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Chapter 8

The Legend of the Canal Pirates; Judgment Day.

"Ramsey and his boys go through trials like that on a daily basis," Jacks said when I expressed my concerns the next morning. "If what happened last night kilt any one of them, well, they was never a canaler, begin with.”

I would not have argued with that logic, even if I had any idea where to get a foothold. I was still afraid that I would be a murderer once more but saw no point in expressing my fears. Jack was not worried about stealing the money yet again, as long as we moved far away from the canal. It would be “towrope news,” she said, traveling up and down the canal and it was best if got ourselves as far away as possible. We amended our plans; instead of heading straight to Albany to catch a steamboat to New York City, we would go north, into the Adirondacks, where no one would be looking for a canal thief.

We headed off on foot, at first through towns no less wild than Watervliet—Cohoes had a fine array of taverns for a town its size, Halfmoon, smaller still, was also a wonderful place to get a drink. Then further into the country, where a town was just a name given to the crossing of two roads, with a tavern or an inn or a general store, someplace a farmer might travel to buy provisions, have a drink with his friends, or share a bed with someone other than his wife. Each crossroads was smaller than the one before, and we stocked up with as much food and grog as we could carry, not knowing which crossroad would be the last.

A day north of Halfmoon we came across a copy of a newspaper from Troy, wrapped around a recent catch from the Mohawk River. We dined on trout and read the news. One headline stood out, and could not be ignored:

Pirates Strike in Troy

Lives Nearly Lost as Marauding Gang Loots Canal Boat

The captain of the canal boat, Queen of the Mohawk, reported to sheriff Malone, Thursday morning, that on the previous night his vessel was attacked by a gang of canal pirates who absconded with all the money on board, an estimated $400. Captain Ramsey said that the gang attacked the boat sometime after midnight and overpowered those on the boat. Only three men were aboard; the remaining crewmembers men were sleeping in Watervliet at the time of the attack.

“Had we been at full strength,” Captain Ramsey explained, “we would have repelled the attack. But the thieves had us outnumbered, two to one, and our defense was not sufficient.”

Captain Ramsey suffered server lacerations to the face when his head went through a cabin window, another crewman, Stubbs Hennessey very nearly strangled when the pirates attempted to hang him.

It is believed that these are the same marauders who robbed a canal boat near Canajoharie earlier in the season. Captain Ramsey speculated that they were likely headed westward again.

 

Jack couldn’t stop laughing after reading the story. “Imagine, Pratt,” She said catching her breath. “We’ve become a gang of six pirates, and tough as we are, we did not manage to murder Ramsey and his brave crew. Since we’re now headed westward, I don’t think anyone will be looking for us up here.”

I thought it might be safe now to head back toward Albany, but Jack wanted to continue north a few more days, just to be sure. I think she enjoyed being away from civilization and was not anxious to go back. I was not so sanguine about the wilderness. The road we were on soon diminished to little more than a path through the woods and then, imperceptibly disappeared altogether, leaving us to find our own way through the forest. At night the hoots and howls of wild animals constantly interrupted my sleep, filling me with dread over the threat of pouncing wolves or wildcats. And I couldn’t help but remember stories I had read about the forest Indians, who moved without sound, communicating by mimicking the calls of woodland creatures, and who had no mercy for white intruders.  

The animals are harmless, Jack told me, and the Indians are long gone. But I still had doubts. I was glad when the rocks and ledge of the Adirondack foothills meant an end to the deep woods. We crossed a shallow stream, and a huge cliff of gray rock now blocked our way north and set our direction eastward. I felt somewhat safer with a wall on one side and increased visibility up and down the stream, though what I could do if I saw an adversarial man or beast, was still unknown.

As we walked along the flat rock embanking the stream, we came upon a depression in the stone, filled with ashes and burned wood; someone had recently built a fire there.

“Don’t that beat it?” Jack said. “No matter how far you try to get from the human race, there’s always someone just two steps in front of you."

We decided to build a fire there ourselves. The rocks and cliff would offer some protection, should the weather turn bad, and we had fresh water from the stream; it seemed like a good place to stop. I gathered wood while Jack took an inventory of our rations. We had nearly half a pound of bacon that would not survive another day’s travel, and we had about a pint of rum that we had been saving for something—this appeared to be it. I used a flint to light the kindling and while we fed the fire, we passed the bottle.

There’s too many people in New York State, now; this proves it. Maybe Ohio is the place to go. That’s where all the canal passengers are going—off to Ohio to start farming. Still a lot of cheap land out there without a lot of people.”

“I thought we were going to New York City,” I said. “There are more people there than anywhere in America.”

“Well, you have to go where the people are if you want to make money.” She said, “But once you’ve got the money, you want to get as far away from them as possible.”

“You think you’re going to get that kind of money selling apples?”

“Don’t start with me, Pratt. I told you apples was just the beginning.” She was shouting now. “We got to get the lay of the land first, find out who we can trust and who we can’t, you know, who’ll help us and who’ll hurt us. When we know who’s good and who ain’t good, we’ll know what to do.”

Before I could respond, we heard a man’s voice, thin but clear, echoing, apparently from within the cliff, “Hast thou come to judge me?”

Jack and I looked at each other in amazement; it was startling to think there had been someone within earshot our whole time there. While the voice didn’t sound frightening, I was not convinced he wasn’t a threat, and for lack of a better weapon, I armed myself with a large rock.

Jack stood up and called back to the rocks, “Who’s there?”

“Hast thou come to judge me?” the voice was louder but still sounded distant.

She walked along the side of the cliff, looking for an opening and I followed. She came upon a fissure in the rock; narrow, but wide enough to admit a person. “I think he’s in there.” She whispered pointing at the crack.

“Hast thou come to judge me?”

“Come out here!” Jack shouted into the crack. “And speak English!”

What came out of that cave was more wraith than man. He was tall and exceedingly slender. His hair grew to his shoulders and his beard to the center of his chest, and each was so filthy and matted that the hair hung in rattails. Covering a body that was little more than skeleton and skin, was a long broadcloth nightshirt, which may have been white once, but was now frayed and blackened at the hem and stained and streaked from ankle to shoulder. But his eyes were the most starling—ivory orbs protruding from the shadowy depths of his skull, with pupil black as midnight; no color at all just huge black circles.

“Have you come to pass judgment on my soul?”

“Pass judgment on your soul?” Jack shouted. “Who do you think we are?”

He backed away, raising his hands. His motions were jerky and skittish, like a chipmunk’s.  

“You are that you are.” He said solemnly.

“Come again?”

I said quietly to Jack, “He thinks we’ve been sent by the Lord.”