Bone Rattler: A Mystery of Colonial America

Bone Rattler: A Mystery of Colonial America

by Eliot Pattison
Bone Rattler: A Mystery of Colonial America

Bone Rattler: A Mystery of Colonial America

by Eliot Pattison



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The Edgar Award winner’s acclaimed historical mystery series is “The Last of the Mohicans meets Braveheart, with a curious dash of CSI” (Entertainment Weekly).

Aboard a convict ship, Scottish Highlander Duncan McCallum is bound for colonial New York—and the bloody maw of the French and Indian War.

Aboard a British convict ship bound for the New World, Duncan McCallum witnesses a series of murders and apparent suicides among his fellow Scottish prisoners. A strange trail of clues leads Duncan into the New World and eventually thrusts him into the French and Indian War. Duncan is indentured to the British Lord Ramsey, whose estate in the uncharted New York woodlands is a Heart of Darkness where multiple warring factions are engaged in physical, psychological, and spiritual battle.

Exploring a frontier world shrouded in danger and defying death in a wilderness populated by European settlers, Indian shamans, and mysterious scalping parties, Duncan, the exiled chief of his near–extinct Scottish clan, finds that sometimes justice cannot be reached unless the cultures and spirits of those involved are appeased.
In a novel rich in historical detail, acclaimed author Eliot Pattison reconsiders the founding of America and explores how disenfranchised people of any age and place struggle to find justice, how conflicting cultures can be reconciled through compassion and tolerance, and ultimately how the natural world has its own morality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781582439549
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 03/01/2009
Series: Bone Rattler , #1
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: eBook
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 23,243
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Eliot Pattison is the author of the Inspector Shan series, which includes The Skull Mantra, winner of an Edgar Award and finalist for the Gold Dagger. He is also the author of the the Bone Rattler series, featuring Scotsman Duncan McCallum. Pattison resides in rural Pennsylvania with his wife, son, three horses, and three dogs on a colonial-era farm. Find out more at

Read an Excerpt


September 1759
The North Atlantic

HOPE, DUNCAN MCCALLUM HAD DISCOVERED after two months on an English convict ship, was the deadliest thing in the world. It wasn't scurvy that was killing his companions, nor any of the other shipborne diseases his medical training warned him to watch for. Hope was their poison, for hope was the seed of despair, and on the dark, dank prisoner deck those who had embarked with the greatest hopes were now dying of despair.

Had he time, and paper and ink, Duncan could have penned a treatise on the fatal contagion of despair, recounting how it consumed each prisoner differently, the final chapter being a description of himself. For Duncan, with strange detachment, had not missed his own symptoms. He had seen the sunken eyes looking back at him from his reflection in the water butt, observed the trembling hands, the absence of appetite, his abrupt obsession with memories of his Scottish boyhood, the only contented time of his twenty-four years. He had embarked for the New World clinging to vague ambitions about a fresh beginning, but the realities of the convict's fate had overtaken him, and now the dim spark of his life was fueled only by his compulsion to decipher the ghastly death of his friend Adam Monroe.

"Give way!" Duncan heard a man near the bow shout, followed by the sound of feet running toward him. Springing up from his hiding place between two barrels, he launched himself onto the shroud lines. He had prayed to evade attention this time, had even convinced himself he could return unseen in the mist to the prisoners' hold, but if they were going to beat him again, by God he would first make them work, wear his keepers down so he would have time to solve the anguished riddle that had caused him to steal away from the morning slops line. If his own despair had an antidote, Duncan knew where to find it.

As he climbed, the faces of the dead once again flashed before his mind's eye. Ian, the handsome young printer, arrested hours before his wedding, who had started the voyage singing about love. On his last day, a fleet westbound packet had overtaken their ship, pausing to deliver mail that included a letter from his fiancé breaking their betrothal, saying her parents forbade union with a criminal. He had stared at the letter for hours, then that night had crept away to the head, lain down, and filled his throat from the bucket of sand kept there. And Stewart Ross, the stone mason and engineer who, after receiving news that his only son and heir had died in the war with France, had chewed open a vein in the middle of the night. But it was Adam, Duncan's one true friend among the prisoners, whose face always lingered. Adam had been laughing one day, betting with wooden buttons as he urged on his entry in a weevil race, then had grown abruptly morose the next, transformed by something or someone unseen by Duncan. He had watched helplessly over the next twenty-four hours as Adam's face had seemed to rot away, the life fading from his eyes as steadily as if it had been his blood, not his spirit, that had been trickling out of him.

