Lydia stood next to Aunt Sarah and saw the hammer of the musket lay at full cock. Aunt Sarah closed her forefinger on the trigger. The hammer fell, the musket lurched, and smoke from the primer pan rose in her face.
Willett gave a yell. "You got him. You got him."
"By the Lord," Ma said, "you got him for sure."
Aunt Sarah couldn't see through the smoke from the musket, but Ma, at the slit on the other side of the door, had a clear view. Jack, she said, bent forward with an open mouth, then slowly backed away. It was more than a scratch. Outside came musket cracks and the thuds of lead balls hitting the logs of the front wall and the split wood of the door. Inside, the chickens and toddlers flapped and screamed.
At dusk, the Indians built a fire out front. They piled on the cart, fencing, winter firewood, anything that burned, and set fire to the sheds. From the dark, Lydia heard Roxana bellow. She had come back in for milking, or the Indians had gone out and found her. The bellowing took on the tone and urgency of a scream. They're torturing that poor cow, Ma said. Nothing we can do, Aunt Sarah said. Roxana screamed for two hours.
In the morning, the Indians were gone. Roxana lay flayed, some meat taken, but most of the carcass left. The rangers from the stockade asked to finish the butchering, since she was dead anyhow, no sense wasting her.
The Indians had carried off Mercy and her daughter, but her two boys had escaped to the fort. They told the rangers the Algonquians were holding them out front of the cabin, scalping knives up, when Jack came to the door and called. An Algonquian and Jack went back and forth in French, then the Indians pushed the boys away, and they bolted for the fort.
* * *
Next year, late spring, a detachment of rangers made their way to the headwaters of the Connecticut River. They continued north, paddling and porting their canoes through the Connecticut Lakes. At the top of the Fourth Connecticut, the rangers rendezvoused with French trappers, and handed over a ransom of beads, cloth, trinkets, coin, and knives. Two days later, the trappers returned with Mercy and her daughter. As the two women shambled into the ranger encampment in threadbare dresses, Mercy's advanced pregnancy was obvious.
Mercy told the rangers they had wintered in a small village, falling into the daily life of Algonquian women, being treated no better or worse. She said Jack had induced her pregnancy the day of the raid before going to Ma's and coming back with a musket ball in his abdomen.
The rangers asked what happened with Jack.
"They drug him along for a day on a travois," Mercy said. "Then they seed it was no use." As Mercy spoke, the rangers leaned in. The warriors, she told them, hunkered near a stream for sweating, chanting, and sipping water. Until Jack's spirit departed. The woods there were open with a prevalence of maples and oaks, and a prominent knoll. They buried Jack on the knoll with necessaries for the afterlife; although, after some discussion, substituting a lesser musket for his fine Charleville.
"Jack never cried out, not a once," Mercy said. "Never gave no anger, no remorse. He gone to the other side just like he was taking a next breath." This didn't surprise the rangers. It was the Indian way to make a good death. The story went all over Fort Wentworth and beyond. Lydia heard it many times.
Mercy delivered a boy three weeks later and named him Ethan like half the boys on the Upper Connecticut. Late summer, she came by Ma's with the baby. Lydia remembered tickling his stomach with her right forefinger and him giving a laugh, and it striking her that her finger and his stomach had the same chestnut color, different from everyone else.
Pa had been called from the field and stood in the doorway. Aunt Sarah said, "Cousin Mercy is asking us to take the child. Her husband don't want it around."
Some seconds elapsed. Then Pa said, "'Course. You didn't have to call me off work for that." He glanced at Lydia before turning back to the field. Lydia often wondered what went through his head. He never acted mean, nor did Ma. But there was a formal reserve, and Lydia went to Aunt Sarah for affection.
Lydia remembered tears and holding Mercy's hands saying she'd take good care of baby Ethan, and Mercy saying I know you will, child. But Lydia would be gone four years later. As the boy grew, he wandered and hired out to neighbors. He drifted between habitat and woods, running against progress as the Upper Connecticut shed its rustic roots.
* * *
Saturday morning, Lydia hired a buggy, and a mare named Maureen. She'd hired Maureen before and they got on well. The stable master predicted two days of agreeable fall weather, frost in the morning, sun in the afternoon. On the river road, Maureen appeared jaunty, lifting knees and head, scattering leaves of red and yellow. They reached the homestead, now a frame house with a front porch and barn, late afternoon. Willett came off the porch and took Maureen's bridle. "You'll be staying the night then?" he said.
"After a visit up Dean Brook."
"Oh. Your closer kin, are you?" Willett stroked Maureen's nose. "Best walk there. Not much of a road." He described where to exit Dean Brook Road, such as it was, and drop through the woods to a clearing by the brook. "Not much of a place he got. Log lean-to. Open fire."
"Who owns the land?"
"You do," Willett said.
Lydia remained silent until Willett smiled an explanation. "The town wanted him out of there, but found the land belongs to your Dartmouth College. They wrote a letter of complaint, but the professors wrote back they don't mind him squatting. So there he be." Willett laughed. "Stops by now and then."
"Never married, did he?"
"Oh, he's had some common law."
"I wouldn't doubt it."
Lydia exited the buggy with a two-step and walked Willett and Maureen to the barn. Willett rambled, unstoppable once started. "He works at chores and such, mostly at Cleary's up the hill. Suspected of stealing from gardens, chicken coops—lots of chickens, never been caught. A few years back, the town sent a delegation there for inspection. They was bent on catching him with stolen stores. They got me to guide them, otherwise they'd still be out there, couldn't find their way in the woods if they had a signpost every two feet. There was nothing in his lean-to, not a morsel, just bedding and clothes. What'd they expect? You don't leave food about, you'd have critters all over. He hangs it or buries it and they couldn't find nothing to incriminate him." Willett looked to the sky. "You'll be pressing the dark hours, sister. You okay with that? It's a waxing moon tonight, three-quarter."
