by Michael Hite
In 1692 in the Delaware Valley there was a clash of cultures that shaped our country.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE EAGLE
*** ONE ***
Delaware Valley - 1692
Henry Clay Aldrin stood at the door to his cabin and watched the river wind slowly through the ancient trees. Smoke from homesteads scattered throughout the valley mingled with the mountain mists. The river disappeared into the mist, then reappeared briefly in the distance, continuing its trek to the sea. He craned his neck and stood on his toes and peered over the edge of the cleared knoll on which his cabin sat, but the rooftops of the buildings in the settlement below remained obscured by the dense summer foliage. He was glad he could not see the settlement. When he first came to this valley ten years ago, there was no settlement. There was only the old fort, built by the Dutch, but given up to the British long ago.
He had watched the settlers come into the valley, and he had watched the Indians die. He remembered old ScenaPa and his people, most of them dead now. If it had not been for them, he and his family surely would not have survived those first harsh winters. They had taught him, the Lenni Lenape, taught him what to plant, and when; taught him how to till the meager soil, bolster it with fish netted at the mouths of the many streams that filled the great river that the Indians had been calling the Delaware for thousands of years.
This is the place of his dreams. He is home. The wanderlust of his youth a distant memory. No longer did he yearn to roam the seas. No longer did he lay awake nights, craving faraway lands. These things he leaves for his children.
He took a deep breath, drinking in the sweet forest air, then turned and pushed the cabin door open. Reluctant to enter and leave the beauty of the day, he called to his oldest son.
"You ready boy?"
Inside the cabin, Young Henry Clay Aldrin, now fourteen, cast a sharp eye at his ten year old brother.
"What about John?" He said.
The crackle of the fire cut the chill of the crisp morning air. Mary Aldrin, still in her night clothes, sat at a long narrow table that stood against the cabins only interior wall, her long auburn hair tied in a scarf behind her head. To her left, cooking utensils sat neatly around the hearth in anticipation of their almost continuous use. Pots and pans hung from the wall above the table and were stacked on the smooth, hard dirt floor below. Beside her sat her youngest son, nibbling at his breakfast. She brushed back the dusty blonde hair from his eyes then turned to her oldest son.
"I'll send him along after he finishes his breakfast," She said, "..... he's too little to be of any real help anyway."
Young Henry grumbled, "He can pick up rocks!"
"The rocks will still be there after he's finished eating." Mary turned and began to clear the breakfast dishes, the discussion was over. Young Henry left the cabin, and soon, John could hear his father and young Henry's voices fading as they drove up the trail in the wagon.
"Where did all those rocks come from, anyway?" John said.
"I don't Know ..... from God, I guess." said Mary.
"You mean God put those rocks there?"
"Well, yes ..., in a way he did. He created the earth, and those rocks are part of the earth."
"Well, if God put those rocks there, maybe we shouldn't move them."
Mary Laughed. In the absence of a regular preacher, she often tried to draw her children into discussions about God, but John always seemed to turn the tables on her.
"God doesn't care if we move them. Besides, how do you know that God doesn't want you to move them. You might move them to a place he likes better."
"If I move them, how long will they stay there?"
Mary looked perplexed.
"From now on, I guess ..., until the end of the world."
The answer took John by surprise. He had never thought about the world ending.
"When is the end of the world?" John asked.
"Maybe you should ask Reverend Pearce that question," Mary said, "He'll be back Sunday. Right now it's time you were getting up to that field." She scooted him out the door then turned her attention to her two young daughters, still sleeping in the back of the cabin.
Outside, giant trees cast ancient shadows across the forest floor. As John walked up the trail through the patchwork of near-night and day, he could see the old walled village of the Lenni Lenape in the distance. The village had been abandoned for years. His mother scolded him for going there, but to him it was a source of endless enchantment. He liked to go there with his friend Nathaniel Garrett and play inside what was left of the old lodges. He thought of what his mother said and wondered if the Indian's knew that the world would someday end.
The rest of the day, John picked up rocks. He could not get the thought out of his mind that the rocks he picked up would stay wherever he put them until the end of the world. Midmorning he found a round stone that fit his hand just so, and stuck it in his pocket. Later that day he found a sharp edged piece of flint. He took the round stone from his pocket and scratched it with the piece of flint, then walked to the edge of the clearing and threw the stone as far as he could. He watched the stone until it tumbled out of sight in the forest.
Sunday morning, Henry and Mary loaded the children into the wagon and rumbled down the trail to the settlement. Reverend Pearce was in town, and a tent had been set up for the days meeting. As they approached the tent, they could see Reverend Pearce standing out front. Henry stiffened a bit. They pulled up next to the tent and made their way inside, Henry did his best to avoid the good Reverend, but to no avail.
"Friend Aldrin ..., Sister ...," the Reverend greeted them, "I am pleased to see thee attending, Friend Aldrin. Thy repentance will be an inspiration. I shall call you to be saved." The Reverend smiled wryly.
