Chapter One: “The Bay, Part 1”
The boy sat on a sandy bluff overlooking a broad bay on the Hudson River. To his right, greenish-brown translucent waves broke on a rocky breakwater below the open, stark plain where the New York Central railroad yards hissed and steamed. Across the bay to the north, buildings poked out of rocky, wooded headlands like broken teeth marking the village of Groton-on-Hudson. Over his left shoulder, the north side of a wooded peninsula reached out into the river like an embracing arm curving back into the bay which it created. To the west, the blue-grey hills of the river’s western shore shimmered as the cool river currents mingled with the sweltering airs of a New York August.
The boy sat well back, out of sight, in the shade of one of the many red maples that grew along the bluffs looking down on the river. He nestled on top of a carpet of the dead, brown leaves, remnants of departed summers. The shrill tones of summer cicadas were almost deafening as he inhaled the fragrances of decaying leaves, damp earth and moss. Behind him, a patch of dense forest separated the river from a collection of bungalows on a hill known as Groton Point Park, where the boy spent his summers with his grandmother.
The woods were a place of magic. When the boy entered them, he was transported back to the forests of the Northern Adirondacks in the lands of the mighty Iroquois confederation. His T-shirt became a buckskin blouse, his dungarees fringed leather trousers, his Hi-Top sneakers moccasins. A long stick became a rifled musket, short sticks, a hunting knife and a tomahawk. Chingachgook, the boy’s Mohegan brother, had shown him all the secret paths of the forest, paths invisible to the eyes of white men, in order to reach unseen the “place of watching” overlooking Lake Champlain near the English fort at Crown Point, where the he now rested.
The boy had left the settlement along a well-traveled path through the forest from the bungalows to the village meeting house where the settlers had their Saturday night parties and showed movies every Tuesday. But, instead of continuing along this path, he turned had off it as it dipped into a valley onto an invisible deer path that followed the valley floor to the west. This was the most dangerous part of the journey, Chingachgook had warned him, because the boy’s movements could be seen from the meeting-house path. There were some in the settlement who would reveal these secret paths to the French for gold or furs. Or worse, the Iroquois, who only pretended to be friendly to the settlers, would discover his movements and ambush him in the lower valley.
After a quarter mile, the valley turned to the north and the boy was deep among the trees safe from detection. From there, the valley descended toward the lake. Here, the walls of the valley pressed closely around the path and the trees blocked the sun. At the bottom of the valley, where the path brushed along the edge of the foul-smelling swamp of oil from the railroad yards, it branched in three directions.
Straight ahead, the path led to a sandy beach along the lake. There, a mad, white-bearded hermit lived in a wooden shack. Chingachgook had told the boy to avoid this man. The Manitou spoke to him. This was dangerous. But, should the French and their Algonquin allies come down the lake to attack the settlement, this is the path they would use. The thick trees and the steep hills surrounding the path would give the boy and Chingachgook a place to hold off the French until the women and children of the settlement could reach the stockade and the militia could be mustered to counter attack and push the French back into the lake.
Another path led east into a hidden, wooded valley. Chingachgook had told the boy that this valley was sacred to the Iroquois and he should avoid it. Here the Iroquois took their captives and offered their blood to their savage gods. Once he and Chingachgook had to raid the valley to rescue Alice and Cora, the daughters of the English Colonel at the fort. While they were in the secret valley, Chingachgook had shown the him the flat stone where the Iroquois beheaded their captives. The stone was stained black and brown with the blood of hundreds of unfortunate victims. After a desperate fight, they were able to bring the girls out before the Iroquois could sacrifice them.
To the west, a path climbed up and over a sandy, wooded bluff to the place of watching, where the boy now sat, his musket across his legs, peering intently across the waters to the north for any sign of war canoes. If the French appeared, the boy would have time to reach the place of ambush where he would rendezvous with his Mohegan brother, Chingachgook. There they would wait, concealed in the forest, until the French moved up the path from the beach into their trap.
As the boy sat under the maples, he remembered that it was Friday, the day his uncle and aunt came up from the city. He looked forward to this day all week. Without thinking, he checked the cuffs of his dungarees for sand. His aunt was a bit fussy at times. She worried too much about dirt in ears, dirt under fingernails, washed hands and face. But, to the boy, she was a glamorous presence—tall, red haired, stylish and smart. She only drank cocktails and smoked only while seated like the pictures of stylish, society ladies in Life magazine. She was Claudette Colbert to his uncle’s Clark Gable, Nora to his Nick. If she were to fall into the hands of the Iroquois (red-haired women were powerful magic) he would gladly risk the hidden valley single-handed to bring her out.
But that would never happen. Even the savage Iroquois feared his uncle. He was a New York City plain-clothes policemen, a detective who hunted the most clever criminals in the city’s most dangerous areas. Even arch-criminals like Flat Top and the Joker feared the boy’s uncle. He was as tall and square-jawed as Dick Tracy, with piercing blue eyes that saw through every trick a criminal could think of. Most of the time, he wore a dark overcoat and a snap-brimmed fedora on the job. But, sometimes he wore his police uniform, a navy blue overcoat with two rows of bright gold buttons, a shiny, square, silver badge, highly-polished black shoes with rubber soles and his night-stick and service revolver strapped to his hip. To the boy, his uncle had the class of Nick Charles, was as relentless as Phillip Marlowe, and was as clever as Boston Blackie. When he walked a beat in the city, the good people welcomed him and the criminals fled.
