I must hasten to explain, lest you think my story nearly done, that Dugan’s was not the death for which I will unjustly hang. Though the Dead Rabbits were certain that I was guilty of Dugan’s murder, the death of a gangster on the battlefield is not a crime that the New York City police are likely to pursue. I am sure that the coppers were just as happy to be done with that particular menace to society. In fact, I daresay that no one in New York will miss Dugan, save the rest of the Dead Rabbits, and I am sure there are many in their ranks who secretly rejoiced at his passing. I did not fear arrest in the city, and would not be hung there under color of law, but the Dead Rabbits are bound to take revenge for the death of a fallen comrade and, had I chosen to stay in the city, my life would have been in constant jeopardy.
After crossing the Hudson, I found a secluded wooded spot and slept there most of the day. When I awoke, I walked the main road until I found a roadhouse where I could get a meal. I had plenty of money; the dogfights at Kit Burn’s had been quite rewarding. I walked some more, then found another place to sleep. Thus began a cycle where I did nothing but walk, eat and sleep for several days.
I was heading north, walking atop the cliffs and hills bounding the Hudson that had appeared so magnificent on our boat trips down the river. From this perspective, the sailboats and steamboats that dotted the river as far as the eye could see were utterly insignificant. The thought that they carried humans, burdened with all their toils and troubles, was almost laughable. Up here I could travel days with no sight of another person, and that suited me just fine.
My goal was vague. I would walk north as far as Albany—I had no desire to go further north and revisit the Adirondack wilderness—hopeful that in the course of the journey I would receive some inspiration to help me decide whether, then, to turn east or west. I entertained the notion of going back to Salem, like the Prodigal Son returning home, but I feared that my father would not slaughter the fatted calf upon my return, and I knew that any comfort I found there would be short-lived. Perhaps I would go west, heading toward the burned-over district, maybe even, once again, joining my beloved Mirabile. But I sensed that my presence would not be welcome in the Travis camp either.
I was still some ways from Albany when the road led quite steeply up the side of a mountain. I could have taken a low road, gone around the mountain, but I was determined to reach the summit. My progress was slow, and the climb took several hours, but when I finally reached the top, the view there rewarded my effort. It was as if I could see all of creation from that place, to the ends of the earth in all directions. To the north were the rocks and crags of mountains even taller than the one upon which I stood, but further north were distant ranges, tiers and tiers of gray and purple, dimmed by haze, fading into the horizon. Across the river valley, now so steep that the river itself was not visible from where I stood, were more mountains, rolling again into the shadowy distance. To the southwest the mountains parted, revealing a lush green valley far below, and nestled between verdant forests I saw rectangular fields of a lighter green—a farmer’s crop just beginning to grow.
As beautiful and enticing as the mountains were, it was the farmer’s field that enthralled me. Even so tiny and far away the cultivated field brought on waves of nostalgia for the pure and ancient days of my childhood on the farm. It was impossible to go back, I knew that, but why couldn’t I venture down to this farm? There is always work to be done on a farm, and I would be willing to work for very little pay; for no pay at all if it came to that.
So I started back down the mountain, trying to maintain my bearings even when the road did not go in my direction. I had to weave back down through roads and paths, trying to set my sights on a field I could no longer see. I continued down for miles, further down into the valley than I had been before I started up the mountain. When the land finally leveled out I was surrounded by forest, still no sign of the field, and it was already nightfall. Exhausted, I found a spot in the woods to sleep, confident that the morning light would show me the way.
I woke early, and I set off through the woods with the rising sun at my back, still confident that I was heading in the right direction. Before long I found a path through the woods and followed it to a dirt road with ruts from wagon wheels. Still heading west, I followed the road, first over one hill, then over a second until, through the trees at the side of the road, I spied a field of newly sprouted corn. I ran through the trees and reached the field—acres and acres of young corn plants. At the far corner, I saw a red barn, and I walked the perimeter of the field until I reached it.
There I saw the farmer loading sacks of grain into the barn. He wore knee-breeches a shirt and vest; he was clean-shaven with a tall, broad-brimmed hat on his head. I said hello, and he greeted me in a language I did not understand. I told him I was looking for work, explaining that I had been a farmer most of my life. He responded in a language that I recognized to be Dutch; it was clear that the farmer did not understand English and I, of course, could not speak his language. I tried by gesture to explain what I wanted. Unsure whether I was getting my message across, I picked up a sack of grain and vigorously helped him load the sacks into the barn.
He was grateful for the help, and I thought he might agree to hire me as a farmhand. The farmer led me into his house. The kitchen was bright and cheerfully decorated. He called out, “Grieta,” and a young girl hurried into the kitchen. They spoke a few words, then Grieta commenced to frying eggs. He had sensed correctly that I was hungry.
While Grieta cooked the meal, the farmer, in his way, conveyed his willingness to hire me. He showed me to a small room with just a bed, and like the rest of the house, it was clean and tidy. This was where I would sleep. He brought me some clothing to wear while I worked, seeing at once that my suit was too good for farm labor and that I had no other clothes. He indicated too, that I would be paid for my work, and, though the amount and frequency of the wages were unclear, I was more than grateful. He said his name was Hans Van der Voort; I told him I was Jonathan Pratt and shook his hand enthusiastically.
Herr Van der Voort and Grieta were the only ones in the household, and I surmised that he was a widower and she his daughter. It was a happy household nonetheless. The farmer’s daughter was shy and innocent at first; she had ways like a child, but her form was plump and womanly. She was a pretty girl with blonde hair and a ready smile.
You, oh worldly reader, no doubt chuckle to yourself at the mention of a traveler and a farmer’s daughter—a story as old as travel and cultivation themselves. If you think yourself too jaded to read this story once again, you may skip ahead, for you will find nothing new here. But recall that my only experience with sexual matters had been with New York City whores and an Erie Canal tomboy; at the time I had not an inkling of the trouble they can cause.
Though we were unable to converse, Grieta was happy for my company. In the evenings, after dinner, I would help her bring the cows in from pasture. She would laugh merrily as we ran together to chase some wayward animal. Sometimes she would tease me, and I would chase her through the field. We played together as children, and in my mind, I would have been happy to continue this way forever. But my mind is seldom the ruler in these situations, and one evening behind the barn, succumbing to a joyful impulse, I pulled Grieta close and kissed firmly on the lips. Startled, Grieta pushed me away and started running. But as she left, she turned around and smiled broadly, letting me know that my advance had not really been unwelcome.
I could not know it at the time, but that first kiss had sown the seeds of my undoing.