Henry spoke softly.
"I wouldn't bother, Reverend." Mary shot him a dirty look.
"Still taken by the heathen's ways , eh, Henry Aldrin?"
"They're more civilized than a lot of us, Reverend."
"Speak for yourself Friend Aldrin. I fear your soul is lost. Seek your salvation before it's too late."
Henry held his tongue for Mary's sake. A bargain was a bargain, and this was the price he paid for moving his family west. Still, it had been men like Reverend Pearce that he had moved to the Delaware Valley to get away from. Henry made his way into the tent and took a seat on one of the benches. His family lined up next to him.
After a few minutes, Reverend Pearce entered the tent from the rear and walked up to the makeshift pulpit. He stood there for a moment, studying the faces of the small congregation that sat dutifully before him. It had been months since he had been this far north, and his flock, no doubt, had wandered.
He opened his Bible and began to read aloud, but Henry did not listen, retiring in his mind to the solitude of the forest. He remembered his trip to the valley from Massachusetts. They had come by sea to Philadelphia, then traveled up the Delaware valley by wagon. The trip had been hard on Mary. Young Henry was only three years old, and she had begun to show the first signs of the son she carried inside her.
After a time, the Reverend closed his bible with a loud "thump", startling Henry back to the present.
"God has sent us to consecrate this land ...," the Reverend was saying, "...... to vanquish the dark shadows of the forest, to deliver the savage unto him. Do you think it chance that the savage dies of the sickness? No, it is the will of God! Salvation has come at last to this promised land."
After the meeting, the congregation gathered outside to exchange greetings and thank the Reverend for his inspiring words. John saw his friend Nathaniel and young Henry saw his friend Isaac Cowan. Together, they ran down the trail towards the heart of the small community.
Mr. Horner's store sat just outside of what was left of the gates to the old fort. It was two steps up to a covered porch that went all the way across the front. The double doors that stood open most of the summer even had glass panes, and there was a big glass window on one side of the door where Mr. Horner displayed his latest shipments from Philadelphia.
In front of the store, three horses stood tied to a rail. There weren't many horses like these in the settlement, and the boys stood outside admiring them. John's father had a horse that he used to work the farm, but these horses were saddled, and laden with packs. John noticed a string of peculiar looking pelts lying across one of the horses' rumps and wondered what kind of animal they came from.
Inside the store to the right was a bar and a few tables and chairs. The smell of beans simmering on the small cook fire behind the bar filled the air. Three men sat at one of the tables, eating and drinking and talking quietly among themselves.
John stood at the door and watched the three men, his curiosity aroused by the presence of strangers. How far had they traveled, he wondered. Had they come from the East, from Massachusetts, the home of the relatives he had never met? Someday, he would travel there, he thought.
Nathaniel burst in through the door behind him.
"The tradin' parties back..." he yelled, then turned and ran down the street, Henry and Isaac hot on his heels.
"This may not be a wasted trip after all." John heard one of the men say. The man who spoke nodded toward the door, and one of the other men stood and walked out onto the covered porch.
"There's three men and a woman ....." the man called from the porch.
The man sitting at the table laughed tersely. His laugh was high pitched, piercing, it made John shiver. John turned and ran from the store. At the edge of town, he could see a small crowd beginning to gather around the trading party. He had seen these Indians before, they were Minqua's, from the westerly river valley that the Indians called the Susquehanna. Despite the hot day, they were wrapped in blankets. They had stopped short of entering the settlement, and one of them, a middle aged man, was talking in a loud voice and waving his arms around, as if announcing their presence to the entirety of white civilization.
A middle aged woman and a younger man had begun laying out the skins and blankets they had brought to barter with, and an old man stood in the background, wrapped in a blanket from head to toe, as if protecting himself from some unseen foe.
John saw his father standing in the crowd and ran up and stood next to him. The woman turned and looked at John, her long black hair, tied in a single braid, fell across her chest. Her eyes looked kind and gentle, like his mother's.
Henry was admiring the beaver pelts the Indians displayed. He spoke to them in the language of the Lenni Lennape.
("Do the beaver return to the Susquehanna?") He said.
The old one looked at him with weary eyes. His gaze narrowed as he spoke.
("You are one who knows the land?")
("Yes ...,") Henry replied, ("through many seasons.")
The old one mused.
("The bones of my ancestors lay in the valley of the Susquehanna,") he said. ("In the time that was, the beaver and the deer were many, but in the time that is, the Iroquois drive us from our homes. Nay ...., the beaver do not return, nor the deer, nor my people. They flee. Many to the west. Flee from the Iroquois, and the sickness.")
The old one turned from the crowd and stood motionless. John knew he would speak no more.
"Let's go, boys." John heard his father say after a few minutes.
