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Nate first spied the man across the lake. Nate was filling water skins for his family's journey when his bay snorted. He looked up and saw a line of riders emerging from the forest on the far shore. Instinctively, he reached for the Hawken that lay beside him. They were white men and not hostiles but he still held the rifle level at his hip with his thumb on the hammer and his finger curled over the trigger.
There were five, the second to last with half a dozen big hounds on a long leash, the last leading pack horses. Their buckskins marked them as frontiersmen, their head wear as Southerners. Few from north of the Mason-Dixon were partial to coonskin caps.
Nate took several steps to the right so his horse would not take a stray slug, should it come to that. Just because they were white did not mean they were friendly. As many savage men as savage beasts called the wilderness home, and it did not do to ever let one's guard lapse. His green eyes narrowed as the riders came close and reined up a dozen yards away.
"Good mornin' to you, sir," the foremost greeted Nate in a drawl as thick as molasses. He had a ruggedly handsome face with eyes the color of the lake. "Would these be the Rocky Mountains or have I taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in South America?"
Nate's lips quirked in amusement. "South America, you say? No, welcome to darkest Africa, as folks call it. Keep on a spell and you'll come across a herd of elephants and some hippos."
The man laughed heartily, then gestured with the long rifle in his left hand. "As I live and breathe, a gentleman of refinement in the midst of this sea of fang and claw. My pleasure, sir. Robert Stuart is my handle, and these feckless individuals you see behind me are my kin. We left the great sovereign state of South Carolina five months ago and have been on the go ever since."
"That's a lot of traveling." Nate said. Walking over, he offered his hand and introduced himself.
"My goodness, aren't you the tall tree?" Robert Stuart said, shaking. "In my county I'm considered larger than average but you would dwarf an ox."
Now it was Nate who laughed and said, "Is everyone in your county so excellent at exaggeration?"
"My God, a reader!" Robert Stuart declared. "No one chucks out words of so many syllables without bein' as addicted, as I am."
"I stand guilty," Nate said, and grew sad deep inside, for he had lost his precious collection of books not all that long ago and it would take him years to reacquire the volumes he most missed.
"I can always tell," Robert Stuart said. "Those who don't, like my brother Emory, here, use the puny words of a ten-year-old."
"Go to Hades," Emory Stuart said.
"See what I mean?" Robert winked at Nate. "Next he'll insult my ma, forgettin' she's his ma, too."
The other men, Emory included, were grinning, and Emory said, "We're mighty pleased to meet you, mister. We haven't come across another white man in a coon's age. Or maybe a possum's."
"They are scarce in these parts," Nate conceded. "But not scarce enough."
"How so?" Robert asked.
"How about if I tell you over a cup or four of coffee?" Nate proposed, and saw Stuart suddenly stiffen.
"What's this, then? You have a private army?"
Out of the trees at Nate's back had rushed four figures. One was a white-haired mountaineer with a beard halfway to his waist. Another was a swarthy youth whose features spoke of mixed lineage. With them was a girl all of sixteen summers and a warrior armed with an ash bow, an arrow already nocked to the sinew string.
"Is everything all right, Horatio?" asked he of the white hair. "I was on my way down to the lake and saw them and went for help." He then indulged in his favorite pastime and quoted his namesake, "All furnished, all in arms, all plumed like estridges that with the wind baited like eagles having lately bathed."
"He called you Horatio?" Robert Stuart said. "I thought you told us your name is Nate?"
"Gentlemen," Nate addressed the Southerners, "permit me to introduce Shakespeare McNair. He has two distinctions. One, of having lived in these mountains longer than any white man alive. Two, of thinking he is a walking play and reciting the bard nearly every time he opens his mouth."
Shakespeare put a hand to his chest in mock dismay. "From the extremist upward of thy head to the descent and dust below thy foot, a most toad-spotted traitor."
Robert Stuart said. "I do so adore a turn of the phrase, sir, and your phrases are turned most nicely."
"Credit old William S., not me," Shakespeare glibly responded.
The swarthy younger man was tapping a foot. "Enough of this silliness! Are they friendly or not?"
"My son, Zach," Nate said.
Robert Stuart leaned forward. "We can speak for ourselves. And yes, we are as friendly as the year is long to those who are friendly to us." His gaze shifted to the warrior.
"Good Lord. They keep gettin' bigger. Does this one eat hills for his breakfast and supper?"
"Touch the Clouds is a leader of the Shoshones," Nate said, "and my relation by marriage."
Now the girl merited the South Carolinian's attention. "And who, pray tell, is this ravishing vision of female splendor?"
"My daughter, Evelyn."
"I have a girl your age back home," Robert Stuart said. "God willin', I'll be seein' her and the rest of my family before another couple of months go by."
