Monthly Archives: December 2012

John McCowen

Here is another section that I couldn’t keep when I made Noble the first person narrator. John is the lover you read about in “Little Brother Spying.” After General Braddock’s defeat, he decides to leave the Butler farm to seek his family. He had heard but wasn’t convinced that they had left their farm in Shearman’s Valley and gone to Easton because of Indian attacks.


John rode away from the Butler farm with no clear plan in mind. He came to the Lancaster road, pulled a coin from his pouch, and tossed it in the air. He said aloud, “Heads I go to Shearman’s Valley, tails I go to Easton.”  He clapped the coin onto the back of his left hand and looked at it. “Heads,” he said, with a sinking feeling in his stomach. “All right, Shearman’s Valley it is!”  And with that, he jerked the reins and headed west.

He met streams of settlers heading east, their carts piled high with household goods. Children leading cattle followed their parents in the wagons. John peered at the worried faces, looking for anyone he might recognize so he could inquire after his own parents or even their farm. Several settlers gave him advice he didn’t want to hear.

“Go back,” they said. “Savages are attacking everywhere. They strike when you least expect them, and you don’t stand a chance. They killed three of our neighbors as they harvested their fields. Then they  burned the house with women and children still inside. They have no consciences at all.”

“What news of Shearman’s Valley?” John asked.

“It’s empty these many weeks now. Everyone who survived the attacks has left for safer places.”

“Do ye know Duncan McCowen?”

“Nay, never heard of him, but if he has any sense, or if there’s breath left in him, he’s headed east. Yer on a fool’s errand, young man. Better give it up and join us.”

But despite his growing sense of dread, John stubbornly pressed westward until he arrived at Wright’s Ferry. There he met grizzled James Wright, one of the ferry owners.

“Good day, young man,” Mr. Wright said. “The boats are on the other side of the river, waiting for people heading east. Thee will have to wait unless thee intends to ride thy horse across.” His bright eyes were full of questions.  “We don’t often see anyone headed west these days. In fact, the last people crossing west were in a wagon train taking supplies to Wills’s Creek early in Sixth Month. Where is thee going?”

“To Shearman’s Valley to look for me family. Me name is John McCowen. Have ye heard ought of the McCowen family?”

“Nay, I’ve not heard of them. But I think there’s no one left in Shearman’s Valley. Where might  they  have gone for shelter?”

“They may have headed for Easton. I believe we have kinfolk there.”

“Then take the Paxtang Path north from here to Harris’s Ferry, near where the Juniata River empties into the Susquehanna. John Harris is more likely to know the news from Shearman’s Valley than anyone crossing here.  If thy family has left for Easton, thee will get there more directly from there than from here. But do stay on this side of the river as thee goes north. The tribes on this side have caused no trouble.”

John nodded grimly. “Thankee, sir. I’ll do as ye say. “

“It’s late to set out today. Will thee stay the night at our little inn?”

“Nay, there’s a few hours of daylight left, so I’ll use it while it lasts.”

Tipping his hat to James Wright, John wheeled his horse around and clattered off along the Paxtang Path.

The few hours of daylight dwindled quickly in the thick forest. Just as darkness closed in, John found a low lean-to along the road and decided to stop for the night. Indians had built this shelter and left their pictographs in the bark of a tall oak nearby. Though John could not read them, he knew any Indian could, no matter what tribe. They probably told who had stayed here and how many were in their party. John hoped he would be the only traveler staying there that night. He tied his horse and ate the rest of his pennyloaf of bread for the day. Then he settled into his bedroll for an uneasy night’s sleep.

By noon the next day he had reached Harris’s Ferry. John Harris scratched his head dubiously when John asked about crossing the river.

“Of course ye can cross.  Just ride yer horse from one side to the other, since the river’s down. But why d’ye want to?”

“I’m looking for me family. Do ye know Duncan McCowen?”

“Aye, I know him. He and his family left, oh, maybe three months ago. Then when the supply wagon train came east, one team carried his son.” John Harris looked at him more closely.   “Would that be you?”

“Aye, I’m John McCowen. Do ye know where they were headin’?”

“Easton, I believe he said.”

“Had they been attacked?  And what of our farm?  I thought I’d go see for meself.”

“Nay, they hadn’t, but their nearest neighbors were murdered, so the whole community decided to clear out. As for yer farm, I’ve heard only that all the settlements have been burned to the ground, and the crops in the fields as well. Ferget the farm and go find yer folks. The farm kin wait, but yer people deserve to know ye’re alive and well. They may need ye wherever they are near Easton.”

John’s face fell. He looked across the broad river and felt the pull of the land in his heart. He wanted so much to go home. If he found it in ruins, it would fuel his thirst for revenge. If he found it intact, he would go get his family and return in time for spring planting.