They climbed aboard the wagon and rode through the ancient trees in silence. As they approached the cabin, John could see his mother and sisters putting dishes on the table that sat outside under the big maple tree during the summer months. A rope with three knots tied in it hung from a branch of the old maple. The ground underneath had been worn clean from years of children swinging on the rope. A gnarled root from the tree lay almost on top of the ground, making a step in the earth used to push from when they played.
After they un-harnessed the horse and put him in the coral, John walked over to the maple tree and grabbed the rope. He backed up a few steps, then ran and pushed himself off of the big root. He wrapped his legs around the rope and sat on the highest knot, then leaned back and watched the earth spin slowly past.
"John ....." his mother said. "I told Reverend Pearce you were asking about the end of the world, and he said that in the Bible it says that 'of that hour no man knoweth.' He said only God knew when he would come to gather his flock." Mary stopped for a moment and stood watching her youngest son swinging slowly back and forth, spinning in circles.
"He said that if you were interested in that sort of thing, that maybe you should become a preacher, John; .....John ..., do you hear me?"
John looked up abruptly.
"Yes Ma'am ...., I hear you ...." he said, but he did not. His mind had traveled east, to Massachusetts, then west to the Susquehanna, and beyond.
Mary stood still for a moment. She looked frustrated. "Just like Henry," she said under her breath.
"Go and get me some water, John"
John jumped from the rope and ran like a deer towards the cabin, whooping and hollering like Henry and Isaac.
Mary rolled her eyes back in her head and looked up at the sky.
"I can forget about that one being a preacher...." she said, half to herself, and half to her two daughters.
The next morning, the family was up early. After breakfast, John helped his father and brother in the field. John picked up rocks while his father and brother dug around a big stump, exposing its roots.
John walked to the edge of the clearing and stood looking over the hill. He had been wondering what happened to the stone he had thrown into the forest. He turned and watched his father and brother for a moment, then climbed down the hill to search for the stone. After all, if it was going to lay there until the end of the world, he should make sure it was in a safe place. He tried to follow the path the stone had taken, but the terrain was to rough, so he circled around and followed the stream to where he thought the stone had landed. A big pine tree stood at a bend in the stream, and when he reached the spot, he began picking up stones, looking for his marks, but found none. Finally, he saw a stone laying under the big pine tree that looked like his. He got down on his hands and knees and crawled across the bed of pine needles to the stone, he picked it up and held it in the light, and there to his delight was the scratch. He noticed something in the background as he gazed at the stone. He dropped his arms to his sides and looked more closely. There, across the stream, he saw the camp of the Indian trading party. The fire was cold and the Indian's lay motionless on the ground. He crawled out from under the pine tree, and walked upstream a few steps to get a better look. He could see the woman most clearly, and as he walked upstream, her face came into full view. Her eyes were wide open, staring straight ahead. They looked cold and un-feeling. He took a few steps toward the stream bank, then stepped back abruptly and gasped for air. Her hair; her hair was gone. The top of her head glinted red in the morning sunlight. Next to her, the middle aged man lay face down. The top of his head shone red, and his back was covered in blood. On the other side of the campsite, the old man sat propped up against a tree, still wrapped up in his blanket. He had a big hole in his chest and blood veiled his face. The younger man lay face up in the middle of the campsite, his hands and feet were tied to stakes driven in the ground, and his scalp had been cut away.
John turned to run, but as he did, a strong arm encircled his waist and whisked him into the air. He struggled for a moment, then recognized the smell and feel of his father. He let his body go limp as his father stepped lithely through the forest. Soon, he found himself sitting in the back of the wagon in front of the cabin. He heard his father's voice as he was being lifted from the wagon and sat on the ground next to his mother.
"He found those Minquas that were in town yesterday, Mary. They'd been killed for their scalps."
"Oh, my Lord ....." Mary said, horrified. She swept her son into her arms. "Why....? they never bothered anyone."
"I heard the French were paying 130 Francs for a man's scalp, and 50 Francs for a woman's ....., worth a damn sight more than those beaver skins they were carrying."
Henry walked into the cabin and returned carrying his musket and powder horn.
"I’ll be gone a for few days, Mary. I'm going to take those poor devils home."
John stood and watched as his father drove out of sight. A chill ran up his spine, as if he was remembering something that had not yet happened.
Henry drove to the campsite and loaded the bodies of the dead Minquas into the back of his wagon and covered them with blankets. On his way out of town, he stopped outside the tent where Sunday Meeting had been held and called for Reverend Pearce. When Reverend Pearce came out, Henry pulled back the blankets and showed him the bodies of the four dead Indians.
"Just thought you might wanta' see what salvation looked like, Reverend. "
The color drained from the Reverends face.
The Reverend grabbed his mouth with both hands and ran into the forest. Henry could hear him retching as he drove away.
It took Henry almost three days to cross the mountains, and when he reached the Susquehanna Valley, he buried the Minquas; there among the bones of their ancestors.