In a wilderness burning with war, John Stark had no place to hide, and only one place left to go...
"Johnny Stark was big, ugly, and wasn't about to die..." So begins this extraordinary saga set on America's first frontier-in the heart of the French and Indian War. Stark was a hunter whose crime was running afoul of an Abenaki war party. Fighting his way out of a blood-soaked killing ground, Stark became a legend in a land torn by a brutal struggle between two distant nations, with native tribes choosing sides. In danger of losing their stake in the New World, the French knew they had to bring down Johnny Stark-and prove he was mortal. But the big colonial had a secret weapon: A woman half his size, just as brave, and twice as good with a gun.
A vivid and unforgettable adventure in American history, this is the towering adventure of men and women in a land burning with war, betrayal, atrocities and intrigue-a land whose future belonged to the fortunate and the brave.
About the Author
Kerry Newcomb was born in Milford, Connecticut, but had the good fortune to be raised in Texas. He has served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and taught at the St. Labre Mission School on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. Mr. Newcomb has written plays, film scripts, commercials, liturgical dramas, and over thirty novels under both his own name and a variety of pseudonyms. He lives with his family in Ft. Worth, Texas.
Read an Excerpt
By Kerry Newcomb
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Kerry Newcomb
All rights reserved.
The pert young woman in hunter's garb knew Johnny Stark was miles away, leading a detachment of English troops to aid the beleaguered garrison of Fort William Henry. He had to be a good two-day's march from this clearing, yet Molly Page heard the long hunter's words of caution whisper in her mind.
Gently now, curl your finger around the trigger, breathe easy 'cause this white-tailed rascal will hear you sigh. Be like one of the trees around you, lass, be like the faintest breeze. Like the Injuns, let your spirit call out and hold that young buck in his place. See, hunting's a lot like praying, only something's gotta die when you "Amen."
Molly sighted along the barrel of her rifle, allowing for the wind, the angle of the shot, taking into account how the white-tailed buck grazed a moment on the sweetgrass then ambled forward, raised its head, senses searching the surrounding countryside for any threat.
Molly Page willed herself to merge with the shade of the tamaracks that surrounded her hiding place. The decayed remains of a lightning-blasted hemlock that had toppled last January concealed her in August, in the summer of her twenty-first year.
The barrel of her rifle nestled firmly in the crook of the fallen hemlock's forked branches, served to steady her aim. The Pennsylvania rifle with its 46-inch barrel took some handling for Ephraim Page's niece. The young woman was all of five feet two inches tall. The ladies of Fort Edward considered the skill of the hunt to be a man's domain. But Molly Page preferred the heft of a well-made rifle to the spinning wheel and reading trail sign to the chatter around a quilting circle.
It was whispered that the wilderness had bewitched her, for even at an early age she would abandon her chores and venture off into the woods, to learn the ways of places untamed by the farmer's plow. Dear child, Aunt Charity would say, hoping to talk some sense into her charge, women are not supposed to be deerstalkers.
Oh no? Molly inwardly replied. Wait and see.
She placed her cheek against the curly maple stock carved by Johnny's own hand, squeezed the front trigger to release the second. Now the slightest pressure would fire the weapon. Stark had carved the stock over the course of a winter month and tempered the gun barrel on her uncle's forge. He christened the rifle Isaac. It was one of a matched pair, the other, Old Abraham was with the relief column and in the hands of Johnny Stark. No pair of long guns ever shot as true, of that she was certain.
Ease your breath out, Molly, then let him have it.
The young woman did as she had been told, as she had practiced a hundred times before with Stark. But don't be thinking of his intense brown eyes and deep-hearted laugh. For heaven's sake, not now. She must concentrate on the task at hand or there would be naught but cowpeas and squash in the Page stew pot come the following week.
Molly exhaled, touched the trigger, a flash in the pan and the rifle roared, sending its .50-caliber ball hurling through space. The buck darted forward as the slug ripped through its vitals and lodged in its heart. The animal made a dash for a birch grove but only managed to cover a few paces before its legs buckled. As the last echo faded the wild creature collapsed.
