Christmas Morning

My eyes flew open! It’s light in my bedroom and better still it’s Christmas morning!  Santa’s been here and since I’ve been mostly good, there should be a lot stuff for me – I just know it! A wave of exhilaration flooded over me, like the tidal wave I once saw when Johnny Miller did a cannonball in the pool. I jumped to my feet on top of the bed, covers flew in every direction. Like Superman, whose “S” happened to be plastered across the front of my red footies, I jumped off my bed and to the bedroom door in a single bound. Faster than a speeding bullet, around the corner I went only to come to a screeching halt halfway down the hall. Mom and Dad’s room is just to the right and since Mom says no running in the house, I guessed maybe corner time was not the best way to start Christmas. I listened for a moment and didn’t hear a thing. Well, I thought no need to bother them; after all they’re old and probably need their sleep. So I decided to go by myself the rest of the way at a walk, although it was a brisk walk.

At the top the stairs I looked down towards the bottom. Figuring that today is a day to be bold I decided to do the stairs, two steps at a time, like Dasher or Prancer bounding from rooftop to rooftop. So, down I went.  Unfortunately, the very last step caught my foot and I went sprawling across the floor like my building blocks when I play monster dinosaur.

As I jumped up and found nothing broken except an owie on my nose, I reckoned that I wasn’t Dasher or Prancer but being Rudolf was OK too. Taking a breath, I looked about the front room. It was all very happy with the windows draped in reds and greens with gold trims and smiling Santas on every level surface. Cinnamon tickled my nose from the cookies Mom and I baked last night. I remembered the batter tasting so good; even better after it had hardened on my shirt.

“Wait!” my mind shouted. Why am I standing here thinking of cookies when there are more important things, like what’s in the living room, under the Christmas tree? I looked towards the living room.  The entrance was there as usual but today it looked a zillion miles away.  Well it wasn’t going to get any closer by standing here so I took a step. As I started it seemed as if my feet were made of lead. Another step and they grew heavier. I’ll never make it to my treasure if I don’t pick up the pace, I thought. With a third and a fourth footstep I could just see around the corner, into the living room. The top of the Christmas tree was plainly visible over the couch and I knew it was time for me to make my move. With all of my strength I exploded into a frantic run and before I knew it, I burst though the entrance and into the living room. A sense of triumph flooded over me as I raised my hands and danced, like those guys under that big yellow fork, in the football games dad falls asleep to on Sundays.

Then it caught my eye and my sense of triumph turned to awe. I’ve never seen a grander more beautiful sight. There in the middle of the room, under the Christmas tree, was piled the biggest mound of gifts, and I’ve seen many mounds in my seven years, that has ever been made. The Christmas tree shined in the morning light all adorned with ornaments of every shape and size. Sparkling tinsel draped from every branch making the tree look as if magic was cascading like a waterfall from the top to the very bottom. Underneath the tree, packages upon packages were stacked high all wrapped in colored paper with ribbons and bows; which will look much prettier after I rip it all to shreds. As I stood there, mouth agape trying to take in all of the beauty, all of the happiness, all of the treasure just for me, my mind searched the five words that I know to describe my joy.  But when it opened my mouth to say the right one, all I could utter was WOW!

Michilimackinac 1763

Maurice’s fingers roughly squeezed and twisted my mouth expecting that it would improve my pronunciation. “No…repeat, it is important… say, mon s’appelle Jacques …je suis un habitant”.

I slapped Maurice’s hand away. “I am not a child!”

Maurice stood still gazing at me with a slight mocking expression the dirty white of his hunting shirt, colorful sash and breeches almost gave him a buffoonish appearance. He repeated “Mon s’appelle Jock…je suis un habitant.” I tried and failed again. Maurice threw his hands up in vexation and glared at me a bit too severe for a friendly lesson, “It is important that you speak without this accent…you sound too English.

“Maurice, I am English” I replied, a slight grin creasing the corners of my mouth.

“You are, but not when you speak French.”

