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Take this latest instance. There was enough venison and elk meat in their larder to last weeks, but Louisa insisted he go and kill a grouse for supper. A grouse! When she knew he didn't like to pluck all those feathers. Lou loved grouse meat, though, and she was making a special meal, so she insisted he bring home a grouse and nothing else.
Zach stood on a slope a quarter of a mile above the lake at the center of King Valley and stared at his cabin on the north shore. Smoke curled from the chimney. Lou was baking a blackberry pie, one of his favorites. It mollified him, somewhat, for having to kill the grouse.
On the west shore stood his father's cabin, empty at the moment. His pa and his ma had gone off to St. Louis to have his pa's Hawken repaired.
On the south shore was the cabin of Shakespeare McNair and his Flathead wife, Blue Water Woman. Smoke rose from their chimney, too.
On the far east side of the lake stood the lodge of the Nansusequa, a friendly family of Indians from the East. They had gone offto the prairie to hunt buffalo. To Zach's considerable surprise, his sister, Evelyn, had gone with them. She hated to hunt. She hated to kill things. Yet off she went. She told Zach she was bored and needed something to do, which amused him considerably. The real reason she went was a young Nansusequa by the name of Degamawaku.
With everyone gone except Zach and Lou and Shakespeare and Blue Water Woman, the valley was quiet and peaceful. It was the middle of the summer and there wasn't much that needed doing. Zach could relax and take it easy for a change-if it weren't for his silly wife and her craving for a stupid grouse.
Zach sighed and resumed climbing. At that time of year and that time of day the grouse were in heavy woods where few meat eaters could get at them. He moved slowly, his thumb on the hammer of his Hawken. Around his waist were a brace of pistols, a Green River knife, and a tomahawk. Louisa liked to tease that he was a walking armory, to which he always retorted that he was still alive.
Zach wore buckskins and moccasins. With his long dark hair and the fact that his mother was a Shoshone, he knew that from a distance he appeared to be an Indian. His green eyes gave away his white inheritance.
Zach stalked as silently as a wolf toward a shelf where the grouse liked to roost. He spied circles in the dust, which told him he was close; grouse liked to give themselves what his pa called "dust baths." This made no sense to Zach. How could it be a bath if it got them all dirty?
At a cluster of pines, Zach crouched. He scanned the vegetation, alert for movement. Grouse could move quickly when they needed to and take wing in a heartbeat. He was about to move on when a whoop-whoop came out of the undergrowth to his right-the cry of a blue grouse.
The largest were two feet high. Their feathers were usually a dusky blue, which accounted for their name. The females weren't as colorful as the males, who had bright orange over their eyes and orange and white on their chest. When courting, the males put on quite a display. They puffed up and fanned their tails and made a booming sound that could be heard a long way off. When he was a boy he'd asked his pa how they did that, and his pa had explained that grouse had pouches in their necks that filled with air and deflated to make the booms. Zach saw the pouches for himself the first time he carved up a grouse for a meal.
The whoop-whoop was repeated.
Zach placed each foot carefully, alert for dry twigs that might give him away.
A tree blocked his view. Zach peered around it and a tingle rippled down his spine.
There the grouse was, perched on a stump not twenty feet away. A male, but it wasn't puffed up. As he looked on, it tilted its head back and let out more whoops.
As slow as molasses, Zach raised the Hawken and wedged the hardwood stock to his shoulder. Just as slowly, he thumbed back the hammer. He half feared the click would send the grouse into the air, but the bird went on whooping.
Zach gently squeezed the rear trigger to set the front trigger. He lightly placed his finger on the front trigger. All it would take was slight pressure. He fixed a bead on the grouse's head. The body was a bigger target, but the ball would make a mess of the meat. He held his breath and steadied the barrel, and when he was sure, he stroked the front trigger.