The young woman resisted the urge to immediately run to claim her kill. Molly didn't show herself until she had reloaded her rifle as Johnny Stark had taught her. Even this forest, south of the friendly, thriving environs of Fort Edward, was still a place of danger. The Abenaki had become emboldened with the encouragement of their French allies. From time to time, war parties had circled downriver, past the fortified settlement where the Hudson River nearly doubled back on itself and descended on small farms and isolated hunters, burning and looting before vanishing back into the forest, like will-o'-the-wisps.
A person couldn't be too careful. Well, anyone expecting to relieve Molly of her kill had better come loaded for bear. She would not surrender it lightly. She rammed home powder, ball and patch, primed the weapon and eased the flint onto the frizzen. She slung her scrimshawed powder horn over her shoulder, and quietly climbed out from the deadfall.
Sunlight filtered through the trees, illuminated the forest floor littered with decayed leaves, pine boughs, lichen spattered gray stone outcroppings; and where the sunbeams struck, wild sarsaparilla, scarlet wormroot and pink-petaled gaywings flourished. A pair of quarrelsome gray squirrels announced her passing as the woman rose from concealment and cradling her rifle in the crook of her arm, started across the clearing.
Her gaze continued to sweep the forest for any telltale sign of movement and halfway to her kill she heard a twig snap and froze in her tracks. Her grip tightened on the rifle as she tried to locate the source of the sound. Something moved among the birch thicket. Molly's heart began to quicken, her mouth turned dry. She brought the rifle up to her shoulder, holding it steady despite the weapon's considerable weight. But she knew how to adjust her stance to compensate for the rifle's heft.
"Don't you be shooting me, Miss Molly Page," a gruff voice called out. Cassius Fargo emerged from the thicket. His features were unmistakable; short of stature, blunt-featured, broad at the shoulders, his legs like twin tree trunks grounding his deep chest and wide thick waist. Like Molly, he wore a loose-fitting hunting shirt, earth-colored breeches and carried a Pennsylvania rifle. But Fargo preferred square-toed leather shoes to the buckskin moccasins that Johnny Stark had given Molly before marching off with the relief column. He removed his tricorn hat and waved it in the air. "I see you've found my buck. I shot it back yonder. My aim was poor and the beast gave me a run for it."
Molly scowled. It wasn't for nothing that Cassius was often referred to as "Bully" Fargo. But if he expected her to stand down, the man was in for a surprise. A wayward breeze tugged at her thick, curly hair, the dark red ringlets of which she had gathered at the nape of her neck with a leather string. Her eyes, like twin emeralds, aglow with a rare beauty, grew hard as granite. She quickened her pace and arrived at the downed whitetail a few seconds before Fargo and placed herself between the advancing farmer and the carcass.
Cassius was a difficult man to figure, quick tempered and dangerous when the black mood was upon him. Here was a man whose temperament, like the knife blade sheathed at his waist, had been honed to a cruel edge by frontier life. She glanced down at the buckskin pouch dangling from his belt, remembering the rumors that it contained a braided loop of hair woven from scalps, all of them Abenaki, the trophies of a private war Fargo had waged since his brother's death during the hunting trip that had also taken the life of Molly's cousin.
"I see only one kill here, Cassius Fargo, and it is mine." It troubled her, meeting him alone like this, as if it were more than mere coincidence they should have hunted the same hillside. Had he followed her from Fort Edward? The bustling settlement at the bend of the Hudson with its presence of English troops and Colonial Militia had attracted families from a variety of outlying communities, upriver and down. But where most of the local militia had marched off with the relief column on its way to lift the siege of Fort William Henry, "Bully" Fargo had remained behind.
"Now that's pretty meat," Cassius remarked, running a calloused hand across his stubbled chin as he studied the downed buck. The farmer's beard was as coarse as hog hair, shot with silver but black as pitch around his thick lips. He looked hungry, and not just for venison.
His gaze shifted from the carcass to the woman confronting him. She was small and supple-looking and he appreciated the curve of her hips, glimpsed every time the breeze ruffled the hem of her hunting shirt.
"Looks just like the one I've been tracking. My mistake I reckon."
"I hope you find your kill," Molly said. "Next time aim for the heart."
"I always do." Cassius scratched his chin. "You'll need help packing this over to the river."
