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The First Mountain Man
By William W. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2002 William W Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Leaving his brother sleeping in the bed behind him, the boy stepped out of the bedroom and into the upstairs hallway. He moved down to the end of the hall to his parents' bedroom, where he stood just outside their door for a moment listening to his pa's heavy snoring.
His pa's snores were loud because he slept hard. He worked hard too, eking out a living for his family by laboring from dawn to dusk on a farm that was more rock than dirt, and took more than it gave.
His ma was in there too, though her rhythmic breathing could scarcely be heard over her husband's snores. She was always the last to go to bed and the first to get up. It was nearly two hours before dawn now, but Art knew that his mother would be rolling out of bed in less than an hour, starting another of the endless procession of backbreaking days that were the borders of her life.
"Ma, Pa, I want you both to know that I ain't leavin' 'cause of nothin' either of you have done," the boy said quietly. "You been good to me and there ain't no way I can ever pay you back for all that you done for me, or let you know how much I love you. But the truth is, I got me a hankerin' to get on with my life and I reckon twelve years is long enough to wait."
From there the boy, who had been christened Arthur, but was called Art, moved down to his sisters' room. He went into their room and saw them sleeping together in the bed his father had made for them. A silver splash of moonlight fell through the window, illuminating their faces. One was sucking her thumb, a habit she practiced even in her sleep; the other was clutching a corncob doll. The sheet had slipped down, so Art pulled it back up, covering their shoulders. The two girls, eight and nine, snuggled down into the sheet, but didn't awaken.
"I reckon I'm going to miss seeing you two girls grow Art said. "But I'll always keep you in my mind, along with Ma and Pa and my brother."
His good-byes having been said, Art picked up the pillowcase in which he had put a second shirt, another pair of pants, three biscuits, and an apple, and started toward the head of the stairs.
Although he had been planning this adventure for a couple of months, he didn't make the decision to actually leave until three days ago. On that day he stood on a bluff and watched a flatboat drift down the Ohio River, which flowed passed the family farm. There was a family on the flatboat, holding on tightly to the little pile of canvas-covered goods that represented all their worldly possessions. One of the boat's passengers, a boy about Art's age, waved. Other than the wave, there had been nothing unusual about that particular boat. It was one of many similar vessels that passed by the farm every week.
To anyone else, seeing an entire family uprooted and looking for a new place to live, traveling the river with only those possessions they could carry on the boat with them, might have been a pitiful sight. But to Art, it was an adventure that stirred his soul, and he wished more than anything that he could be with them.
Art was nearly to the bottom of the stairs when the sudden chiming of the Eli Terry clock startled him. Gasping, he nearly dropped his sack, but recovered in time. He smiled sheepishly at his reaction. The beautifully decorated clock, which sat on the mantel over the fireplace, was the family's most prized possession. His mother had once told him, with great pride, that someday the clock would be his. Art reckoned, now, that it would go to his brother. His brother always put more store to the clock than he did anyway.
Recovering his poise, Art took a piece of paper from his pocket, and put it on the mantel beside the clock. It was addressed to "Ma and Pa."
At first he hadn't planned to tell anyone in his family that he was leaving. He was just going to go, and when his folks woke up for the next day's chores, they would find him gone. But at the last minute he thought his parents might rest a little easier if they knew he had left on his own, and had not been stolen in the middle of the night.
Art had enough schooling to enable him to read and write a little. He wasn't that good at it, but he was good enough to leave a note.
Ma and Pa
Don't look for me for I have went away. I am near a man now and I want to be on my own. Love, your son, Arthur.
With the note in place, Art opened the front door quietly and stepped out onto the porch. It was still dark outside, and the farm was a cacophony of sound; frogs on the pond, singing insects clinging to the tall grass, and the whisper of the night wind through a nearby stand of elm trees.
Once he was out of the house and off the porch, Art moved quickly down the path that led to the river. When he reached the bluff, he turned and looked back. The house loomed large in the moonlight, a huge dark slab against the dull gray of the night. The window to his parents' bedroom was gleaming softly in the moonlight. It looked like a tear-glistened eye, a symbol that wasn't lost on Art. A lump came to his throat, his eyes stung, and for a moment, he actually considered abandoning his departure plans. But then he squared his shoulders.
"No," he said aloud. "I ain't goin' to stand here and cry like a baby. I said I'm a'goin', and by damn I'm goin'."
He turned away from the house.
"Sorry about sayin' 'damn,' Ma, but I reckon if I'm goin' to be a man, I'm goin' to have to start talkin' like a man."
Art left the beaten path, then picked his way through the brush down the side of the bluff to the river's edge. To the casual observer, there was nothing there, but when Art started pulling branches aside, he uncovered a small skiff.