The Hawken belched smoke and lead, and the grouse suddenly had a neck with no head attached. The wings flapped a few times in reflex, and the body keeled over. A few kicks of its legs, then the blue grouse was still.
Zach smiled and walked toward the dead bird. Louisa would be pleased. He lifted the grouse by its feet; it was a plump one.
Blood dripped on one of his moccasins, and Zach's smile faded. Lou didn't like it when he came into the cabin with blood on his clothes. Setting the grouse down, he cut a whang from his sleeve and tied off the bird's neck so he wouldn't get any more on him.
Throwing the bird over his shoulder, Zach started down the mountain. He had gone a dozen strides when he drew up short. "I'm so eager to please her, I've turned foolish."
Zach put the grouse down. He uncapped his powder horn and commenced to reload his rifle. His pa had taught him early in life that it was the first thing a man did after taking a shot.
He was tamping the patch and ball down the barrel with the ramrod when he happened to glance at the mountains that ringed the lake to the north. For a split second he thought he saw a horse and rider, but when he blinked and raised a hand over his eyes to shield them from the sun, nothing was there. He figured it was a trick of the sun and the shadows.
Sliding the ramrod into its housing, Zach picked up the grouse and headed for the valley floor. He whistled as he walked.
Lou would be tickled pink.
Louisa King was worried. She knew how men were. She especially knew her man. Usually he was as wonderful a husband as any woman could hope for. But he was temperamental and prone to moods, and she hoped, she fervently hoped, he wasn't in one of his moods when he got home. She wanted everything to be perfect.
Lou didn't hold his moodiness against him. From what she'd been told, he had a rough childhood. It came from being a breed. Half white, half red, Zach was looked down on by both. A lot of whites regarded half-breeds as vicious and violent; a lot of red men believed that half-breeds weren't to be trusted because of the taint of white blood.
To Lou, it was just plain silly. People had no say over how they came into the world. They had no control over who their parents were. To be branded as inferior on account of an accident of birth was cruel. Besides, it wasn't the blood that counted; it was the person. It wasn't the body that mattered; it was the personality in the body.
In that regard-and Zach would be angry if she mentioned this to his face-her man had a kindly heart and a tender nature, even if he did hide it real well.
That was part of why Lou married him. The other part had to do with what Winona, Zach's Shoshone mother, called the Little Mystery.
The Great Mystery was the spirit in all things.
The Little Mystery was the special love that a woman and a man had for each other. The love that made a couple want to be together forever. It went beyond any other love. It reached into people's hearts, into the core of who they were. What was it about one woman out of all the women in the world that caused a man to want her more than any other? What was it about one man out of all the men in the world that instilled in a woman the sense that he was the man she wanted to be the father of her children?
At the thought, Lou stopped chopping carrots, placed a hand on her belly, and smiled. On an impulse, she put the knife on the counter and went into the bedroom. Attached to the back of the door was the full-length mirror she had pestered Zach into buying. He'd complained about the cost and the effort of bringing it all the way from Bent's Fort, but it was worth it.
Lou studied her reflection. She stared into her blue eyes, and then at her buckskins and again placed her hand on her belly. She appeared to be perfectly normal. No one could tell just by looking at her. She left the bedroom.
Taking the bucket off a peg, Lou went out. The bright sun, the birds singing in the trees, the beauty of the valley, stirred her. She hummed as she walked to the lake and dipped in the bucket.
Lou was so deep in thought that when a shadow fell across her, she gave a start. Instantly, she reached for a pistol at her waist only to realize, to her horror, that she had left all her weapons in the cabin. Whirling, she exclaimed, "Phew! It's only you."
"That's a fine way to greet this old coon," Shakespeare McNair grumbled. He quoted his namesake, " 'My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, and every tongue brings in a several tale, and every tale condemns you for a villain.'"
Louisa laughed in delight and gave him a hug. McNair was one of her favorite people in the world. With his white hair and bushy white beard, he was old enough to be her great-grandfather. Yet he was as spry as Zach and as dear a man as ever drew breath. He wore buckskins, and his rifle was cradled in the crook of his left elbow. "What brings you over to our side of the lake?" she asked.
