March 2003 Book Review
Collectible Treasures Antique and Collectibles
Book Review March 2003
Yankee Pasha by Edison Marshall
I, Jason Starbuck, would not have you know my parents, Reuben and Prudence Starbuck, because you would quickly love them and quickly
lose them. And do not learn to love, as I did, one-armed Pierre--once a voyageur in Quebec--who had lived with us on the Adirondack frontier
as long as I could remember.
It is enough to tell that my father was a lean, ruddy man, markedly handsome among the frontier folk, not stupid like the Palatinate Dutch
nor grim like the Scotch. Perhaps he was not so good a farmer as the foreigners, but a far better hunter and rider; so when they moved in to
blast at the deer with their blunderbusses, we moved on. He was
tolerably sober, too, by the western standard. Partly this was the happenstance of his having almost no bottom, a demijohn that would
throw two Dutchmen giving him only a happy heart and a huge appetite
for supper; partly it was real temperance, for he would never trade for
strong drink when my mother needed gingham, and all of us yearned
for coffee, tobacco, and sugar.
Why, I had known him to pass up a jug in favor of books! Some he
rented at the settlements for Indian curios or pelts; once he went all
the way to Schenectady to buy a batch from Captain van Rensselaer,
and a wonderful bargain he made for a bale of beaver skins. True,
once the patroon looked him over, he did not offer him any dull or even
pious works. The library included Arabian Nights in French, which
Pierre could read aloud to us of an evening, a dictionary, Robinson
Crusoe, Chaucer's tales, and a big, close-printed volume of
Shakespeare's best-known plays. My father was very eager for me to
read quickly and well. My mother, who could not write her own name,
cared even more. After I had got my nose in Robin, I needed no caning
to keep me at it, and soon no dunce cap for the long words. Not many young men of sixteen north of the Mohawk had read a nd relished
On the night of May 16, 1794, my father was indeed a little tipsy. He
had just returned from selling some furs and deer pelts at the trading
post at Plattsburg and, having got a good price, he had included among
his purchases a jug of whiskey. The Scanlin brothers and their young
wives, our nearest neighbors, had ridden four miles to help celebrate
his return, so my sweet mother did not blame him for a little excess
joviality and indeed became blithe and prettily flushed from a glass old Pierre fixed for her. I took a teacupful or so in the course of the evening-having been counted almost a man since I was thirteen--and all in all
we had a most happy time. Feasting on wild turkey, venison, cornbread, and molasses, the Scanlins became so high spirited that they teased
my father about being a "Down-easter" and an "Old Salt." I had known
that both my parents were from Massachusetts Bay, but I never had a
wish or thought to see it. Our faces were turned toward Lake Ontario
and the great Northwest.
The guests spent the night, the little cabin holding eight--nine, counting
a new Scanlin baby--as easily as four. All were up and their horses
saddled before dawn, when I rose to go hunting. Old Pierre decided to
go with me, for we were short of meat, neither he nor I having dared to
leave the homestead during my father's absence. Just before we left a young squaw came wandering down the mountain trail and begged my father for sugar. Evidently some of her tribe, trading skins at the settlements, had seen him pass with his bulging saddlebags.
Pierre and I started southwest, intending to hunt out some woods nearer
the west branch of the Ausable. Finding only stale, sparse sign, we
turned straight west into Indian country. When about ten o'clock we
climbed a high ridge, Pierre's quick eye noticed a dark-blue cloud of
smoke in the direction of our cabin. We had looked at it an instant when
the need came to look at each other. I do not know what was on my
face, but I saw what was on Pierre's. It was more like flint than flesh,
its very hatred of a stony, implacable kind that my young heart had never learned, and a terrible resolve already glinted in his granite-gray eyes.
"It may have caught fire by accident," I stammered in French.
"That sqaw," he replied. "She reconnoitered the ground, and signaled
in a war party."
I was already wheeling my horse. The old voyageur stopped me.
"Wait, Jason. We mustn't make one wrong move. Our horses mustn't
be seen on the skyline--they think we're away to the eastward, and
must continue to think so."
"Then tell me what to do." And I would have thanked God then, if my
mind had room, for having spoken French all my remembered days.
All of us had had to learn a little, to talk with our companion who spoke
no English, and since Pierre was well-born and educated, my French
was better than my native tongue, a mixture of Yankee and New York
"Don't give up hope," he told me, "Maybe the fire caught from the
chimney. But if so, there's no need of haste, for there'll be nothing but ashes left of the cabin. If the fire was set, there's likewise no need of
haste. There'll be nothing but ashes and blood."
