American Fiction Suspense

In the old days, according to his people’s laws, it would have been perfectly fine to replace a relative who died with someone adopted into the family. That was especially the case if the relative had been murdered by a rival tribe. The tradition was straightforward. If justice was demanded, you would take the life of an enemy or take someone, preferably a child, as an adoptee. It had been that way since time began. All the groups, the tribes, understood this. Even the French did, those sour men in their lice-ridden black robes.

But not Yankees. These people with their stinky animals pulling wagons that made your ears hurt when the wheels squealed, who’d scratched themselves rather than bathe in the river, who hit their children, even little ones, until they cried. Barbarians they were. Barbarians who didn’t understand the rules. Barbarians had muskets, though. And a lot of them.

The one known as Good Heart to Sabbatis’s little group didn’t deserve the name. He stunk worse than the French, shot off his gun if people came too near what he called his property, property that once belonged to the family of Sabbatis. They, the few who hadn’t died of the sickness, moved away, north, after that, too far to visit. Sabbatis wouldn’t join them or the other receding natives. This land along the river in the shadow of the mountain was his home. He would never leave it. Ever. 

He barely tolerated Good Heart. Good Heart cheated in trading. He chased game away. But Sabbatis knew better than to make trouble with him. Sabbatis stayed on his side of the mountain, too rocky for the whites. Good Heart stayed on his. For now.

Sabbatis found the child wandering in the woods as the sun was setting. How had he gotten lost in these woods, so far from the white farms? The child was freezing, too cold to cry. His blue eyes were filled with tears, though, you could see that he was frightened. Sabbatis wrapped him in a blanket, gave him some sweetened cornbread, and carried him to his wigwam singing silly songs along the way. The child managed to smile and fell asleep in his arms. 

At another time, perhaps, he would have been seen as a gift to fill the void of the child the sickness had taken. It was only fitting. That he was a white child would have made no difference; what counted was the spirit. There were other such children in villages to the north, in Canada, and to the west, who had been adopted from their homes where the Nipmucs and Pocumtucs used to live. Most never wanted to go back to the English.

But these days, with more Yankee farmers settling in the river valley, Sabbatis would find the child’s family and expect a reward. A musket would be a good gift for such a child whose orange hair seemed on fire. It matched the color of the leaves that were telling him winter would be here soon. Sabbatis’s wife washed the child, singing all the time, and gave him a cornhusk doll which he held tightly to his chest. That was fine. He could have it. It had belonged to his own son who’d died two winters ago from fever. 

Sabbatis started early carrying the child on his shoulders toward the white settlements, just a day away, toward the home of Good Heart, the closest farm to his people’s land on the other side of the low mountain. They would get there by nightfall and Sabbatis surely would be fed and asked to stay. This was the polite thing to do. Still, he brought his blanket – a bright red one with a black stripe down one side he’d traded for three beaver pelts – and his bow. Winter was coming. If he killed a deer, even with the boy with him, he’d clean it, hang it from a tree and retrieve it on his return.  

The mountain was usually good hunting ground. Not today. Something was bothering the game. The crows were disturbed. Mohawks had raided the area, but they would come from the west: these birds were flying from the east. The crows were telling him to leave – they spoke, and he would heed their advice.

He put the boy down and took an arrow from his otter-skin quiver. It was his arrow; the fletching made up of two turkey feathers and a red one dyed with ochre. There were two yellow rings in the middle; no one else had such arrows. He gestured for the boy to stay by his side when a voice yelled out “Winslow!” The boy turned half in fear, half in excitement, as a group of armed men emerged from the trees. He started to walk toward one man asking “Papa?” as the group spread out to surround the pair. Sabbatis smiled, hand raised in greeting, and nudged the boy forward. In his language, Sabbatis said “He is an explorer, brave. He’d make a fine Abenaki.”