"Amen to that," Emory Stuart interjected. "I miss my wife somethin' awful. Much to my surprise."
Shakespeare chuckled. "There's the rub. They drive us to distraction but we can't toss them off cliffs."
"Uncle Shakespeare!" Evelyn exclaimed. "Wait until I tell Blue Water Woman."
"My wife is a Flathead," Shakespeare explained to the Stuart clan, "and she wields her tongue like a well-honed knife."
Zach had turned and was hurrying up the trail. Touch the Clouds lowered his bow and followed his example.
Dismounting, Robert Stuart handed the reins to Emory and came over to Nate. "Let me help you with those water skins."
Shakespeare was going down the line of riders, pumping hands and repeating names. "Emory. Jethro. Arvil. Lee."
Evelyn had drifted toward the hounds. The big dogs sat still and silent with their tongues lolling and their long ears hung low. "These are some critters."
"The best in Oconee County," Arvil said. He was lean and wiry and had a ready smile, and was not much older than she was. "They'll rip a bear or a cougar apart if we want them to."
Jethro nodded. "We breed them ourselves. Whenever there's a litter, folks come from miles around to buy one."
"They might tear a black bear apart but never a grizzly," Evelyn said. She extended her hand toward the nearest hound and it bared its fangs and rumbled deep in its barrel chest.
Robert Stuart turned partway and brandished his rifle at the dog. He did not take aim. He simply held it out in the dog's general direction. Instantly, the animal stopped growling and stopped baring its fangs and sat as meekly as a lamb.
"It's scared to death of you," Evelyn said.
"There's more to it than that, girl," Robert Stuart informed her. "A hound that won't heel or do what it's supposed to is as useless as teats on a boar. So we train our dogs right."
"I had a hound once," Shakespeare said. "One of the useless ones. He wouldn't hunt if I begged him. Whenever we saw a wild animal larger than a chipmunk, he ran the other way. I spent half my time catching him and the other half scolding him for being so craven."
"I wouldn't call it cowardly to run from a bear," Nate remarked. "I'd call it smart as smart can be."
"Says the gent who has killed more grizzlies than any man ever," Shakespeare teased. "You just wish you could run as fast as my hound did."
Robert Stuart asked, "Is it true about you killin' a heap of silver tips?"
"Unfortunately." Nate let out a sigh. "It's not as if I wanted it that way. I just seem to have a knack for running into them."
Shakespeare snorted. "There's no seem about it. You draw bears like a magnet draws bits of iron. The wonder is you weren't torn to shreds long ago."
"It's not for their lack of trying. I have the scars to prove it." Nate placed a hand to his side and a thick ridge of scar tissue from one of his more recent encounters. "If I had my druthers, I would as soon not kill another griz as long as I live."
The trail brought them to a clearing. In the center stood the cabin built by Nate's uncle, long since deceased, the cabin Nate had raised his son and daughter in. The home the King family had shared for going on two decades. Attached to the south side was a corral, which at the moment was empty. Over a dozen horses stood in front of the cabin, a travois attached to each animal. Some of the travois were heaped high with personal effects.
For the past hour Nate and his family had been loading the few possessions they had left in the world. Not long ago, while they were off visiting civilization, their cabin had been ransacked.
"What's this?" Robert Stuart asked. "It looks like you're fixin' to move out."
"We are," Nate confirmed. "We're moving to a valley deeper in the mountains." To a haven no other white men had ever set eyes on, a sanctuary where he hoped his family would be safe from unfriendly tribes and the violent breed of whites who increasingly came to the Rockies. "Shakespeare and my son are moving there with us."
"What about this place?"
"It's stood empty before," Nate said. For months at a time on occasion. The wonder of it was that it had not been burned to the ground long ago by any of his many enemies.
"May I?" Robert Stuart said, and was almost to the threshold when out came two women.
Both wore beaded doeskin dresses. Both had long raven hair, the second woman's streaked with grey. Both would turn heads on any street in any town or city on the continent.
The younger woman stopped in surprise. "We have visitors, husband?" Her English was impeccable. "They have chosen an unfortunate time to come calling."
"They're only passing through," Nate said. To the Southerners he said, "This is the apple of my eye, my wife, Winona."
Robert Stuart doffed his coonskin cap and bowed with a flourish. "Maybe passin' through and maybe not, ma'am. It's a pleasure to meet you." Taking her hand, he kissed her knuckles.
"Oh my," Winona said.
"You must forgive my brother," Emory said to Nate. "He has long had delusions of bein' a grand gentleman. When he was little, he would practice bowin' and kissin' the hogs. We were the talk of the county."
"Pay him no mind, ma'am," Robert told Winona. "He's an uncouth lout my mother has regretted not smotherin' in his swaddlin' clothes."
