One of the oldest buildings of the upper Delaware River still stands where Indians and trappers crossed between the mountains of southern New York and the Endless Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. The research for my first historical novel, CAPTAIN’S CROSS, led to this building in Matamoras where the Neversink River empties into the Delaware. The story is set in 1753 when this was known as “The Dutchman’s Fort.” A trading post and a point of contact between the Indians of the interior and the Hudson Valley colonists. Though it likely has been renovated many times and now sprouts window air conditioners and Bar-B-Que grills, the stone walls are still there. The small town surrounding it would have been wooden Indian lodges and the forest, with all its mysteries, dark, thick, and nearby.
The book is part high seas adventure and part spy mission on land to support a young Virginia militia major confronting a French incursion. Ben, captain and leader on sea and land. Bear, half Susquehannock, half black, and all big. Thomas, fourteen and taken in after being orphaned in an Indian raid. Tasked by Major George Washington to cross the wilderness and learn of the Iroquois tolerance for the French.
Your author has travelled much of the ground described in the book including the Hudson Valley and across the northern tier of Pennsylvania. The fictional spies even later camped on what became my grandfather’s small “Gentleman’s Farm” in what is now Crawford County. Real history and places mixed in with larger than life fictional characters, action, and adventure.
From CAPTAIN’S CROSS:
A cold Indian camp was on the rise overlooking the Dutchman’s fort on the other side of the river and they took out the glass to look over the small village of huts around the stone house. Thomas saw this was a very different river from the Hudson. Wide but shallow and rocky, nothing bigger than canoes and rowboats would do. They crossed in canoes they found tied to the willows on the eastern side, Draco sniffing the air from in front of Bear’s canoe, leading the horses that had to swim only the deepest channel. The big dog was out and off before the bow slid grinding into the pebbles of the landing. No doubt either a meal or a female in heat on the air from the sparse settlement.
Ben was known here, so they spoke English and listened to the news from the west. He had passed this way when he traded west to the upper Susquehanna before starting the smoke camps closer to home. It had been on one of his trading treks that he had found Bear but he had not been back beyond here for a few years. While Bear and Thomas moved outside the settlement to set up camp, Ben dallied behind. The loose talk was that the Mohawk and Oneida were not pleased with the way the Seneca and Onondaga were accepting the French intrusion. Though the outside world knew nothing of it. This news Ben pried from the old half breed who brought in firewood for the Dutchman after a jug of rum was almost drained by the old timer.
They camped a ways up the Delaware from the small village around the fort. They traded for a few things they needed but kept to themselves after the first day. Beyond here was only wilderness and Indians. Bear went back after dark the next night and when he ambled back into camp from down river he told Ben, “No one we know other than the Dutchman. Same stories being told. We can go on from here and become who we wish. Everyone else has gone east or south.”
Ben replied in French, “So it is. Tomorrow we really begin.” Thomas pulled his covers tighter over him as a cold rain began to fall, tapping at the sailcloth awning spread over them. The chill he felt, however, was not from the rain.
They rode north along the river, braced against the rain soaked wind blowing from the northwest. Pellets of sleet mixed with the rain and Thomas was not feeling his nose or lips anymore. The little warmth he got from the hot tea and biscuits at breakfast had long since drained from his rumbling belly and each jarring step the gelding took stabbed him through the saddle. Coming back from his scout ahead, Ben had rejoined them and led them just up the river bank into the forest to a hemlock thicket. Though it was only mid-afternoon, he called a halt and they set up their shelter in the windbreak of the evergreens.
Bear got a fire going and Thomas scoured the woods for the driest wood he could find. Even Draco sat under the thick branches watching them rather than venturing out on his usual afternoon hunt for food. Before dark it turned to snow and Thomas was almost glad for the colder air now that the swirling rain had ended. Cold was one thing but cold and wet was worse. Their buckskins steamed off the wetness in the heat of the fire and even the dried elk tasted good washed down with hot tea. Draco finally trotted off, leaving dark paw prints in the scattered snow under the trees.
Ben said, “We should hit the fork of the Swift Waters late tomorrow and turn west. The village may have a few still there if the Iroquois haven’t made life too hard for them. Remember to listen and if you have to speak, do so in French. We will stay the night there so we will guard our horses and kit carefully. When I was through here last years ago, there were only old men and women still there. The Iroquois use it as a stopover as they move through. Be very cautious if any of their warriors are there.” Thomas shivered and nodded.
Before full daylight, Bear was up and brushing snow off the pack coverings. The forest was glowing white as Thomas rolled himself out and sniffed the crisp air. He added to the small fire Bear had started and saw that Ben’s mare was gone, tracks leading down toward the river.
Bear said in French, “Tea and biscuits, if you please, Thomas. Then we move on.” Thomas nearly stumbled over the sleeping Draco at the edge of the hemlocks as he carried his saddle to the hobbled gelding and calmed him with a quiet murmur before saddling the yellow horse. After releasing his hobbles, Thomas led him a few yards away and tied him to an oak sapling. Thomas had the water boiling and the biscuits hot as Bear finished loading the pack horses and joined him at the fire.
“The Captain is sniffing the approach to the fork up ahead. We should be there well before dark.” Bear poured a tin of the tea but stopped with the cup halfway to his lips. He cocked his head and flipped the steaming liquid into the small fire and was swirling toward his horse as the sound of the distant rifle shots reached Thomas’ ears. Thomas grabbed the pot of tea on the fire with a loose mitten and doused the sputtering flame. He threw the container and the pan of biscuits into the open flap of his pack horse and pulled his rifle from the buckskin sleeve as he leaped into the saddle and ripped the rein from about the sapling.
Bear was dodging trees heading for the river and Draco was in a full run streaking to the left through the woods. Thomas followed the flying bits of snow settling from the hooves of the big horse Bear rode while yanking the lead of the pack horses and trying to catch up.