Duncan climbed without looking down, instinctively pushing and pulling on the lines with hand and foot as he had so often in the Hebrides boats of his youth, swinging from one spar to the next, the spray of the wind-whipped waves soaking his threadbare shirt, stinging the open welts left from the last time the keepers had bound him to the mast and whipped him. He was taking the same route, spar for spar, as Adam had taken two days earlier while Duncan, pinned in the grip of the keepers, had helplessly watched. Adam had lingered in the maintop platform, scratching something into the wood of the mast, then lifted his hand in mock salute to the officers and others gathered near the bow.

As Duncan hurried upward, he heard the helmsman cry out in a fearful tone, doubtless concerned that one of his pursuers would fall as the great square-rigged vessel, eight weeks out of Glasgow, pitched forward into the heavy sea. Fog swirled around the masts as he frantically climbed, knowing they would never stop their vengeful race. Breaching the rules of confinement was no different from spitting on the king, the captain had declared, and had offered half a crown to the man who brought Duncan to him if he went missing again. Duncan had escaped three times already, the last time tasting the freedom of wind and sea for half an hour before they found him clinging to the bowsprit. He had become something of a reviled mongrel at the whipping post, the favorite of every bully among the sailors. The captain had vowed that next time Duncan would receive forty lashes and be tied to a mast all night to let the salt spray work on his raw flesh.

He climbed with grim determination, swinging from the foremast, finally reaching the maintop, the platform high above the deck where Adam had lingered, working on the wood. His heart leapt as he saw the lines scratched with a nail, then sank just as quickly. There were no words of wisdom, no explanation of what had so abruptly destroyed Adam, no secret instructions to explain the cryptic legacy he had left for Duncan. His friend had left no words at all, only two crude drawings — one a plump creature with a round tail and outstretched wings, the other two parallel, curving lines joined at the top and bottom, like a hollow letter S. The last meaningless gesture of another life wrung dry by the king.

Adam had no sooner finished scratching on the mast than he had slipped down a line onto the port rail, running along its flat top, sprinting as the keepers closed in. Duncan had broken free as he saw the empty grin on his friend's face, and had been racing toward him as Adam scooped a set of chains off the shoulder of a keeper, draping it around his neck, then sped toward the stern. He had kept running when he reached the end of the rail, hugging the chain to him. Duncan reached the stern an instant later, in time to see that his friend made no effort to surface, had just spread his arms and dove deeper, his last mortal sign the bottom of one pale, naked foot kicking toward the depths.

Duncan extracted a small, dark object from his pocket, a four-inch piece of carved black stone. That terrible morning when they had climbed onto the deck for their breakfast slops, Adam had clamped a hand around Duncan's shoulder, spoken into his ear, then leapt into the rigging so quickly Duncan had not at first realized he had thrust the stone into Duncan's palm, bending his fingers over it as though to conceal it. Only several agonizing minutes later, after Adam was gone, had he become fully aware of the object, and of the exact words Adam had spoken.

"I am sorry," his friend had whispered to him. "She is done with me," he said, as if the stone were alive. "I failed her. 'Tis you she needs now." In his few moments of privacy since, Duncan had studied the disturbing black thing, expecting it to yield some explanation. But it was nothing more than a stone shaped into a lumpy, ugly creature with fat haunches and a broad head lowered between two thick front legs, as if it were bowing. In a hole in its bottom, a small note had been wedged. I despaired because only a ghostwalker can understand what must be done, it said. But now I see you become one. Let the old one take you where she needs to go. On the back, more lines had been added in a hasty scrawl. Duncan, I vowed not to befriend you, but I never thought to find us so alike. I do not expect your forgiveness for what I have done to you and your clan, but I do pray that one day you will at least understand. What they say they want the Company for, they mean the opposite. They mean to use you, then they must kill you. They know who you are.