The boy especially looked forward to those Saturday mornings when his uncle drove him into the village the settlers called Harlin for his haircut. He got to sit in the front seat of his uncle’s big, green DeSoto. His uncle called his car the “Green Hornet.” It had a police radio in the dashboard and a big searchlight next to the driver’s window, which the boy knew his uncle used to search out evil throughout the night on the tough city streets.
They would drive together across the rickety, black trestle over the New York Central yards connecting the settlement to the village. His uncle drove with the windows down, his pipe in his mouth, singing “Red Sails in the Sunset,” stopping only to point out the tower where the railroad stored its coal for the steam engines that ran upstate, and the roundhouse where the steam engines were repaired. Sometimes, a steam engine passed under the trestle as they drove, engulfing the Green Hornet in smoke and noise. That used to frighten the boy, but Chingachgook, his Mohegan brother, had told him never to show fear in front of another warrior. And, he knew that he could show no fear in front of his uncle so he would be thought worthy of joining him some day on the police force to fight evil in the city.
The boy knew he had to be careful around his uncle. Last summer, before he had proven his courage fighting the French and the Iroquois with Chingachgook, he had gone to the Tuesday night movies at the meeting house in the settlement. That night they showed a monster movie about a reptile-man with big claws, who lived in the murk of a swampy lake, and crept out at night to kill people who strayed too close to his lair.
One day, the monster kidnapped the movie’s beautiful heroine. The boy wasn’t sure why, but he had seen enough monster movies to understand that this was what evil monsters sometimes did. Of course, the hero had to rescue her. He had a terrible fight with the monster under water and finally killed him with a spear gun. The heroine, who had spent most of her captivity fainting and screaming, seemed strangely sad when the monster died. The boy didn’t understand this, but he knew that this was the way heroines in monster movies sometimes behaved.
That night, after the movie, he had to walk through the dark woods to his Grandmother’s bungalow. Although he saw the monster get killed in the movie, he wasn’t sure that was the end of it. And, with the woods, the river and the swamps all around, the settlement was the perfect place for a swamp monster to hide. Didn’t his grandmother always warn him and his older cousin, Janey, not to go out at night because, when criminals escaped from the prison down in Ossining, they would hide in these woods?
When he managed to get home without running into any monsters, he quickly assessed the weaknesses of his grandmother’s bungalow against swamp monsters. The boy decided that a swamp monster wouldn’t just try to walk through the door. They were much too cunning for that. He’d somehow get into the house with the water. He examined the kitchen and decided the monster couldn’t get in through there. The faucets and drains were much too narrow. Then the boy remembered the shower that his uncle and father had installed in the bathroom. It drained directly under the house! Worse yet, in order to pee, the boy had to turn his back to the shower whose insides were hidden by a vinyl curtain. So, all the swamp monster had to do was, wait until dark, creep into the house through the shower drain, and wait for the boy. He’d be a sitting duck!
So, he developed a plan to foil the swamp monster. At night, when he had to use the bathroom, he’d first turn on the porch light, then he’d inspect the bathroom from a safe distance. If it seemed clear, he’d approach. But, before entering, he’d snake his hand in through the door and flip on the bathroom light. He’d then check to make sure there were no monsters visible in the bathroom. Only then would he go in. Then, very carefully, he’d pull back the shower curtain a bit to make sure the shower stall contained no lurking monsters. Only then would he turn his back to the shower stall, march up to the toilet and pee.
This ritual served the him well for most of the summer, until one night his uncle, who had been watching this little routine for a couple of weeks, said to him, “So, I guess you’re not going to be a cop when you grow up?”
“Whatta you mean, Unc,” the boy responded, “I still want to be a cop!”
“Well,” his uncle replied, “You can’t be a cop if you’re scared of the dark. Cops have to search dark buildings for dangerous criminals with nothing more than a flashlight and a nightstick. But, you can’t get to the bathroom without turning on every light in the house. Then, you won’t even go in until you’ve checked in the shower. What’re you afraid of in the shower? A monster? Can’t be a cop if you’re afraid of the dark or monsters.”
Now the boy knew his uncle was watching him when he went to the bathroom, watching and testing his courage to be a New York City cop. So now he had to march boldly across the porch in the dark. He had to enter the bathroom before he turned on the light. And, he must never be caught checking out the shower before he went about his business. Which, worked out well for a couple of days until his uncle hid in the shower and, as soon as the boy turned his back, flung open the curtain and snarled exactly like a hungry swamp monster.
Even his aunt would have thought it funny, had the boy not peed all over the bathroom.
But now the boy was a warrior in his own right. With his Mohegan brother, Chingachgook, he had fought the wily French from Canada. He had defeated the fierce Iroquois. He wasn’t even afraid to go into the woods by himself when Chingachgook was off on the hunt. In fact, in a strange way, the boy felt comforted surrounded by the wooded hills. It was his secret place. A magical place. His place.
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Genre – Literary / Historical Fiction
Rating – PG13