The effort involved with learning a few words in French seemed harder than expected but in order to trade, I needed a firm knowledge of local customs and language; so I agreed to let Maurice teach me. I tried and struggled again, horribly mispronouncing every syllable. Maurice scornfully snorted and strode away mumbling something in French. “What… “, I asked “Was it not a good try?”  Maurice dismissively waved his hand. “It’s only French”, I mumbled once he was out of earshot. His insistence left me a bit concerned but soon I dismissed it as one of the curious customs inherent to the frontier folk here.

“No, not good enough” he barked quickly coming back towards me, “You have not been here long enough to know. The French have been here for long time…do things as the French… They do not know you here.” He reached into his pocket a pulled out his clay pipe, filled the bowl with tobacco and lit the pipe. A puff of smoke whirled around his head,” the English have soldiers here but remember, England is very far away.”

“Yes it is. Do we not hold the position here? I replied softly

“Oui, don’t count on soldiers,” he asserted while waving a finger at me, “they can be gone tomorrow…you too if you are not smart.”

His advice left me a bit more unsettled. I took a minute to glance around Michilimackinac trying to ease myself. The trading camp, a collection of lean-tos really, sat before a wooden stockade fort built by the French a few years past; the aggressive roughhewn logs provided only a measure of security from overall sense of foreboding permeating the area.  The English garrison had occupied Michilimackinac at the conclusion of the war. The war left frontier remained mired in animosity although Michilimackinac seemed to have reached a tenuous stability. Several French traders, with their bateaux laden with fur, were busily exchanging fur for powder, tools and other trinkets with English traders in the fort. This is why I came; the lure of a quick fortune made from selling fur to colonists back east.  About a day ago I landed on shore with a canoes worth of goods and a somewhat imperfect idea of the circumstances in which I found myself.  Maurice arrived later that night however we didn’t meet till this morning when I saw him returning to his bateaux; he held a concerned look and when he looked at me his brow furrowed tighter. The reply I received upon inquiring was “English do not listen…but I will help you.” Then my French lesson began.

We didn’t consider ourselves friends; we had only known each other since winter. However I remember our first meeting quite vividly … the cry for help on a snowy evening, my hand helping a man who’d fallen through the ice…Maurice swathed in blankets pledging an oath

“Maurice, you’ve travelled this whole area is this a good spot to stay for a bit?”

“Oui…It is generally good when all are friends. Lac des Hurons is to the east and Lac Michigan is to the west. Good place to trade with the English… also good for Ojibwa, Sauk, Menominee, Ottawa and Potawatomi to come.”

The temperature soared for early June making Michilimackinac unusually oppressive but it didn’t deter a party, numbering several hundred of the local Ojibwa from playing a game with sticks and a small ball right in front of the fort.  Looking towards the fort I could plainly see through breaks in the mass of Ojibwas, as it swayed back and forth over the playing field the English garrison standing idly about watching the game.  When I asked Maurice about the game, he shrugged and muttered “baaga’adowe” and something about the Ojibwas playing in celebration of the king’s birthday. They had been there for two days. I had never seen the game before but since my success depended on procuring fur to take east, I momentarily forgot the game and the French lesson and concerned myself with trading my goods.

My little trading post consisted only of my canoe, a lean too with a couple of blankets spread in front on which buttons, blankets, and hawks, sat ready for trade. My goods sparked the curiosity of a few idle onlookers but after a few hours I still had nothing to show. I was beginning to be disheartened until a single Ojibwa appeared before me seemingly out of nowhere. The Ojibwas were new to me; their customs and appearance seemed vastly alien. My contacts in Detroit had advised me to deal them much as the father figure but the man before me quieted that notion by striking several cords of awe and fear within me.

He was taller than I expected; garbed in the trappings of the forest warrior.  A dirty light shirt barely hid his sinewy torso. A black breech cloth fell from a woven belt covering his waist and his legs were buried under reddish leggings. A tuft of hair on top of his head and sliver hanging from his earlobes and nose enhanced the veiled aggression that seethed from his bearing.  The Ojibwa glanced at me with the intensity of the predator; I felt like the prey.