If the group of white men understood his words, they gave no indication. The boy’s father shook him until he started to cry, yelling at the boy he was told not to wander. Sabbatis reached and grabbed the man’s arm telling him to stop. The group of men tackled him to the ground, yelling words he did not understand, and tied his arms. They raised him to stand when the father hit him with the butt of his musket screaming now, screaming “murderous savage.” Sabbatis struggled, yelling his own unintelligible words until a rope was put around his neck. This he understood. He struggled against more musket blows screeching a mournful prayer, shouting for help, then spitting on the mob as he was shoved up the hill to a massive chestnut tree. More rope was thrown over a branch and pulled. The little boy was crying but his father dragged him away. Sabbatis hung there until a catamount dragged him to her den.  

Jeremy drove alone up dusty Gallows Hill Road swerving left to right to avoid potholes and frost heaves. If he managed fifteen miles an hour, tops, he was probably driving too fast on this stretch. Vast sugar maples that hadn’t been tapped in 100 years provided a shadowed canopy, their thick branches meeting over the narrow road. It felt like dusk more than high noon under them. It held promise.

Gallows Hill Road came to an opening then ended on a steep hill, overgrown fields on either side hinting at what once had been a farm. On the left was what the map said was Indian Ridge which rose from the forest. Just in front of that ridge, stood the house. The realtor, Betts Barnet, had cautioned it could use a little work. She’d exaggerated. It wasn’t a little work unless tearing down the remains of some busted dairy farmer’s home that was old when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, hadn’t been occupied other than by bugs, rodents, raccoons, and a family of porcupines that had chewed away at the punky studs and could be considered occupants, was just a little work. 

At least the path leading to it was clear. He took note of a pile of reddish wood covered by slate shingles and rightly assumed it was once a barn gone to pasture. Jeremy walked around, smelling something musky under the porch, and something dead in the back. A family of deer, the buck with a huge rack, looked at him curiously from the backfield then took off when Apex, his yellow lab, barked. Good hunting ground, Jeremy thought. He’d never hunted, never held a gun, but such was on his bucket list. Apex was a young dog, but an old soul. 

Apex tore after the deer then stopped at the edge of the woods into which they’d disappeared, the fur on his back rising in a crest, and laid down staring into the forest. That was unlike him. Jeremy tried to see what stopped Apex but saw nothing. Maybe he smells a bear. Jeremy made a mental note to get a can of bear spray.

He looked over rolling hills. Leaves on the hardwoods were just starting to get some color. He had to be at 1,500 feet, high by the standards of the Taconic Range. So high he could see the peaks of the Green Mountains to the east, the Adirondacks to the west. He’d need a new car, four-wheel drive, and powerful, to get up here in the winter. Maybe with a snowplow.

Jeremy walked to the house and cupped his face against the rippled waves of the ancient windows. Something large and furry ran from the room he peered into. At least it wasn’t a skunk; that was one odor he hadn’t whiffed. And it was too big to be a rat. Good, he thought, a good omen. 

“Nothing to write home about,” he texted his wife. “But it’s a million-dollar view so a bargain.” He pressed the send arrow and immediately got a response. “No service,” the phone read. He added a satellite dish to his list. And chainsaw, tractor, shotgun, and a black and red plaid coat.

He thought writing “a million-dollar view” was clever. They were asking half that for the house and its accompanying 230 acres that included two spring-fed ponds and a half-mile of a stream that the realtor assured him flowed twelve months of the year. “You could lease it to hunters and fishermen,” said Betts. “Or loggers. The property could pay for itself.”

She’d also hinted that the owners were motivated, a phrase picked up after the Great Financial Crisis when she’d somehow sold $8 million worth of slope-side homes from owners so motivated by lost jobs, lost fortunes, and left-leaning legislators thinking higher taxes on ski-houses owned by New Yorkers, flat-landers by another name, was an incentive. Home prices dropped 25% that year, and tax revenues by a similar amount.

“Who’s the seller?” asked Jeremy.

“It’s complicated,” said Betts. “A Boston lawyer named Hartwell was the last owner. When he died up here, the property went into a trust. After Hartwell was killed it just sat there. The family fought over it for decades. And now, well, it’s on the market.”

