Share this article

print logo

"Freehand" / By Mike Peterson

This is the first chapter of a nine-chapter serial story to be published weekly in NeXt. The story is about life in America leading up to and during the War of 1812. Place names in this story are given and spelled as they were in 1813.


Chapter 1 / Scrimshaw

"Well, Dan, they tell me the Russians have cut off Bonaparte's supplies and winter is turning against him."

"Yep. There's the newspaper," Dan MacKenzie pointed to the wall by the door George Davis had just walked through, where the single sheet was tacked up for all to read.

His stepson, Caleb, kept sorting nails into bins at the back of the trading post. He liked to listen to the men talk about war, but he didn't dare to join the conversation. He was supposed to be working, not talking.

Davis looked at the small print and then pointed to a column, "There it is!" he agreed. "Boney's in retreat with the Russian hounds nipping at his heels. How old is this paper?"

"Two days. It came down from Ogdensburgh with a load of coffee and some tin ware. You need any coffee, George?"

"Not beans," Davis said, "but I'd have a cup. It's starting to snow again." He took a tin cup from the shelf by the stove and filled it from the pot.

"Soon as Bonaparte's finished, the British will send their army over here and put an end to Mr. Madison's adventure," Davis said.

"If you want to be English, George, just move across the river," Dan MacKenzie responded. "You won't even need a boat; it's frozen solid. Just load up your sledge and go."

"I'm proud to be a Yorker," Davis said. "I just wish Little Jemmy had left well enough alone. Everything was fine until he started this."

"Maybe here," MacKenzie admitted. "But what's happening out in the Ohios and what's happened to our ships isn't right and you know it, unless you really are on the wrong side of the river."

The door opened again and another man came in, stomping the snow from his feet and shaking it from his wide felt hat.

"Well, look who's out wandering in the wilderness," Mr. Davis said. "What do you think of the war, John?"

"What war?" the man said, and Caleb smiled to hear him tease the others. It was John Gabriel, a Mohawk trapper who brought his furs to the MacKenzies' store. Since the war began, the Mohawk were supposed to stay at St. Regis, but the families needed food and other supplies, and they knew the trader at Fordsburgh wouldn't tell anyone, as long as they brought him good furs.

The trapper dipped one shoulder to slip the ash splint packbasket from his back.

"I heard you were sending people to Washington to talk about getting into it," Davis said.

"I'm not sending anyone anywhere," John said. "I'm trapping muskrat and beaver. And a nice otter, Dan. Wait until you see it!"

"Have the British recruiters come back to St. Regis since the militia ran them off?" Mr. Davis asked. "I've heard there are Mohawk fighting alongside Tecumseh out west."

"Look at this," John Gabriel replied, taking the damp, snowy scrap of blanket from the top of his packbasket and lifting out the thick, dark otter pelt that had been tucked underneath.

Caleb was glad John Gabriel was here. He hadn't come in a while and Caleb needed another look at his powder horn.

He went to the back of the store where his coat hung on a peg. As he put it on, he patted the pocket to make sure there was a piece of paper and a pencil there. Then he walked to the door, grabbing the ax as he passed the stove.

"I'm going to split some stovewood," he said to his stepfather as he stepped outside. It wouldn't do to let him know he was really going outside to draw.

He stepped off the porch of the trading post into the gathering snow and walked to the hitching rail where John Gabriel's horse stood. The powder horn was there, next to the leather sheath that held the flintlock rifle.

The scrimshaw powder horn was a gift from one of John Gabriel's uncles, who fought in the Revolution on the British side. Mohawk uncles were especially kind to their nephews.

The horse turned its head to look at Caleb as he came close to the saddle, its breath coming in two steaming streams and its eyes wide, wondering if this boy was going to climb up. Then, as Caleb gently ran his fingers over the horn, the horse shook its mane and continued watching the store's front door.

Caleb had studied the horn before, examined the carved pictures that covered its smooth, grained surface. There was a deer and hunter, and a sailing ship, and a clapboard house with bushes by the door. And there were smaller pictures, and names and dates.

Those were what he wanted to copy. He'd drawn the bigger pictures already in the sketchbook he kept hidden in the hayloft, the book where he made pictures when he should have been working.

Caleb squinted as he ran his fingers over the carvings, then he leaned the ax against the hitching rail and took out the paper and pencil. The smooth leather skirt of John Gabriel's saddle made a good drawing board.

He'd lost himself in the tiny carvings and had nearly covered the paper with drawings when a rough hand landed hard on his shoulder and the horse flinched away, nearly as startled as the boy.

"Splitting wood makes noise," his stepfather's angry voice said. "If you weren't wasting time, I'd have heard you."

Next week: Caleb makes a decision.


Made available through the support of the New York Newspapers Foundation and funding from New York State United Teachers. Text copyright 2012, Mike Peterson. Illustrations copyright 2012, Christopher Baldwin.

The author has created a companion blog for readers to offer comments or ask questions. It can be found at