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In 1882, Anna Maria Sharpe is departing from Washington’s Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station for the north-central Pennsylvania backwoods she’d fled in her teens doubtful of her identity. She encounters Benjamin James, a drifting, alcoholic longshoreman who’d been implicated in the murder of his brother during Anna Maria’s childhood. Benjamin decides to join her. Along the way, he relates the tale of the ancestors of their sordid hideaway settlement: his father, the infamous ex-slave Jedediah James; George Sharpe, a former indentured grist-miller whom Anna Maria believes was her grandfather; and Sarah Starret and Rosanna Wheler, the white women they had escaped with to the wild Sinnemahone country. Through the story, Anna Maria discovers an intimate connection to the man Benjamin had been accused of murdering, and to the murderer.
Benjamin’s account of the life of Jedediah James reveals a fatal obsession with ownership driving this freed slave toward his reckoning. Clandestine Quakers and a sympathetic prothonotary try to help James as hostilities build to a head between him and the august revolutionary war veteran Samson Starret and Thomas Tillman, a man fixated on a woman an ex-slave threatens to steal from him on the eve of his possessing her. The scenes of "The Indigo Scarf" take the reader from a forbidden slave marriage on a plantation in Virginia’s tidewater region to the tragic end of a whiskey and timber-pirating operation on the Susquehanna’s un-peopled and feral West Branch during the frontier decades after Pennsylvania’s last Indian purchase.