"They're both embarrassments," Lee Stuart said. He appeared to be the oldest and was also the quietest. "It's part of the reason we're thinkin' of pullin' up stakes and movin' to the Rockies."
"You're here scouting for a place to live?" Nate asked, but before any of them could answer, the last distaff member of his family, his son's wife, Louisa, came sprinting out of the trees as if her buckskin britches were on fire.
"Indians! Nine or ten of them, spying on us from the south ridge! I don't think they saw me but I sure saw them!"
Nate was in motion before the words were out of her mouth. Swinging onto his bay, he called out, "Zach, Shakespeare, you're with me. The rest of you stay here." A slap of his heels brought the bay to a trot. He wound through the woods with a skill born of long experience, sticking to thick cover so the warriors on the ridge would be less apt to spot him. He slowed when the pines thinned, and soon came to a stop. Shakespeare drew rein on his right, Zach on his left. Their rifles in hand, they were as grim as death.
"Want me to have a look-see, pa?"
The brush crackled and Robert and Emory Stuart joined them. "I hope you don't mind us taggin' along," the former said, "but you folks have been so hospitable, it wouldn't be proper not to lend a hand if we can."
"Could it be more of your Shoshone friends?" Emory inquired.
"We're not expecting any," Nate said, "and there are too many tribes after my hair to take anything for granted." The Blackfoot Confederacy had long had him at the top of their list of whites they would most like to stake out and skin alive. The Sioux, too, bore him a grudge that stretched back years.
Zach raised his reins. "If you hear a shot, come on the run."
"There's a better way," Nate said. Twisting in his saddle, he opened one of the parfleches that served as his saddlebags, rummaged inside, and pulled out a folded brass telescope. He handed his Hawken to Zach, swung down, and stepped to a nearby pine.
The prospect of getting sap all over his hands and clothes was not one he relished but he started up the tree without hesitation, the spyglass tucked under his wide brown leather belt next the flintlock pistols wedged on either side of the buckle. On his left hip was a Bowie, on his right a tomahawk. Across his chest were slanted his powder-horn, ammo pouch and possibles bag.
Nate climbed swiftly, careful not to rustle the limbs. He stayed on the side of the tree opposite the ridge, and when he was a good thirty feet up, he hooked his left arm around a branch, his body flush with the trunk, and pressed the small end of the telescope to his right eye.
The Indians were there, sure enough. Nine warriors armed with bows and knives.
Their buckskins and the style in which they wore their hair marked them as Nez Perce.
Relief coursed through Nate. The Nez Perce were friendly. They lived many days' ride to the northwest and sometimes ventured to the plains after buffalo. It was a hunting party, not a war party. He thought he recognized one of the warriors from a rendezvous years ago. As he watched, they reined eastward to follow the ridge to where it would descend into the foothills and the prairie beyond.
Folding the spyglass, Nate descended and related what he had seen.
"All that worry for nothing," Zach grumbled.
"Better to worry and not have to kill than worry and be killed," Shakespeare said.
"I don't mind killing when it's called for."
"I wonder that thee, being, as thou sayest thou art, born under Saturn, goest about to apply a moral medicine to a mortifying mischief," Shakespeare quoted.
Zach cocked his head. "What in blazes did you just say?"
"Ignore him, son," Nate quickly said. "You know how he gets." He gave Shakespeare a stern look, and McNair laughed.
"I think the best grace of wit will shortly turn into silence, and discourse grow commendable in none only but parrots."
"There he goes again," Zach said, shaking his head.
Robert Stuart was beaming. "I could listen to him all day. He's more entertainin' than a room full of kittens."
They started back, Nate in the lead and Robert alongside him.
The man from South Carolina cleared his throat. "About that cabin of yours. It would be a shame to neglect it. Ever thought of sellin'?"
"Not ever," Nate admitted. Even though he was moving he was still fond of the place. Some of the best years of his life had been spent there. "Why? Are you planning to move to the Rockies?"
"It's the reason we came," Robert said. "To find a likely spot to homestead. This is marvelous country. All the tales we heard are true. Game everywhere. Peaks that rise to the sky. And the climate's not bad, neither."
"Wait until you've been here an entire winter, then say that," Nate responded. "Did those tales include mention of the dangers?"
"The hostiles and beasts and such?" Robert Stuart shrugged. "My brothers and cousins and me have every confidence we can protect our own."
"That's not confidence, it's delusion."
"How so? You've managed all these years, I take it? Your wife and offspring seem healthy and spry."
"We're alive only by the grace of Providence and a lot of luck," Nate said. "By rights we all should have died long ago."
"The good book says that God sends rain on the just and the unjust so I reckon we have as much a share of that Providence as anyone else," Robert said. "And I've always been luckier than most."
Excerpted from Reap the Whirlwind by David Thompson Copyright © 2004 by Dorchester Publishing. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 4, 2008
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