"Uh huh, I 'spect you will." He grinned. Save for the wind in the branches of the tamaracks, their voices were the only sound right now.
Fargo made no attempt to conceal his lust. But there was more than just carnal desire at work here, there was curiosity and suspicion. Ephraim Page's niece was a peculiar young woman. It was rumored she had some kind of second sight, a way of sensing trouble that had nothing to do with reading trail sign. It was the kind of talent that had sent women to the stake in Salem years ago. Things were different now, and folks like Molly might be regarded with distrust but they were not openly persecuted. Then again, it was common knowledge John Stark had taken a special liking to the young woman, as if he had tried to fill the void left in her life by her deceased cousin.
And Stark was not a man to cross. He threw a long shadow in these parts. Not that Cassius Fargo was afraid of the big man. But he was wise enough to pick and choose the time and place to settle their differences. Of course, the long hunter was miles away from this secluded hollow and the more Fargo lingered, watching Molly and breathing in her woman smell, the weaker his will became and the more he fantasized how it would be with her ...
"You know, I've always fancied you, Molly. No matter if folks think you're a mite ... er peculiar." He puffed out his chest. "A woman like you could do a lot worse. I'm strong and steady and own more land than most in these parts. And I warrant if'n you try me, you'll have none other. So come and give us a kiss."
"I'd sooner eat wormwood," Molly retorted.
"Harsh words. I've heard the talk, that when Molly looks to the horizon she can only see John Stark crossing the far hills. But it shouldn't be that way. We share the same wrong. Stark killed both our kin."
"The Abenaki killed Abel and your brother. You know Johnny had nothing to do with it."
"I only know that two years ago, Stark came home all on his lonesome from a hunt. Nary a one of the lads he took with him survived and I find that mighty peculiar. I warrant he sold them out to save his own topknot."
Molly's eyes flashed with anger. Her cheeks flushed. "You're the only man who says that, and not to Johnny's face I charge."
"I am not afraid of John Stark."
"No?" Molly took a deep breath and allowed her ire to cool. "You should be."
"I'll speak no more on it," Fargo said with a shrug. "But to show I do not begrudge you, I'll stay at your side. These here woods are no fitting place for a woman alone," he said.
"I'm never alone," Molly replied. "Not when Isaac is with me." She hefted the rifle in her hands, and did what needed to be done for Cassius to see it was now half-cocked and primed.
"So be it," Fargo growled, shrugged, touched the pointed brim of his tri-corn hat and started off down the trail. He strode boldly, as if daring the underbrush to impede his progress. Molly was happy to see him go.
Once she had the clearing to herself, Molly set her rifle aside and began making preparations to take the cuts of meat and the deer hide and transfer them to her pack whose sapling frame would help support the weight of all she intended to carry out. It was going to take the rest of the morning and be hard bloody work but better this than butter churning or indulging in the local gossip for which dear Aunt Charity was famous, bless her soul.
Molly knew she had been the subject of some of that gossip and rather than find offense, had even taken pride in the fact that folks saw her as marching to a different drummer. She was already considered a spinster by many standards. No matter. There was only one man for her and one of these days she was going to set a snare that Johnny Stark couldn't wriggle out of, God love him.
And that is when she saw his troubled features, like a vision unexpected, as she knelt by the deer carcass and leaned forward over the animal and glanced down and saw Stark's reflection in the dead beast's round black eye.
Molly gasped. The image only lasted a second or two, but long enough to send a chill through her veins. And she was filled with a dreadful premonition that took her breath away. There was fire and noise. The screams of the wounded and dying reverberated in her mind. And there he was, her own true love, surrounded on all sides by danger. All of this, an eternity in the fraction of a second, caught in death's glossy blank stare.
Then the moment passed and she sat back on her heels, exhausted from the experience, heartsick, and consumed with anxiety and a portent of disaster. All she could do was call out "Johnny!" which was both a cry of alarm ... and a prayer.CHAPTER 2
"Send out small parties to scout ... to see if there be any appearance or track of an enemy."