“Hartwell was killed?” asked Jeremy.

Betts smiled and turned to peer out the bay window of her office. “Look! That’s a bald eagle I think.” She pointed to a gull on its way to Lake Champlain. “Coffee?”

Jeremy wondered about Hartwell. I bet he loved it up here, he thought, the air, the view, the color in autumn. I’m going to love it, too. It would be a great place to die…peacefully anyway. He asked again. Betts said, “Hunting accident,” Betts said. “in deer season and got himself shot.”

She saw Jeremy’s eyes widen as he reflexively pulled his head back. “That was years ago. And in those days the property wasn’t posted like it is now. Hunters then wore those brown hunting coats. Heck, they looked like deer. No one dresses like that now,” she said. 

“Gunshots can travel a mile,” said Jeremy as much to himself as the realtor. “You must get a ton of hunters out here.”

“Not many. And nowadays it’s mostly bowhunters. You know, with arrows. And they don’t shoot so far,” Betts said. She hesitated for a moment and continued. “Anyway, Harwell wasn’t shot by a rifle.”

“Shotgun?” Jeremy asked.

“An arrow. That was before hunters wore orange. The only accidents you hear about are when bowhunters fall from tree stands.” Jeremy wrote down first-aid kit. “But you’re posted, so no one can come onto this property unless invited.” Her flirtatious smile made Jeremy cringe a little. Jeremy added blaze orange to his clothing list.

Jeremy’s wife stared at the photos he’d downloaded, then back to him. The crests and valleys across her brow reminded him of the view. “It was only a binder,” he pleaded. “We can back out if…”

“If what?” she interrupted. 

Jeremy didn’t have an answer. The whole project, the search for a mountain home, hadn’t only been his idea. She’d said, “so look,” which was nearly an agreement, especially when combined with weekends at inns and B and Bs. She emphasized that those had heat, running water – hot and cold! – were clean, served wonderful food, and were near to civilization to say nothing of fresh sheets, towels, and no furry things creeping around.

“Let’s go this weekend. The views are incredible. The land is perfect. We could renovate the house maybe. Or build one. Or just a cabin. I don’t know. Something.” He pulled out two orange vests and matching hats. “I’ve booked an inn. It’ll be fun.”

Her eyes blazed as much as the vests when he explained that it was hunting season but that the property was fully posted – he’s seen the signs himself. “These days, it’s mostly bowhunters. They don’t shoot far.”

Her mood softened because the inn’s website mentioned a day spa and pilates. “I’ll make dinner reservations for seven,” she said. “Leave time for a shower. You don’t want to get Lyme disease again.”

Jeremy insisted they didn’t have many ticks in Vermont, not at the altitude of the property, and that a couple of frosts had probably killed off any ticks but agreed a shower would be in order. “You’re right, of course. I’ll hike around and work up a sweat in this.” He hefted the heavy canvas vest. “This would stop a bullet,” he said then caught himself. “But that’s not an issue.” His wife rolled her eyes and went back to the website. “I think I’ll get a ninety-minute shiatsu session.”

He was glad his wife stayed at the inn. The road to the property seemed more rutted than his first and only visit. Apex, his dog, though, enjoyed every jolt that sent him bouncing on the front seat. Jeremy was forced to haul off a large branch from a maple that had fallen across the road and underscored chainsaw on his growing list of must-haves to which he’d recently added a woodstove, six-month’s of emergency food, a water filter, and gardening supplies. Jeremy had bought into the post-apocalyptic scenarios made popular on reality TV. His wife thought he was an idiot, a lovable idiot, but an idiot, nonetheless. Her list, though, was starting to build as well and included a book of massages at the spa.  