Dean Brook Road passed a few setback properties then climbed alongside the brook, more rocks and ruts than passageway, no place for a buggy. Lydia found a three-rock cairn and off it a trampled footpath. It dropped into hardwood and pine toward the brook, and soon approached a log lean-to, well chinked, with gray boards nailed to the south-facing front. A raised canvas door overhung a wide entrance and, just inside, a stone fire pit glowed with red coals and a flicker of blue flame. Over the pit hung a large pot, letting off the stinky steam of purloined chicken.
Such different circumstances from her own. Near the end of the war, in 1782, Aunt Sarah had insisted Lydia's eyes be examined. She hired a wagon, took Lydia to Hanover, and found an apothecary at Dartmouth College. He said Lydia was shortsighted, a common ailment, and from a closet retrieved a wooden case of spectacles. He positioned a pair over Lydia's nose and ears and she was astounded to see Aunt Sarah's blurred face assume focus. The apothecary tested various spectacles, made measurements, and wrote numbers on paper.
Aunt Sarah put a hand on Lydia's shoulder. "Are they needing help here at the school?"
The apothecary regarded Lydia. "What's her heritage?" he said.
"There's Scotch in the family."
The apothecary's lips turned up, and he ventured a chuckle. "There's likely some need in housekeeping or the kitchen."
"She's literate," Aunt Sarah said, "and real good with numbers."
The apothecary wrote down a column of figures and handed Lydia pencil and paper. He followed Lydia's movements as she jotted and produced the sum. He followed Lydia's hand as she wrote to his dictation: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." He lifted his gaze to Aunt Sarah. "She's a smart one. I'll see what I can do."
* * *
Ethan sat on a shelf that ran the width of the lean-to. No longer young, black hair streaking gray, wisps of beard and mustache. Lydia took a seat on the shelf. Ethan served up chicken with potatoes and carrots on a shared slab of maple. He ate with his fingers but proffered Lydia a blade.
"Not bad for boiled," Lydia said.
Ethan licked his fingers and wiped them across his shirt. "I had a talk with mother Mercy afore she died."
Lydia said, "I hope you know it wasn't her fault she didn't keep you. It was her husband who couldn't deal with it."
"I'm not a blaming—him or her."
Lydia put aside the knife. "It's hard. I still don't know why Pa let you in with us. Why he kept me, for that matter."
"Oh, that's easy. He was sweet on Aunt Sarah."
"Go on," Lydia said.
"Oh, I don't mean anything happened. He would've took a ball same as Jack." Ethan poked the coals of the fire. "But he had that fondness men have for other than their wife, and she played it."
Outside, dusk presented a blanket of indigo punctured by flecks of white. From the tree shadows being cast, Lydia saw the moon had risen. Ethan eased a fresh log into the fire pit, and flames rose in his face. Jack would have got to look the same, Lydia imagined, if he'd lived on.
Ethan said, "Here's what Mercy told me about Jack. She said it was no more a rape than if her husband had done it."
"Well," Lydia said, "I guess I don't know how to take that."
"What she told me, Jack took her in the cabin and she cried out for her boys. So he went to the door and hollered at the Algonquians till they let the boys go. Then he came back and said some nice sounding French words to her."
"He was something," Lydia said. "Could charm your undergarments off in the middle of hostilities."
Lydia and Ethan sat side by side on the shelf, pressing forward, fire to their faces. Ethan poked at the new log and sparks coned up.
"She said more. She said she wished there was an afterlife. She wished it wasn't all nonsense, so she could see Jack again. Don't that beat all? Then she talked about how you arrived on this earth."
Lydia straightened. Then relaxed and looked at Ethan. "So she said what happened between Jack and Ma?"
Ethan turned a half-smile to Lydia. "What Mercy was witness to was the coming out part. She was midwife to your birth."
"That doesn't tell me what I don't already know."
"But it does." Ethan paused, then continued. "Didn't you ever notice it was Aunt Sarah who raised you? Schooled you? Set you up down there at Dartmouth College?"
Lydia's eyes went to the fire. Aunt Sarah visited in Hanover three or four times a year. Died eight winters ago. Willett came down with horse and sleigh and fetched Lydia back in time for the deathbed. Aunt Sarah had smiled and pressed her hand. Called her a good girl.
Lydia said, "That's right. Ma was busy with the others. And I . . . I was an outcast, like you."
"Lydia, Aunt Sarah was your natural Ma."
"That's impossible. That's—"
But swapping pregnancies wasn't impossible, holed up in a frontier cabin wearing loose homespun with few visitors. Lydia's thoughts went to childhood, Aunt Sarah teaching her writing and arithmetic, monitoring her chores, holding her to her skirts in town. Her constant presence.
Lydia said, "Here I am, a copier and calculator at Dartmouth College, smart as a whip, and I never suspected." Ethan prodded the logs, now consumed by wavering spirals of blue and red.
"Why wouldn't she ever say? Even at the end?"
"Hard to tell," Ethan said. "Sometimes things, well, they become the way they're wanted to be. Anyhow, I thought you ought know."
"What do you think happened?"
"I just said."
"No, I mean the other end. The beginning. Between Jack and Aunt Sarah."
Ethan poked at the fire.
"Oh, it would be no big mystery. I think he come around when she was alone and said some of them French words."
Lydia stood and stepped around the fire pit, out the doorway, and looked across the brook over the trees to the three-quarter moon. There would be no problem finding her way back up to the road. She pulled her shawl tighter and stepped back in. Maybe she'd sit with Ethan a while longer.