He turned his attention to my wares. Disregarding the trinkets, he quickly snatched one of the hawks and began to wave it about, gaging the balance and weight.  I heard stories of the indian and what he could do with a weapon and when he glanced back at me my blood froze, Though hesitant, stepped forward to complete the trade. Before I could utter a word Maurice, who had come up behind me, roughly shoved me aside and greeted the Ojibwa as an old friend. They conversed in French; Maurice motioning at the hawk then back at me. They shook their head as if in agreement and the Ojibwa strode away, hawk in hand.

I looked at the departing Ojibwa and then at Maurice a wave of anger steadily rose within me. “What was that?” I barked, “Is it French custom to give away your goods without a suitable response?  I have not the luxury of gifting every savage that comes close.”

“Do not be angry.” he answered seriously,” I give you the fur for the hawk. Listen to me, giving gifts is important for you. No good will come this day… better to not talk to him, he’s” he replied shrugging his shoulders, “not friendly.”  The noise from the baaga’adowe game grew louder. He walked closer so I could clearly hear him, “Now back to French…most important.”  Before I could reply asking about his urgency, Maurice continued, “now repeat… mon s’appelle Jock…je suis un Québécois.” Giving up on further explanation I shrugged and said the sentence.

“No! Do not say apple, it is s’appelle! Following his example I repeated the phrase.

“Better… still not good enough.”

I tried again, “Maurice why am I doing this?”

“It is important, now say like this, mon s’appelle Jock…je suis un Québécois.”

My frustration with Maurice dodging my question finally exploded. “Why on Gods earth am I doing this? Why are you being so insistent, all I wish is a few words to speak while trading, not some excessive discourse …I am through…I’ll not play games any longer.” I whirled quickly around but stopped dead in my tracks as the background noise of the baaga’adowe game erupted into a fevered roar. Just as I turned, I caught sight of the small ball used in the game arching through the fort’s front gate with the Ojibwa pursuing hotly. The Ojibwa’s roar changed pitch into a hideous screech.  I looked closer and to my horror I saw blanketed Ojibwa women throwing off their capes revealing catches of weapons underneath. Like frenzied fiends, the Ojibwas snatched up the weapons and swiftly fell upon the English soldiers.  Shouts sounded in English though the soldiers stood little chance of escape. With each swing of a hawk or thrust of a knife the blood flowed that much freer. Within minutes all of the soldiers lie in jumbled bloody heaps either dead or dying. Incited by the slaughter, the Ojibwa systematically scalped the dead and wounded alike; the screaming of the wounded turned sickening as the skin was mercilessly peeled from their skulls. After obtaining the grizzly trophies, the Ojibwa hastily started to ransack the fort, looking for anything of value; and for any survivors who might be hiding.

It was surprising how the French generally seemed unmoved by the violence as they quietly went about their business.  As for myself, fear had completely frozen me into numbness. Suddenly my mind started as if waking from a nightmare.  I turned towards my canoe to escape but Maurice had grabbed my arm tightly.

“No good to run right now…would not get far. Trust me.”

“Whaa…” the words fell to a mumble as a group of Ojibwa emerged from of the fort and made directly towards me. The shout of fear sounding in my head immediately turned to a screech of panic. Maurice kept hold of my arm…precluding any flight.  The Ojibwa came closer; I could see and smell the blood that had splattered over their bodies making them more like devils than men. The intensity of the hatred in their eyes burned a hole through me that seared like hellfire.

Maurice stepped in front of me, and looked me in the eye “it is time you become French…this is why I teach you. Your life depends on it…mine to.”

One of the Ojibwas moved forward of the rest…I instantly recognized him as the one who took the hawk from me earlier. Maurice turned towards the Ojibwa and with a slight smile addressed them in French. The Ojibwa answered quickly in a menacing tone while pointing the bloodied hawk in my direction. Maurice smiled and answered while dismissively waving his hands in the air like someone trying to diminish my importance. The Ojibwa shouted at Maurice who appeared to be convincing them of my innocence. Eventually, his arguments worked because they seemed to believe him, although cautiously.