"I'm going hunting tomorrow and reckoned maybe that husband of yours would like to tag along." Shakespeare was telling only half the truth. His wife, Blue Water Woman, had told him to check in on Lou.
"Oh. He's off hunting right now, although he didn't want to. I sent him after a grouse for supper."
Shakespeare glanced at the bucket and then at her waist. "Have you no more brains than earwax, girl? Your man is off in the woods and you came outside unarmed? What were you thinking?"
Lou frowned. Zach was always on her, too, about not stepping out the door without a gun. He kept trying to impress on her that all it took was one mistake and she would pay with her life. As he put it to her once, "The wilderness has buried a lot of people and it will bury you, too, if you won't start taking it seriously. There's danger around every hill and behind every tree."
She'd laughed and told him that he exaggerated. But it became a sore point, so much so that she now said to McNair, "Please don't tell my husband. He'll have one of his fits, and I want everything to be perfect."
"You're about to tell him, I take it?"
Louisa blinked. "Tell him what?"
"Oh, come now." McNair grinned. "You're with child. It's as plain as your rosy cheeks and the glow you share with the sun."
Lou shouldn't have been surprised; McNair knew about her recent morning sickness. McNair and Nate King were best friends. McNair was so close to the family, in fact, that to this day Zach called him uncle. "Oh my. How many others know?"
"Just about everybody except your husband. There are none so blind as those who can't see past the nose on their face."
"That's not another quote from William Shakespeare, is it?"
"No, but it should be."
That was another thing Lou liked about McNair: his passion for the Bard. He had a big book of Shakespeare's plays and quoted them by the hour. How he could recite it all was beyond her. She was lucky if she remembered a few quotes from the Bible.
"So, am I right? Is this the night you drop fatherhood on his head and change his life forever?"
"You make it sound like a millstone."
"I'm only saying it's not to be taken lightly. It's good you're both ready for it." Shakespeare paused. "You are both looking forward to having a baby, aren't you?"
"Well, it wasn't as if we planned it," Lou said, hedging. McNair had hit on the one thing that troubled her.
"Tell me, and be honest. Have the two of you talked this over? What it means to be a parent? The changes the baby will bring?"
"Not exactly, no."
"'Fair lady, do you think you have fools in hand?'" Shakespeare quoted. "You haven't said a word to each other, have you?"
"Of course we have," Lou said, a trifle indignantly. But the truth was, they'd talked about it only once, a short while back when she first thought she might be pregnant.
"Good. No one should jump in a poison ivy patch unless they like to itch a lot."
"You're comparing a baby to poison ivy? They have nothing in common."
"Tell that to a parent who has been up all night with a baby with the croup. Tell it to a parent who has to put up with all the caterwauling when a baby is teething. Tell it to a parent who has to change and wash diapers a thousand times. Tell it to a-"
Lou held up a hand. "Dear Lord. You make a baby sound like an affliction." She bent and lifted the bucket out of the water and Shakespeare immediately took it from her.
"I'll do the honors."
"Oh, please. I'm not helpless."
"Never said you were, girl. But a woman with a child in her brings out all the tenderness a man has. It's a good thing, too. It makes up for all the times men go around with blinders on."
"For a man, you sure don't think highly of your gender."
"Quite the contrary. I'm quite happy being male. The notion of being female scares me to death."
"I'd have to put up with men."
Lou laughed gaily. She headed for the cabin and gazed at the timbered slope beyond just as a jay took wing, squawking loudly. She idly wondered if something had spooked it, then put it from her mind. She had more important things to think about.
Up on the slope, the jay continued to squawk.
Excerpted from Wilderness #60: The Outcast by David Thompson Copyright © 2009 by David L. Robbins. Excerpted by permission.
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