"Where's Stark?!" Colonel Farley shouted to his subordinates, just before some French snipers shot his lungs out. "Where's the bloody militia?" The diminutive colonel wiped the soot from his bulbous nose and fleshy jowls with a silk kerchief. He was clearly shaken by their predicament. "Damn these Provincials. They've led us into a trap." He gestured with his silver-hilted small sword; 32 inches of straight steel flicked to and fro in the haze of gunfire.
"They fled the field at the first volley," came the reply. Farley's second in command, Major Michael Ransom of the 1st Regiment of Foot had to shout to be heard above the din of battle. The pockmarked young officer tried not to wince as a flurry of hot lead whined about him like angry hornets. A slug found his tricorn hat and sent it sailing off along with his wig, revealing the thinning wisps of his once luxurious hair like stalks of trampled yellow grass plastered to the pale field of his scalp. Ransom scrambled over and retrieved the periwig, for it was a symbol of both his authority and station. The hat was a loss, however.
Ransom and the men of the royal regiment, in their scarlet coats accented with buff-colored lace, their white breeches and hose, provided a handsome target for Atoan's warriors. But to the six hundred men of the 1st Regiment of Foot, their bright uniforms were a matter of pride and had served them well on the battlefields of Europe. Nor would they permit themselves to break ranks and scatter for cover. The 1st stood its ground.
And died, singly and in pairs.
The field of battle was a long narrow meadow bordered on two sides by forest. A rutted road ran the length of the mile-long clearing. It had been worn into the rich sod by the continuous passage of supply wagons, cannons, and caissons and the columns of soldiers who had made the three-day trek from Fort Edward to the palisades of William Henry, on the southern tip of Lake George.
There was hardly a patch of ground stretching two hundred miles from the bend of the Hudson River all the way to the forts of New France, north of Lake Champlain, that hadn't been watered with a crimson rain, and contested over by the Colonials, the British or their implacable foes. Today was this meadow's baptism of blood, yet it was just another deadly afternoon in what seemed a forever war.
Ransom, slow panic flaring behind his pale blue eyes, sidestepped his commander's flagrant gestures, even parried once with his own short sword to keep from being accidentally impaled. He hauled out his horse pistol and fired in the direction of the French and their savage allies while Colonel Farley continued to rant about the Provincials and how Captain Stark in particular had brought them all to ruin.
In the few short weeks since Michael Ransom's posting at Fort Edward, he had seen little enough to respect in the Colonial Militia. A soldier should stand his ground. There was a proper way to fight a war. British discipline and tactics had carried the king's colors through many an engagement throughout Europe and Africa. But after all, what could one expect? The Provincials were farmers, woodsmen, tinkers, tinsmiths and common laborers, all of them volunteers, not professional soldiers like His Royal Majesty's troops.
Despite that, Ransom could not heap blame on Stark's men alone. He was tempted to remind the Colonel that John Stark had cautioned against proceeding farther along the road until the open meadow had been given a good scout. It was Farley who had ignored the frontiersman's words of caution, stressing the need for haste. Fort William Henry was in dire need of reinforcements, there was no sense in wasting time. Farley had ordered the regiment to cross the meadow at double time. And so they did, marching in all haste, drummers beating a rapid cadence, straight into the jaws of the French and Indian trap.
Excerpted from War Path by Kerry Newcomb. Copyright © 2003 Kerry Newcomb. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Johnny Stark is about to run the gaunlet of Abenaki warriors in his quest to regain his freedom. Stark survives but has made an enemy in Cassius Frago, whose brother along with Molly Page's cousin were killed by the Abenaki. Two years later finds Johnny and other milita members going to the aid of beseiged Fort Williamm Henry. The British officer in charge refuses to listen to Johnny's advice to scout ahead. The result is a rout in what became known as Bloody Meadow. When Stark arrives at Fort Henry he finds the post destroyed and the massacred bodies of the inhabitants. This is yet another score to settle with the French and their indian allies. Meanwhile, in order to seek revenge on Stark, Cassius attacks Molly only to see her escape. Stark goes after Cassius and settles their old score. This leaves Atoan, the Grand Sachmen of the Abenaki who Stark must face and as with Cassius Fargo, only one of the will survive. WAR PATH is AN EXCITING STORY of the French and Indian Wars.