Maurice twisted towards me and stated something to me in French in a way that seemed like I should understand. After a moment his smile lessened due to my silence. He asked the same thing again; he angled himself more towards me and gave a wink. Suddenly I understood. Summoning all of my courage, I answered, “Mon s’appelle Jock…je suis un habitant.” Surprisingly I did it without any mistakes. I even managed a smile though I was ready to vomit from fear.  The Ojibwa glared at me then at Maurice who gestured as if saying ‘I told you so”. Their belligerence lessened and his continence turned almost friendly as Maurice spoke with him further. Finally the Ojibwas turned back towards the fort. I let out a breath and almost collapsed.

As soon as the Ojibwa were out of earshot Maurice sighed heavily. Trying to not draw attention he threw up a nervous smile, came close and in a trembling voice said, “Now we go but like nothing wrong…yes.”

I nodded in agreement as both of us started for our canoes. Maurice had packed his goods earlier and was ready to shove off. He advised me to quickly gather my canoe, some of my belongings and get into the water. This I did expeditiously. I glanced at Maurice who, already away from the shore, was paddling towards me.  I shoved the front of my canoe off of the shore, quickly dove in and with two great thrusts of my paddle, was drifting into the straits.

“Quick come with me.” Maurice motioned, “we are not safe yet.”

We pointed our canoes towards the far shore of the straits. I gave a curious look back towards the fort. I could see the Ojibwa huddled at the fort’s gate.  I could also recognize the red of soldiers uniforms seated amongst them. They must be survivors, I thought as I watched some of the Ojibwa circle the prisoners while keeping others, who appeared more agitated, away.  Poor devils I thought to myself, soon they will be tortured and killed slowly. Maurice and I paddled further and further away from the hostilities and once far enough I asked, “Are we safe?”

“No… once you get to the other side…then maybe. “

Once we were in the middle of the straits and remembering what was said earlier, I asked, “Was the slaughter a surprise to you?

“The Ojibwa had gone to war in Detroit, I did not know about here but I suspect. We tried to warn the soldiers but…” Maurice shrugged, “they did not listen. Just like the English, I do not like them anyway.”

“But you helped me…I’m English” I stated meekly.

“Oui …but I had a debt, a man pays his debts.”

“Well thank you Maurice…My friend.”

“No…I told you, I do not like the English. If did not owe you, you would be back there with your scalp decorating some Ojibwa’s belt.” Maurice stopped paddling and pointed his finger at my face. “My advice to you is to go east and do not come back.”

And with that Maurice turned his canoe west and we parted.

New York 1789

Severe faces bathed in the blacks and oranges of torch light slowly yet purposefully closed the circle around John Ashbury.  He glanced about quickly measuring the threat.  Though robust he wasn’t unbeatable; he had a measure of relief believing his children should be safe by now, having told Susannah, the eldest daughter, to hustle them out the back and head towards Drummel’s farm. So then…let it be he thought, as his ego whispered notions of honor and the absurdity of retreat.  John straitened and stood rigid and proud. The ruffians before him seemed the lowest of humanity and their cries for surrender were absurd. The two story Georgian house standing behind him was his land, his home and no one had the right to dictate how he was to think.

“John Atherton.” the leader, a small plump insignificant man who found heart as long as others did the deeds, declared impudently. “It has come to our attention that you have failed to sign the pledge of allegiance we gave you”. The surrounding men grumbled in agreement.

“Do you mean that scrap of you threw at me not a day ago?” John scoffed, “Had I not fond memories of you and these young men to still my temper, I would have burned that infernal pledge and named you the vile dogs you are proving to be”.

“Will…let’s be done here and hang this tory.” one of the men grumbled.

“Not yet. “ William hissed to the man and then quickly turned back to John.

“John I have not forgotten our dealings.’ William looked towards the ground for a moments contemplation then jerking his glace back towards John, “I also remember how your business matters have not always been towards my liking and your county’s. Supplying the enemy is treason and should be dealt with by death. The country will be for Americans and not under the thumb of the king.” William paused to gain effect, “Your respectability is holding our hand but your unwillingness is making your condition tenuous.”