He had found the boat earlier in the year during the spring runoff. No doubt it had broken from its moorings somewhere when the river was at freshet stage, though it was impossible to ascertain where it had come from. Art didn't exactly steal the boat, but he did hide it, even from his father. And he assured himself that if someone had come looking for the boat, he would have disclosed its location. But, as no search materialized — at least none of which he was aware — he got to keep the boat.
The boat provided him with a golden opportunity, and it wasn't until it came into his possession that he seriously began considering running away from home. He was leaving, not because of any abuse, but because of pure wanderlust.
If he put into the current now, some two hours before dawn, he would be six miles downriver by sunrise. By sundown he would be forty miles away. Throwing his sack into the bottom of the boat, he pulled it out of its hiding place, pushed it into the water at the river's edge, got into it, then paddled out to midstream and pointed downriver.
Under way now, he looked back toward the bank and saw that he was moving at a fairly good clip. It wasn't until that moment that he realized this might well be the last time he would ever set eyes on the land of his birth. That realization did not weaken his resolve.
Art had an oar, but as the current was swift and steady, no rowing was required to establish locomotion. Rather, he used the oar as a tiller to keep the boat centered in the river.
* * *
The boat moved downstream much more swiftly than he would have thought. By mid-afternoon he was already farther from home than he had ever been in his life.
He ate a biscuit.
He watched the sun set from the middle of the river. The sun flamed a wide, fan-shaped bank of clouds, turning them into a brilliant orange-gold. The river itself took on a light, translucent blue, as pretty as he had ever seen it. He began looking for a good place to put in, and saw a fallen tree lying half in and half out at the water's edge. He rowed over to the tree, tied his boat to it, and used its branches to hide the boat from view. Only then did he allow himself to eat the second of his three biscuits. His meal consumed ... what there was of it ... he stretched out in the bottom of the boat and went to sleep.
* * *
Two days later, his biscuits and apple gone, he was feeling pretty hungry when he saw several boats gathered beneath a high bluff. Halfway up the bluff was a large cave, and a hand-lettered sign explained that this was "Eby's River Trading Post." Even from the boat, he could hear loud conversation, laughter, and the music of fiddles and a jug. He could also smell the enticing aroma of roasting meat.
Art had no money, but he was mighty hungry, so he paddled ashore, hoping to be able to trade a little work for food. He tied the boat up to an exposed tree root, then walked up the path toward the mouth of the cave.
A few wide boards, supported by upright wooden barrels, formed a counter that stretched across the front of the cave. Behind it, in the cave itself, were several shelves and boxes and barrels of goods, from whiskey, to clothing, to flour, bacon, beans, and 'taters. A red-faced, rather plump man was manning the counter and when Art walked up, the man came toward him.
"What can I do for you, sonny?"
"You have food here?"
The man laughed, then pointed back into the cave. Two women were cooking over an open fire.
"What's the matter with you, boy, that you can't smell it?" the man asked.
"I can smell it," Art replied. On his empty stomach, the smell of cooking food was about to drive him mad.
"Sonny, you ask anybody up and down the whole Ohio, an' they'll tell you that Eby's got near 'bout anything you could want," the man went on. "We got roast pork, chicken, rabbit, squirrel, and possum. We got fried dove, catfish, and carp. We got biscuits, cornbread, beans, 'taters, and gravy. You go back down and tell your ma she don't have to cook no supper tonight 'cause we got anything she might want right here. Yes, sir, for ten cents you can feast like a king."
"Are you Mr. Eby?"
"Mr. Eby?" The man chuckled. "Don't many folks call me mister," he said. "But yeah, I'm Eby. Now, you goin' to run down and tell your ma what I said?"
"My ma's not here.
"Well, who is here? Your pa?"
Art shook his head. "Ain't nobody here but me."
"You mean a boy like you is out here, travelin' on his own, with no family?"
Art pulled himself up to full height. He was tall for a twelve-year-old, and strong from at least three years of doing a man's work.
"By damn, I'm near to full-growed," Art announced resolutely. "I reckon I can travel without a family if I want to." He thought the use of the phrase "by damn," was particularly effective.
Eby held up his hand. "Whoa, boy, don't be takin' no offense to my palaverin'. Your dime's as good as the next fella's, I reckon. What'll you have?"
"I'd love some pork and beans," Art said.
"Why, sure, boy, just show me your dime and I'll serve it right up to you."
Art cleared his throat and ran his hand through his hair. "Uh, well, that's just it, mister. I ain't got no dime. I ain't got no money a'tall."
"You ain't got no money?"
"Well, now, if you ain't got no money, would you mind tellin' me just how the Sam Hill you was a' plannin' on eatin'?"
"I thought maybe I could work some for it," Art said.
Eby shook his head. "Boy, I got no need for someone to work for me. I got me two women back there, as you can see. They all the workers I need, and they don' cost me nothin', one of 'em bein' my wife and the other'n bein' her sister."