He walked around the house again, thinking that it wasn’t in such bad shape after all. It was well built better than the typical hilltop farm; the Hartwells had been well off. The slate roof was intact which meant no water damage and Jeremy counted fewer broken windows than he’d imagined. Sure, some clapboards needed replacing, the kitchen and bathrooms he didn’t dare think about. But the house would stand. Betts had recommended a contractor who specialized in renovations – “A miracle worker,” she’d said. That guy was supposed to be up here in a couple of hours giving Jeremy and Apex time to explore. He felt silly putting on the orange vest. To Apex he said, “Be vewy vewy quiet, I'm hunting wabbits." Apex wagged his tail and looked around for wabbits.

Leaves crackled under Bean Boots when they entered the woods. Apex lay down just outside, reluctant to follow. His muzzle was sniffing the air, the hair on his back again rose in a defensive crest. The soft growl was unusual for him. “C’mon boy,” said Jeremy slapping his leg. Apex stayed close. “Good heel,” said Jeremy rewarding Apex with some chicken. Three-thousand dollars of training might have been worth it, he thought. 

The pair went deeper into the forest, Apex now growling constantly and Jeremy trying to calm him. City dog, he figured.  

Apex stopped in his tracks; his growls accompanied by bared teeth. Jeremy looked around, saw nothing. Apex was stiff and staring straight ahead. When Jeremy’s followed Apex’s gaze he, too, stiffened.

“How?” he laughed, lifting his arm in a greeting. “You scared the crap out of me!”

The man had his back to a huge oak, his tanned skin clothing blending in with the bark. Jeremy walked toward him wondering why the bow hunter wasn’t wearing orange or camouflage at least. Bowhunters wore camo, don’t they?

The figure notched an arrow, his eyes fixed on Jeremy. He raised the bow, pulled back on the string, and let the arrow fly.

Jeremy ducked as it soared past. He turned to see a buck behind them, the arrow sticking out from just behind its shoulder. The buck was on the ground, struggling, its front legs pawing the ground as it sunk to the forest floor. 

Jeremy yelled “What the…” but stopped midsentence. The man had disappeared. Poacher, he thought, caught in the act. What balls to shoot right in front of me. Apex was sniffing at the deer. Jeremy added Posted Signs to the list.

“Well, I’ll be,” said Orson Wilcox the county game warden. He inspected the wooden arrow pulled from the deer. “That’s a goddamn stone arrowhead.” He twirled the shaft in his hand. “Odd thing for sure.”

Wilcox speculated that the trespasser might have come from a local primitive skills program and gotten lost. “They’re not bad people. Just hippies getting back to nature. That sort. Fellow probably tracked the buck over your way. I’ll check on them. Want the deer?”

Jeremy shook his head. He’d get his own someday, he said. Wilcox asked for a hand loading it into his truck. “Don’t want to waste it. Maybe the folks at that school will claim it. If they have a license.”  

Wilcox didn’t drive to the school. He knew better. His report would call it roadkill. The arrow he’d add barn along with a dozen identical ones he’d taken over the years. The deer he’d butcher for himself; a perk of the job.  

January 13, 2023 19:19

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Aeris Walker
21:16 Jan 22, 2023

Hi David! I really enjoyed the early American/historical fiction aspect to this story and then how you brought it full circle to modern day. (I think some kind of scene break symbol [***]would work great to kind of separate the shift). The misunderstanding and aggression between the natives and the white men in the beginning was just heartbreaking and the ensuing tragedy so maddening—as the reader—to “watch” unfold. I really liked these lines: “A musket would be a good gift for such a child whose orange hair seemed on fire. It matched the ...


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Wendy Kaminski
04:26 Jan 14, 2023

What a fantastic story, David! I really enjoyed this very much - your writing is engaging and kept pulling the action forward. Your dialogue was on-point, and your descriptions made me feel like I was there. Excellent storytelling and writing, too!


David Ader
18:11 Jan 14, 2023

Thank you! I have to imagine that all of us writers appreciate encouraging feedback like this. I will endeavor to do the same and am about to read some of your work!


Wendy Kaminski
18:16 Jan 14, 2023

You have permission to skip The Big Feats one, lol. It's pretty tacky. Better writing down lower on the list! :) Thanks, David!


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