John Harris cleared his throat loudly. “Son, it’s not worth the risk. Go find yer folks and let ’em know yer alive. Then all of ye together kin decide what’s best to do.”

Still he hesitated. His face reddened and his eyes narrowed as hatred raged within him.

John Harris seemed to read his thoughts.

“Just be glad yer folks are safe. Go find ’em and let ’em be glad to see ye. No doubt ye’ll get yer farm back when the troubles settle down.”

Reluctantly John McCowen nodded. “I suppose ye’re right. Which way to Easton from here?”

“Follow the road to Reading, and there at the fork ye’ll go northeast to Easton. Good luck to ye.”



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Little Brother Spying

Here is another excerpt that I couldn’t use because I chose Noble as my first-person narrator. Noble’s ten-year-old brother, Benjamin, was fascinated watching the wounded stranger Noble had brought home fall in love with Sheba, their older sister.


Ben watched John and Sheba with new awareness. He saw Sheba help John walk over the uneven ground to the bench by the well, John’s arm over her shoulder, and her arm wrapped around his waist.  Surely he needs no help walking. The wound is in his shoulder, not his leg!  Ben thought.

Though pretending not to hear, Ben listened to their conversations as he tormented Pearl, the cat, with a clover blossom. And he watched Ma and Pa to see if they knew what was obviously going on under their noses. He couldn’t quite tell.

He could tell that John was in love with Sheba. But why?   Up till now, Ben had simply taken her for granted, never considering whether she was attractive or not. Was she pretty?  Ben didn’t think so. She was too ordinary. It was hard for him to think about, as hard as if someone asked him to consider the relative beauty of a piece of furniture. If it served its purpose, it was fine. Beauty was immaterial.

But because John thought she was pretty, Ben began trying to see his sister through John’s eyes.  He noticed that her skin was fair, her eyes blue, her hair neatly covered with her cap. But that was true of nearly every girl in Meeting. Because John watched Sheba’s movements as she worked in the kitchen, Ben tried to notice, too. He could see no difference in the way she and Ma moved, except Ma was getting a little stiff with age. Sheba was more graceful, but wouldn’t anyone expect that of someone younger?

Ben listened to her voice. It was no softer than most girls’, but, in fact, she seemed to speak more softly to John.  She wasn’t bossy with him the way she was with her brothers. And a good thing, too. Ben couldn’t imagine anyone being bossy toward John McCowen.

One night Sheba went to her room before Ben prepared for bed. As he neared his door, he noticed hers was open a crack. Silently he looked in. Sheba was sitting in her shift at the low table in front of her window. She had loosened the ties at her elbows, so her sleeves fell toward her shoulders as she brushed her hair. Ben sucked in his breath. Women never exposed their upper arms!

Sheba’s hair glinted in the candlelight. As she brushed the entire length, individual strands drifted, seeming to have a life of their own. Her hair looked like flax prepared for spinning.

Ben felt strangely moved. Dimly, he began to understand how a man might. . . .

Suddenly a rough hand clamped the back of his neck and another covered his mouth. Pa whirled him around, marched him downstairs and out the front door, and dumped him on the bench next to the well.

“Spying on thy sister, Benjamin?  What is this all about?”

Ben felt the blush rise from his knotted stomach to the roots of the hair on his head. Shame silenced him.

“Why was thee spying on Sheba?” Pa insisted.

In a very small voice, Ben stammered, “I was trying to figure out why John seems to love her.”

Pa was silent, his mouth twisted as if he were trying not to laugh. Then he said in measured, deliberate words, “That is something thee will understand later, son. Meanwhile, thee must realize women are entitled to privacy, the same as men. Would thee want Sheba spying on thee?”

“Nay,” Ben admitted.

“Would thee want anyone spying on thee?”

“Nay, I wouldn’t.”

“The next time this happens. . . .”

“There won’t be a next time, Pa. I promise.”

“Then get thee to bed, and no more of this foolishness.”

The bench felt rough against Ben’s bony rump. He was glad to stand, but he wasn’t ready to end the conversation, now that Pa seemed to be finished with him.

“Pa, did thee know John loves Sheba?”

“I’ve had my suspicions.”

“Does Ma know?”

“We haven’t discussed it, but I’d be surprised if she doesn’t know more about it than thee and I do.”

“Would thee let Sheba marry someone who isn’t Quaker, Pa?”

“Thee is too far ahead of me, son. Neither John nor Sheba has said anything about marriage. John has to find his family and see what has happened to their farm. He’s very young and has yet to make his way in the world. ‘Tis true he’s taken with her, but who knows how seriously. When he leaves, we may never hear from him again. If he returns for her, then we’ll discuss marriage. By then, John may be ready to become a Friend himself.”

“Will thee tell Ma about our talk tonight?  I wish thee would not.”

Pa smiled and tousled Ben’s rumpled hair. “My lips are sealed,” he promised. “Some things are better kept amongst us men.”


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