"Do you know of anyone who needs any work done?" Art asked. "I'm a good worker, I'm strong, I been carryin' my own load for the better part of three years now."
"This here ain't no hirin' hall," Eby said gruffly. "If you got a dime, I'll give you some supper. If you ain't got no money, then get the hell out of here and don't be takin' up space."
"Give the boy somethin' to eat," a tall, bearded man said.
"I ain't givin' him nothin' iffen he don't pay for it."
The tall man produced a dime, slapping it down on the counter with a loud snap. "Here's your goddamn dime. Now give the boy some vittles!" he ordered.
"No, sir," Art said, shaking his head, holding his hand out toward the tall, bearded man, and walking away. "I thank you kindly, sir. But I don't aim to take no charity."
"Who said anything about charity?" the man replied. "I've got a flatboat down here, loaded with goods that I'm takin' to the Louisiana Territory. If you're willin' to work for your keep, I'll take you on."
Art smiled broadly. "Yes, sir!" he said. He turned back toward the counter. "I'll have me that pork and some beans now," he said. "And maybe some 'taters."
Scowling, Eby went back to the cooking fire, spooned up some beans and potatoes, cut off some pork, and put it on a tin plate. He brought the plate and a spoon back to the counter.
"Thanks," Art said.
"Seems to me like there ought to be a biscuit go with that," the man who had bought the supper said.
Eby reached under a cloth and pulled out a biscuit, then set it beside the plate.
"The name's Harding," Art's benefactor said. "Pete Harding. What's yours?"
"Art? That's all?"
Art thought for a moment. Harding seemed to be a nice man; certainly he had bought a meal and was promising employment. But Art was planning on making a clean break from his past, and he didn't want anything that would make that connection, including a last name.
"Art's all the name I use," he said.
Harding laughed. "If that's good enough for you, then I reckon it's good enough for me. How'd you get here anyway? Did you walk?"
"No, sir. I come by boat," Art said.
"Well, after you eat your supper, come on down and help me get loaded up. Then, if you're a mind to go with me, why, I reckon you can tie your boat on behind. Or else, leave it here."
"You got a boat you want to leave here, I'll keep it for you till you get back," Eby said. "Won't charge you but a dollar to keep it for a whole month."
Harding laughed. "Yeah, in a pig's eye you will," he said. He stroked his beard and looked at Art. "Boy, you don't have any money at all?"
"Well, if that boat don't mean nothin' personal to you, why don't you just sell it? That way you can go on downriver with me, and have a little money besides."
"Sell the boat? Why, yes, I reckon I could," Art said. The boat had served its purpose, getting him away from home. Now he truly was on his own, and any money the boat brought would have to be good.
"All right, Eby. What'll you give the boy for the boat?"
"It's worth five dollars," Harding said.
"Not to me, it ain't."
"As many people as you got comin' through here, you could give the boy five dollars for the boat, then turn right around and sell it within a week to someone else for seven dollars."
"I'll give the boy three dollars."
"Four," Harding said.
"All right, four dollars."
Harding looked at Art. "What do you think, son? It's your boat, and your decision."
"Four dollars?" Art said. "I've never had that much money in my life. Yes, I'll sell it."
"Give the boy four dollars," Harding said.
"Where's the boat?"
"I'll take you to it," Art said.
"We'll take you to it," Harding corrected. Then he looked at Art. "After you make the transaction, we've got work to do."
"Yes, sir!" Art said.
* * *
Harding had unloaded his goods there, in order to do some business with the folks who had tied up at the trading post. It took no more than half an hour to get them loaded back onto his boat. It was a flatboat, nearly as wide as it was long, with a small cabin at mid-deck. A long tiller, which could also be used to propel the boat, stuck out from behind the boat. Every available square inch of the boat was covered with cargo; bales of cloth, pots, pans, various kinds of tools, barrel staves, hoops, and three cases of Bibles.
When the boat was loaded, Harding invited Art to step aboard.
"It's time for us to get a'goin'," he said.
"We're going to run the river at night?" Art asked.
Harding shook his head. "No, we'll put in a couple miles downstream," he said. "It'll be safer than staying here with the river pirates."
Harding's searching look covered both sides of the river, into the rocks and behind the trees.
"They like to hang around river stops, like trading posts and the like," he said. "That way they can get a good look at what the boats are carrying, and if they see anything they like, they'll go cross-country till they can find a place to set up an ambush. What with the river meanderin' back and forth, it's easy enough for them to get ahead of a boat."
"You mean there might be pirates here right now?"
"Truth to tell, boy, I wouldn't put it past Eby himself. I've always suspected him, but I've never been able to prove it. If I ever got proof, I'd get some of the other boatmen together and we'd clean this place out."
Excerpted from The First Mountain Man by William W. Johnstone. Copyright © 2002 William W Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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