The character that didn’t start out to be a big deal but then was. Writing, like storytelling, is a participant sport. Authors sometimes forget that. The reader or listener gets to choose what the story is to be. We writers can only suggest and guide. I was recently invited to speak at a small local book club that had chosen one of my historical novels as a monthly subject. All friends who were kind in their comments and the food was terrific.
CAPTAIN’S CROSS began as a story of colonial frontier adventure but grew into life and death and just a little heart-strings-pulling along the way. But early in the story a character that wasn’t there in the planning stage appeared and plopped himself down into the middle of the tale. Thomas. The ladies of the book club were drawn to him and couldn’t get enough. I thought they would be all about the love interest of Ben, the main character, but the thirteen year old lost boy found in the wilderness and taken into the crew of rugged men challenging the mountains and then the open sea was, to them, the real story. A coming of age twist in between leaping catamounts and French pirates.
The inclusion of youthful characters in fiction was the subject of a recent article in the Guardian here something I really hadn’t thought too much about; Thomas just seemed to become a part of the story as the novel developed in my head. His transformation from shy survivor of an Indian raid to earning a place among grown men was some of the most fun and the most difficult to write. I won’t give away the ending of CAPTAIN’S CROSS but I will tell you Thomas returns in the sequel, CAPTAIN’S SORTIE, older and wiser still.
From CAPTAIN’S CROSS:
Gripping the long rifle, Ben urged the mare into the clearing. Looking left and right, he found that nothing moved except the falling snow. “Hoy the cabin, hunters coming in!” Ben shouted. There was no response. At the fenced enclosure beside the cabin, Ben dismounted and tied the mare. His left hand was on the grip of his pistol at his belt as he walked to the door.
“In the cabin, you have visitors,” Ben heard a thud from inside. Something had fallen to the earthen floor. Ben raised his rifle and covered the door. There were only slits for windows and Ben could not see inside. With his left hand, he reached out and slid the wooden bolt aside, pulling the door open a bit.
“Hello, friend,” Ben called. Again there was no response. Ben snatched a look past the edge of the door and saw the inside was cluttered with broken furniture and objects strewn about. A sputtering flame in the hearth was doing little to warm the cabin. Something moved in the far corner and Ben raised the flintlock. “Come out! Show yourself,” Ben shouted.
“Don’t. Don’t, please,” a small voice said. Dirty hands appeared from the dark corner and a boy of about thirteen peered from behind a barrel. “Don’t shoot me,” the boy sobbed and Ben could see behind the hands there were tracks down his dirty face where tears had washed away the filth.
“Come out, boy, I’m a friend passing by,” Ben told the boy, “Where’s your folks?” Ben lowered the rifle and took a fast look about the clearing before stepping into the cabin. The boy broke into loud sobs and shook from crying.
“I found ‘em dead,” the boy cried. “Indians kilt ‘em. I’m alone here. Don’t know what to do.” The boy sat down on the packed dirt floor. “Come back and found ‘em. My brother and sister, too. All gone.”
Ben moved over to the boy and knelt down near him. “When, boy?” he asked.
“Maybe two days or three. I, I can’t ‘member,” he stammered through his sobs.
Ben stood and crossed the room to close the door. He found a broken chair and added the cracked wood to the fire. The room was bone cold and the boy only had a rough cloth shirt and britches with torn legs that came up well short of his bare ankles and the worn and broken shoes on his feet. Ben removed his cape and draped it over the lad and led him over next to the now building fire. A quick search of the room revealed no firewood. Some smashed wooden shelves and a small table that had the legs torn away were added to the fire.
“Stay by the fire, boy,” Ben ordered and went outside. At the far side of the cabin, he found a snow covered wood pile and brought in an armload of wet wood. He placed it next to the fire and the snow began to warm and the wood hissed as it heated and began to dry.
“My name’s Ben. What’s yours?” Ben asked.
The boy hesitated with a blank look on his face as if he could not remember. He said, “Thomas, sir. Thomas Howard, from Massachusetts.” The boy was warming and his sobs had faded.