Something as black and cold as the stone settled into his gut as he stared at the crude etchings in the wood. Duncan had been so certain he would find an answer to assuage his hopelessness, a meaning to Adam's strange words, some thin thread that might keep him connected to the world. But he had escaped for nothing, and would now have the skin flayed from his back for naught but scratchings left by a man gone mad.

They know who you are. Why would Adam have included such words in his riddle? Of course they knew who Duncan was, just another broken Highlander, adrift, with no prospect of ever finding an anchor again.

The marks on the wood were a nonsensical epitaph, not just for Adam, but for Stewart and Ian as well. It was no coincidence that three of the best-educated men of the Company, its natural leaders, had now died, for they had seen the biggest world, had nurtured the biggest dreams; they had been wise enough to see that, having been wronged by English judges, all doors had now been slammed shut, that if they lived, for as long as they lived, all their dreams would be nightmares.

He stared at the drawings until a wisp of fog swept in front of them, then he looked up. The ship had entered a low fog bank, its thick white cloud blanketing the world under the maintop. No sound came from below except a few shouts, not of anger now but of fear, and a strange mournful wailing. Duncan was alone, washed in the sunlight that pierced a gap in the gathering clouds. He heard only the groan of canvas and creak of rigging. Suspended above the dense, churning whiteness, Duncan had a sense of floating between worlds, and a sudden, desperate longing to be with Adam.

The wind began to push the fog, and the sea became visible a cable's length away, with the ship below still covered in the edge of the low, dense bank. Huge swells swept toward the horizon, which was lined with clouds as black as ink. Duncan felt strangely thin, impossibly light. He would float away into the storm if he just let go.

A stark and terrible beauty had overtaken him, seemed to be seeking him, calling him from the world. Rejoice in this moment, something inside said, this is freedom, or the closest to it you will ever find again. But his heart was gone, replaced by the chill, empty thing that was spreading through his body. Adam's pained, confused words and his insane scratching had simply been his final gift to Duncan, leaching away the last drop of Duncan's hope. With an odd sense of relief, he felt the rot inside finally break through to the surface.

He did not know how long he gazed out into the storm, into the nothingness of wind, water, and swirling cloud, but gradually he became aware of someone speaking from a vast distance.

Stare into the raging sea and ye'll meet the eye of y'er god.

It was the voice of his grandfather, released from a chamber in his mind he had kept closed for years. When, as a boy standing on a sea cliff in a rising storm, Duncan had first heard the words, he had taken them as a somber warning. But now, as the old man's raw, dry voice echoed across the span of nearly two decades to reach him, a melancholy grin split Duncan's face. The words had been not a warning but a taunt. Duncan somehow knew now that when a British corvette had blasted the sloop his grandfather used to smuggle rebels, the old clan chief had glared into the dark waves and shouted a Gaelic curse at his god while the violent, frigid waters of the Hebrides crashed over him.

Duncan found himself fingering the runelike shapes on the mast. He had misunderstood. He did not need resolution, he needed release. Adam had shown him, his grandfather was showing him again. There were fates worse than death, and a way for a dying clan to triumph over those who imposed servitude. Duncan was ready to stare down his god.

The ship pitched forward into a trough of the angry sea and was suddenly clear of the fog. Duncan clutched the mast and dared a glance over the edge of the maintop platform, wary of being spotted again. Any moment they would be upon him, this time with clubs and chains, this time planning to strip his back raw.

"Lift up thy hands!"

The sudden command from below stabbed like a blade. Duncan thrust himself back against the mast, the welts on his back afire again, then slowly straightened his tall, thin frame, studying the treacherous rigging above. He would climb higher, to the tip of the tall mainmast. Then it would just be a matter of waiting for the right wave, when the ship would heel over and put him above the raging water. He would not go down to the deck, not ever again.