"Let's do something." My voice was shaking but Pierre would not lose
faith in me on that account.
"We will, never fear." He was testing the wind now.
"Never fear for that, young one," he went one. And as his voice died
away, I knew he was doing the most important thing possible now--
thinking. Those thoughts were icy as his eyes. They were like a clear, sparkling river fed by a thousand rills from two score hills, and the hills
were his years among the painted people. He was looking down at the configuration of the land.
"Come, Jason," he said at last. "I'll tell you the rest as we ride."
He did not have to tell me twice. When the redskins struck, the law for white
people was ancient and inviolable. It was to save lives if possible, and
for every one lost, to take swift and full revenge. It was a wonder to
have reached the age of sixteen without yet fighting the painted devils,
and I had known it would come sometime, like drouth or flood.
If redskins had raided the valley, they were likely renegade Mohawks,
he said--the squaw we had seen certainly was--and had struck from
their spring lodges on the Saranac lakes. Even so, it was a most bold stroke, probably by a small hunting party of young braves suddenly
taking the warpath without the consent of the wer-o-lance, for we were
at peace with the Iroquois Nations, and there had been no powwows.
That meant they would hit and run. They would streak for the big
timber by the shortest trail, which would lead them through a
rocky defile that Pierre and I called Eagle Pass.
"If I'm wrong, and they take some other trail, it will be too late to
change," Pierre told me in a low voice.
"I don't think you're wrong."
So we rode to Eagle Pass, swiftly but not wildly, taking care not to
loom on the skyline. If Pierre was right, we had enough time, for
redskins would hate to leave the scene of their triumph until the flames burned low. When we gained the defile, Pierre tested the wind again.
Then we tied the horses up-current from the trail--so they would not
smell the enemy band and snort at the drying blood that streaked
them--and of course behind heavy growth. Then the old voyageur
gave me some last-minute instructions.
"You'll take your stand on one side of the pass, nearest the horses,
and I'll take the other side," he told me. "But you must give me time
to shoot, before you touch trigger." I had almost forgotten that his left
arm was a stub thrust into a wooden horn with an iron hook at the end,
good tackle but not as handy as a hand.
"I'll have a dead rest, so can account for one, sure. The others will
charge me with tomahawks, and still you mustn't shoot--not until I've grappled with the devils--to give you a good head start when you run
for the horses. You can't miss at that range. That will make two, sure."
"No, I won't miss, Pierre."
"Two at least. Poor pay for your Pa and Ma, but something. And I
hope to get my knife into one, amid the melee. That will make three."
"That isn't enough," I told him, my teeth chattering.
"Hark to me, Jason. Monsieur Reuben--" so he always called my
father--"will have laid low others--one or two or three--unless taken
wholly by surprise. And it's not good for a line to end, for a family to be wiped out root and branch. For me--it's no bad thing. My time's short
now, and I'd like to end it with the pride I knew long ago--and even my
arm was lost to me by a poisoned arrow. When you've shot, run like a
wolf, then ride like a hussar!"
People who dwell in a softer land might wonder that he had let me stay
even this long. I was sixteen, in many respects no older than Valley
youths of that age. The answer was that in matters such as this, I
had been counted a man two years or more. He would not question
my standing, since we had hunted and ridden and been woodsmen
together so long and far. He had seen boys of twelve stand up with the
men when the war whoops sounded. I had shot nigh a hundred deer,
and wild turkeys past counting. Anyway I was taller than Pierre and a
good deal stronger, a better woodsman than half of the Yorkers in the
Valley and all the Dutchman.
Folk of a latter day might wonder too at Pierre's clean, clear thought
and noble language. I did not, knowing how the wilderness had called
some of Europe's best. He had chosen the life of a voyageur in
Quebec instead of an officer's career in Louis' armies, and I reckon had
lived a bushel to that peck.
"Goodbye, Jason," he told me, faintly smiling.
I started to cry but choked it back. He gave me a little lick with the
side of his wooden arm.
Just then we heard the distant knock and rattle of a stone rolling
downhill. It may have been dislodged by spring seepage, and again
a too hasty step might have loosened it. The sound had carried a
good half mile, and I saw that Pierre's ambush was well laid before I
looked to my own. One-armed save for the iron hook, he might have
needed me to move a log, or help him to break a branch in silence.
As it happened, he found a perch behind some thickets, and a rest for
his rifle as handy as though provided for his express use. He was the
only Frenchman I ever knew who chewed tobacco--they are fastidious fellows, even on the wild, white rivers of the north--and when I left him
he was chawing away, yet with a certain daintiness.
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