“Well, Thomas Howard from Massachusetts. This cabin was empty when we passed here last. Tell me what happened,” Ben asked.
“We come out and Pa fixed it up. We was goin’ to plant this spring. Had two cows and a plow horse. Now they’re dead. Damn Indians,” Thomas began to sob again. “I drug ‘em to the shed. The ground ain’t thawed yet. Got to get ‘em buried proper. Say Bible words over ‘em and all.”
“What tribe were they?” asked Ben.
“Can’t tell you, sir. I come back from the villages with salt and molasses and found ‘em here. The Indians took everything and left my family dead.”
Ben added two small oak splits to the fire and they hissed louder. “Have you eaten anything?”
“Some a the molasses is all. We didn’t have much and them devils took what there was,” said Thomas.
“Stay near the fire, I’m going to put up my horse and get some food for you. More of us are coming, you’re safe now.”
Ben tossed the boy’s dirty auburn hair and took up his rifle and went out the door. Stopping beside the corner of the cabin, he stood watching all around the tree line. After a few minutes, he untied and led the mare to a shabby lean-to. In the lean-to, he found some bunched dried grass the plough horse had left and unsaddled the mare under the overhang. She would be out of the snow, but not much else. Her thick black hair kept her warm, though. She would keep her shaggy coat until early summer. By then Ben would be far away and she could graze bareback in the warm air.
Ben took his saddle and kit to the porch and dropped it where the snow did not land. Walking around the cabin, he found the shed in back. There he discovered the bodies of Thomas’ family. They were a horrible sight. The man was scalped and his head nearly cut off. The boy had been shot through the chest and also scalped. The women were stripped naked and had been tortured brutally. Ben found grain sacks that had been sliced open and the seed spilled and an old deer hide to cover the bodies as best he could.
He rummaged through the shed and found a pick and an axe that needed sharpening. No spade, but the crew had two. At least they could break through the soil to bury the pitiful souls. Then he circled the clearing and found sign just inside the woods where the snow had not yet covered. The raiding party had come and left from the north. A broken hawk shaft carved with symbols lay behind the cabin and Ben figured it was Abenaki or one of the other eastern Canadian tribes.
“French trouble again,” Ben said aloud to himself. The struggle between England and France never seemed to end. The northern Indians allied with the French were their advance scouts and raiders. Ben’s Huguenot parents and grandparents were also the victims of the royal French and he resented that he was often confused with the “other” French.
As Ben came back to the cabin, he again stopped and looked out into the surrounding woods. Bear appeared leading his horse, Draco at his heel. Ben walked out to meet him. “Boy inside is all that’s left of the family that took this place over. French Indians, probably Abenaki or Huron raiders wiped them out a couple of days ago. Drove the stock off to the north.” Ben handed the hawk handle to Bear for his examination. Ben looked back at the stock pen, “We can put the oxen in the pen and feed ‘em. There’s a horse shack the other side of the cabin for your gelding, but we’ll have to hobble the rest. We can warm and rest in the cabin, but we better picket the clearing. Work out a watch; I’ll take the first after we get all the carts in here.”
Bear turned the hawk handle over several times to study the carved symbols and then handed it back to Ben. Without a word, he pulled the gelding toward the cabin. Draco trotted to the small cabin porch and dropped into a big ball.
Ben took more wood inside to dry and then carried his saddle in. Some smoked venison and some of the parched corn was produced to make a meal for Thomas. While the boy ate, Ben cleared the cabin floor from clutter to make room for the crew to warm and eat. Thomas cried out in fear as Bear’s huge frame filled the doorway.
Bear stopped and looked at the boy’s wide fearful eyes. “Am I that frightful of a sight?” Bear said and grinned at the boy.
Ben said, “He’s called Bear, but he is quite civilized, Thomas. Bear, this is young Thomas Howard from Massachusetts, our host.”
Bear stepped into the cabin and shut the door to the cold and snow. He bowed and said, “At your service, master Tom. Thank you for your kindness.” Bear crossed to the fire to warm. Thomas sat openmouthed, staring.