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Chapter 21...continued

Target Practice; A Mighty Storm.

Following my initiation, the Hunters opened the curtains, letting the sunshine into the Lodge, and began to socialize and drink from an earthen jug of whiskey. There were about twenty in attendance, most seemed to be men in their forties or older, and the rest were about my own age.  I was taken aside by the two who had brought me, to be instructed in the secrets and mysteries of the Patriot Hunters.

There were various degrees of membership in the Hunters; the lowest being Snowshoes, next were Beavers, then Grand Hunters, and the highest degree was Patriot Mason.  Jack and I were the only Snowshoes, and everyone was pleased, as it had been some time since new members had been inducted. The younger men were all of the Beaver degree; they were not lacking in enthusiasm but were somehow less focused upon the goal than the older Hunters. The Grand Hunters were the ones who kept hammering the point that we were assembled to drive the British from North America. There were two Patriot Masons, the highest degree, and they were distinguished by the fact that they had participated in the “Great Hunt.”

The Great Hunt, like so much of the Hunters’ speech, was actually code for something else. It referred to the Battle of the Windmill when land and sea forces of the Patriot Hunters invaded the town of Prescott in Upper Canada.

I had mentioned to one of my instructors that the cabin we were in seemed much larger than necessary for the number of Hunters there. He told me that before the Great Hunt, hundreds of men, from all walks of life, would meet there and prepare for the invasion of Canada.  But the battle had been a failure; Commander von Schoultz and ten others were executed by the British. Sixty more were transported to Van Deimen’s Land. After that, membership in the Patriot Hunters began to dwindle.

When my training was completed, the meeting proper commenced. The first order of business was the payment of dues. As it was the first muster for Jack and myself, the man in charge said they would waive the obligation, but in subsequent musters, we would be required to pay. Next, he read a tally of Hunters who were in arrears in dues payments—including most of those present—and they were also reminded to settle up next muster.

The next order of business was reading correspondence from other Lodges. At one time, he told us, the reading of correspondence was the most important part of each meeting. This time there were but two letters: one from St. Albans, Vermont, and one from Detroit, Michigan. The letters were written in code, and it was the job of one of the Grand Hunters to translate them. He first read the letter from St. Albans which said, in effect, they were standing strong but had nothing new to report.

“Respond to them thus,” said one of the Patriot Masons, “’Oswego stands strong as well, and has garnered new members.’”

The letter from Detroit was rather long, and the translator chose to summarize its content, “Detroit is in disarray and in desperate need of new monies.”

“Detroit is always in need of new monies,” said one Patriot Mason.

They are run by a pack of thieves,” said the other.

 “Tell them we have no funds available at this time,” said the first, “but we will think first of Detroit when our fortunes change.”

There was no more new business, and as there was still daylight, we all went out behind the lodge for target practice. Each of the Hunters had brought his own weapon for the shooting. There was one old musket on the wall of the Lodge; Jack was allowed to use that. The younger Hunters were the best armed; many had Sharps rifles and Colt revolvers. One of the Beavers, who had recently purchased a Colt, let me use his old flintlock pistol.

Targets were set up some distance away, and we commenced to shooting at them. I had never worked a firearm before, and my pistol missed fire several times before I finally got off a shot. The reloading then took so much time that I resolved, in the unlikely event that I ever invaded Canada, I would find a safe hiding place and only fire my weapon when my foe was upon me with his.  

When twilight fell, and the light became insufficient for shooting, we all went back into the lodge for more drinking and storytelling. I handed the pistol back to the Beaver who had loaned it.

“Keep it,” he said, “You will need a weapon, and this will do until you get something better. Keep your flint sharp and your powder dry. Keep your gun loaded and primed; you may be called at any hour.”

I accepted the piece. To do otherwise would be admitting the truth: that there was no way in hell I was ever joining their invasion of Canada. The Beaver showed me how to carry the pistol in the waist of my trousers and cover the handle with my shirt, keeping it ready at hand but hidden from public view.

I was still carrying it when Jack and I boarded a Lake Ontario steamboat in Oswego—it was my only possession save the clothes on my back. I had spent the last of my money on a steamboat ticket to Rochester. Jack still had money, but she would not say how much.

Everyone we spoke to told us that the fastest route to Rochester was over the lake by steamboat. I was hesitant to get aboard another steam vehicle with Jack, but she promised me she would not even look at a  playing card if any were being used on the boat, and she assured me that she would keep her opinions to herself regardless of the conversation we may find ourselves in.

Our boat was called the Northerner, and at first glance, it looked as though someone had just added a boiler and a pair of side paddles to an old schooner, but closer examination revealed the boat was specially built for lake travel, with sails to take advantage of the ever-present wind should the engine fail. We were scheduled to leave at 4:00 and would be in Rochester before 9:00; however our departure was contingent upon the arrival in Oswego of the train from Albany. Neither Jack nor I was optimistic, but there was a saloon on board and its operation, apparently, was contingent upon nothing so we took a table there, and remained there when the boat finally departed.  The drinks were on Jack.

We had both decided to continue our missions to Rochester, though in each case the fervor was considerably diminished. Jack, who now had membership in two secret societies, found that the whole notion had lost its luster. Secrets revealed had much less appeal than secrets desired. She would meet anyway with Thurlow Weed, send her report back to the Know-Nothings by U.S. Mail and be done with it.

“You should use the Patriot Hunters’ code,” I said, and Jack laughed to the point that I thought she would fall off her chair.

My hesitancy in fulfilling my mission to rescue Mirabile from her evil and obsessed father stemmed from my own sense of shame. I had not, by any means, remained pure in the period since I had promised to help Mirabile, and while that was an entirely self-imposed vow, it mattered none the less to me. I also feared that I could never live up to Mirabile’s purity. Hers was the one soul that had remained righteous throughout, while mine had proven time and again to be damned. I told none of this to Jack, saying instead that there was no point looking for her in Rochester, Mirabile had expected me in July and it was now mid-August.

“That don’t matter,” Jack said, “I was supposed to go next to the Free-Soil convention in Buffalo, to assess their platform and Van Buren’s chances for president. That convention was over last week. We do what we can, but no one can make good on all their promises. The point is, Pratt if this girl is your destiny, what choice do you have?”

As usual, I could not argue with Jack’s reasoning.

As we sat so deep in conversation, we had not noticed that the lake had gradually gotten rougher until one huge swell nearly knocked us over. We looked out the windows to see that the sky had turned black as night and dark clouds roiled above us. A bolt of lightning cracked the sky, followed closely by thunder so loud that the sound alone seemed to knock the boat back.  Then the rain began; sheets of rain, driving sideways into the boat until I could not tell for sure whether we were even above water.

And still the waves grew wilder, heaving the boat back and forth in the water. Jack and I held on to a railing along the wall of the saloon, and as the boat tipped perilously, we could see the paddlewheel, now fully out of the water, turning helplessly until the wave splashing across the deck doused the fire of the engine.

We had traveled far into the deep water of the lake but had never lost sight of land on our left. We were now being pushed ever closer, back toward the shore, where rocky points waited to rip our vessel to shreds should we manage to stay afloat long enough to reach them. The pilot had lost control of the boat as we rolled in all direction, a plaything of the waves.

Lightning flashed again, filling the room with ghostly illumination. Thunder soon followed, loud as cannon fire, and Jack grabbed me at the sound.

“Jesus Christ,” she said, “hold me Pratt, I don’t want to die in this water.”

I held her as tight as I could and tried not to show fear, but I wished there was someone to hold and comfort me. I was fully convinced that I was but moments away from a watery grave and my soul’s arrival in hell.