“What! You call me traitor! Have I not stood with you William, uttering accords at the heavy-handedness of the King’s law? Have I not supported written complaints to the government? We can force change though not through violence. I will not encourage separation from Britain and succumb to the lawlessness of the patriots, you only promise anarchy.” John stated defiantly. “Yet here I am accused of treachery. Yes I have victualed the British army… Because, I am an American and a loyal subject and not a traitor.”

A general disorder arose from the patriots followed with murmurs for blood.  An exhausted look crossed William face, “John, it is unfortunate that you will not see the truth or your situation.” He turned about and started towards an old oak tree that stood beside the house.

Several of the men roughly grabbed John by the arms and quickly bound his hands. John instinctively resisted, trying to untwine his arms from the grip of his captors. One of the men standing close abruptly swatted John across the face with a torch, painfully burning him. John angrily kicked the man in the groin immediately making the man reel backwards.  Spurred into action, several of the others joined in the melee, beating John down to the ground in a flurry of punches and kicks.

John lay helpless on the ground as William rushed forward and kicked John violently in the side. The sickening snap of ribs breaking preceded an intense pain that shot into John’s side like a searing knife.

“How dare you!” he croaked.

The patriots picked John up by the arms and roughly dragged him to the base of the oak tree.  A rope with a noose tied in one end was thrown over one of the lower hanging branches. A burly patriot who John recognized as one of his eldest son’s friends laid the noose over John’s head. Several Patriots took hold of the rope and began to pull. The slack in the rope was taken out till John stood on the tips of his toes. The noose dug into his neck painfully constricting his breaths making speech difficult.

Pride made showing fear a sin and being a religious man, John had already made peace with his creator.  “To the devil with you all”, he defiantly chocked.

But as the cart began to move from under John, he heard a distinct cry from the house. He moved his head as well as he could towards the house.  Gazing out one of the upper windows his youngest son Noah stood with a look of fear etched across his face.

“No… they’re not gone yet. God help us” he thought as the Patriots heaved on the rope again.

Noah stared at the party below watching his father twitch and twitch until finally becoming slack.  Fear quickly poured into his psyche as he watched the men’s faces turn towards him. Molly grabbed Noah’s arm, “Noah come away from…” Molly’s voice trailed away when she saw her father, “No…please God no.” Further reflection was hindered as the main door of the house shook violently as thunderous blows started to crash upon it. Molly could also hear the crack and tinkle of broken glass falling on the floor and she knew danger was imminent.

“Susannah! Susannah…They’ve killed papa!” tears welled in her eyes.

“Quick… come downstairs” Susannah shouted from the bottom of the stairs as she looked towards the door and spied the dancing flames outside. Alarm gripped her as she heard the heavy footfalls of men entering though a broken window in the parlor. “Molly… quick!” Susannah’s shout turned into a screech.

Molly, Noah in tow, appeared at the head of the stairs and hurriedly descended. Susannah grabbed Molly’s hand and started toward the back of the house. She reached the back door just as a darkened shape emerged from the front room into the foyer. All of the children turned toward the antagonists.

“Where is the gold you little whore!” the man hissed, his gaze falling squarely upon Susannah. Several others appeared behind the man. He stepped toward the children; a knife appeared from under his coat. Susannah fell thunderstruck as she saw the blade gleaming in the firelight. The door behind her opened and a hand crudely shoved her aside. A barrel materialized over Susannah’s shoulder and the children heard the distinct click of a musket lock. The room instantaneously filed with fire, smoke and thunder as the weapon discharged. The man holding the knife fell to one knee. Susannah looked back. A familiar face greeted her.

“Ben” she gasped as he manhandled all of the children out the door. Ben quickly closed the door before the remaining patriots regrouped. The children clutched each other by the hands as Ben forcefully grabbed Susannah and led them like a string of pearls, running into the darkness.

PM Gower: Fiction and History Perfectly Harmonized