"Rise up to meet the lamb!"

Duncan froze as he reached for the ropes, then peered back over the edge at a group of men huddled near the bow, where a bearded sailor waved a black book. The calls had not been for him, but for the other sailors gathered around the man, listening to what? A service for the dead? But there was no shrouded body, no solemn officer in formal dress to recite the words prescribed for burial at sea. In fact there were no officers on deck at all, he saw as salt spray slapped his cheek, though the deck and masts should be crawling with sailors to reef sails and ready the ship for heavy weather. He realized the ship had been deathly still since the other prisoners had been taken to the hold an hour before. Even the helmsman seemed about to abandon his duties, for he stood beside the wheel, one hand on a spoke as he stared uneasily at the waters behind the stern. No one had been pursuing Duncan after all. The alarms had been raised for another reason.

From the group at the bow came the uneven chorus of a prayer, the sound growing more distant as Duncan turned his gaze toward the churning waters ahead. The deck seemed to be receding, drifting out of his consciousness. There was no need to climb farther.

They had reached the edge of the storm. He released one hand, letting the wind swing his body away from the mast, yielding at last to the emptiness that was swelling within. He selected a massive black wave in the distance and gazed into it as it approached, letting his hand slip around the curvature of the mast, defying his god to meet his gaze and hear Duncan's own venomous taunt.

Suddenly strong fingers clamped around his arm, pulling him back.

"'Tis a terrible final thing, lad."

Without looking, Duncan recognized the gravelly voice of the eldest of the keepers. "Just an autumn gale, Mr. Lister."

"Do not trifle with me, McCallum," the older man said. "Have I not seen such a look too many times this voyage? I ken what's in y'er eye even if ye do not."

Duncan glanced back at Lister and paused, confused at the pain on the man's scarred, weather-beaten countenance. Lister was a prisoner himself, as were all the keepers assigned to watch the others, a trusty not confined to cells or locked holds. He had served at sea most of his life, had been in the navy, then second mate on another of the merchant ships that plied the Atlantic, until he was condemned for some unspoken crime. Lister had been the only keeper to show him any kindness, had often spoken with Duncan about the sea, had only the night before pushed the lantern closer to the barred door of the prisoner hold to give Duncan more light as he sat writing at the threshold. The black wave reached and passed the ship, and the two men fixed each other with inquiring gazes as they gripped the rigging and rode the heave of the mast.

When he finally replied, Duncan's throat seemed dry and scratched. "Adam," he said, with a gesture toward the crude drawings.

"A cruel, rotten thing," Lister muttered, venom in his voice, then saw the question in Duncan's eyes. "Me mind has no reason to ken it, but in me heart I know what we saw plain before us was a murder, as sure as if we watched a blade planted in Munroe's back. His dying was different from the others. Adam didn't want to die. He had to die."

Something unexpected stirred within Duncan. The old sailor had found the words that had been struggling to rise from Duncan's own heart.

"'Twas that bastard redback," Lister added. "Our bluestocking prig."

The emptiness ebbed for a moment. Had Duncan misunderstood something about Adam's death? "Lieutenant Woolford?" he asked. There was only one member of the king's army on board.

"Ye were there. Ye heard Woolford report our destination had changed, that we be bound for Edentown, in the New York colony." Lister fixed Duncan with a grim stare. Prior to Woolford's declaration, the Company leaders had let the men assume they were sailing to Virginia or Georgia, whose tobacco and cotton plantations employed legions of transported criminals. "Adam had been in the militia," he added soberly, as if it explained much. "New York be where the war lies. In the wild lands."

He searched Lister's face, remembering once more Adam's last words. They mean to use you, then they must kill you. He had known Adam had spent years in the Pennsylvania colony, but Adam had always evaded Duncan's questions about his former life in the New World, diverting him with tales of colonial towns and taverns, promising him that one day he would show Duncan mountains and lakes that rivaled those of Scotland. "Are you saying Adam died because of something that happened in America?"


Excerpted from "Bone Rattler"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Eliot Pattison.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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