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By William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 J. A. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Death lurked in the forest.
It wore buckskins, carried a long-barreled flintlock rifle, and had long, shaggy hair as red as the flame of sunset. Death's name was Breckinridge Wallace.
Utterly silent and motionless, Breckinridge knelt and peered through a gap in the thick brush underneath the trees that covered these Tennessee hills. He waited, his cheek pressed against the ornately engraved maple of the rifle stock as he held the weapon rock-steady. He had the sight lined up on a tiny clearing on the other side of a swift-flowing creek. His brilliant blue eyes never blinked as he watched for his prey.
Those eyes narrowed slightly as Breckinridge heard a faint crackling of brush that gradually grew louder. The quarry he had been stalking all morning was nearby and coming closer. All he had to do was be patient.
He was good at that. He had been hunting ever since the rifle he carried was longer than he was tall. His father had said more than once Breckinridge should have been born with a flintlock in his hands. It wasn't a statement of approval, either.
Breckinridge looped his thumb over the hammer and pulled it back so slowly that it made almost no sound. He was ready now. He had worked on the trigger until it required only the slightest pressure to fire.
The buck stepped from the brush into the clearing, his antlered head held high as he searched for any sight or scent of danger. Breckinridge knew he couldn't be seen easily where he was concealed in the brush, and the wind had held steady, carrying his smell away from the creek. Satisfied that it was safe, the buck moved toward the stream and started to lower his head to drink. He was broadside to Breck, in perfect position.
For an instant, Breckinridge felt a surge of regret that he was about to kill such a beautiful, magnificent animal. But the buck would help feed Breck's family for quite a while, and that was how the world worked. He remembered the old Chickasaw medicine man Snapping Turtle telling him he ought to pray to the animals he hunted and give thanks to them for the sustenance their lives provided. Breck did so, and his finger brushed the flintlock's trigger.
The crescent-shaped butt kicked back against his shoulder as the rifle cracked. Gray smoke gushed from the barrel. The buck's muzzle had just touched the water when the .50-caliber lead ball smashed into his side and penetrated his heart. The animal threw his head up and then crashed onto his side, dead when he hit the ground.
Breckinridge rose to his full height, towering well over six feet, and stepped out of the brush. His brawny shoulders stretched the fringed buckskin shirt he wore. His ma complained that he outgrew clothes faster than anybody she had ever seen.
That was true. Anybody just looking at Breckinridge who didn't know him would take him for a full-grown man. It was difficult to believe this was only his eighteenth summer.
Before he did anything else, he reloaded the rifle with a ball from his shot pouch, a greased patch from the brass-doored patchbox built into the right side of the rifle's stock, and a charge of powder from the horn he carried on a strap around his neck. He primed the rifle and carefully lowered the hammer.
Then he moved a few yards to his right where the trunk of a fallen tree spanned the creek. Breckinridge himself had felled that tree a couple of years earlier, dropping it so that it formed a natural bridge. He had done that a number of places in these foothills of the Smoky Mountains east of his family's farm to make his hunting expeditions easier. He'd been roaming the hills for years and knew every foot of them.
Pa was going to be mad at him for abandoning his chores to go hunting, but that wrath would be reduced to a certain extent when Breckinridge came in with that fine buck's carcass draped over his shoulders. Breck knew that, and he was smiling as he stepped onto the log and started to cross the creek.
He was only about halfway to the other side when an arrow flew out of the woods and nicked his left ear as it whipped past his head.
* * *
"Flamehair," Tall Tree breathed as he gazed across the little valley at the big white man moving along the ridge on the far side.
This was a half hour earlier. Tall Tree and the three men with him were hunting for game, but Flamehair was more interesting than fresh meat. The lean Chickasaw warrior didn't know anything about the red-haired man except he had seen Flamehair on a few occasions in the past when their paths had almost crossed in these woods. It was hard to mistake that bright hair, especially because the white man seldom wore a hat.
"We should go on," Big Head urged. "The buck will get away."
"I don't care about the buck," Tall Tree said without taking his eyes off Flamehair.
"I do," Bear Tongue put in. "We haven't had fresh meat in days, Tall Tree. Come. Let us hunt."
Reluctantly, Tall Tree agreed. Anyway, Flamehair had vanished into a thick clump of vegetation. Tall Tree moved on with the other two and the fourth warrior, Water Snake.
Bear Tongue was right, Tall Tree thought. They and the dozen other warriors back at their camp needed fresh meat.
Empty bellies made killing white men more difficult, and that was the work to which Tall Tree and his men were devoted.
Three years earlier, after many years of sporadic war with the whites, the leaders of the Chickasaw people had made a treaty with the United States government. It was possible they hadn't understood completely what the results of that agreement would be. The Chickasaw and the other members of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes had been forced to leave their ancestral lands and trek west to a new home in a place called Indian Territory.
Tall Tree and the men with him had no use for that. As far as they were concerned, the Smoky Mountains were their home and anyplace they roamed should be Indian Territory.
They had fled from their homes before the white man's army had a chance to round them up and force them to leave. While most of the Chickasaw and the other tribes were headed west on what some were calling the Trail of Tears, Tall Tree's band of warriors and others like them hid out in the mountains, dodging army patrols, raiding isolated farms, and slaughtering as many of the white invaders as they could find.
Tall Tree knew that someday he and his companions would be caught and killed, but when that happened they would die as free men, as warriors, not as slaves.
As long as he was able to spill plenty of the enemy's blood before that day arrived, he would die happily.
Now as he and the other three warriors trotted along a narrow game trail in pursuit of the buck they were stalking, Tall Tree's mind kept going back to the man he thought of as Flamehair. The man nearly always hunted alone, as if supremely confident in his ability to take care of himself. That arrogance infuriated Tall Tree. He wanted to teach the white man a lesson, and what better way to do that than by killing him?
He could think of one way, Tall Tree suddenly realized.
It would be even better to kill Flamehair slowly, to torture him for hours or even days, until the part of him left alive barely resembled anything human and he was screaming in agony for the sweet relief of death.
That thought put a smile on Tall Tree's face.
Water Snake, who hardly ever spoke, was in the lead because he was the group's best scout. He signaled a halt, then turned and motioned to Tall Tree, who joined him. Water Snake pointed to what he had seen.
Several hundred yards away, a buckskin-clad figure moved across a small open area. Tall Tree caught only a glimpse of him, but that was enough for him to again recognize Flamehair.
Tall Tree understood now what was going on. After Water Snake had pointed out the white man to Big Head and Bear Tongue, Tall Tree said, "Flamehair is after the same buck we are. Should we allow him to kill it and take it back to whatever squalid little farm he came from?"
"No!" Big Head exclaimed. "We should kill him."
Bear Tongue said, "I thought you wanted to hunt."
"I do, but Flamehair is only one man. We can kill him and then kill the buck."
"Even better," Tall Tree said, "we can let him kill the buck, then we will kill him and take it for ourselves and our friends back at camp."
The other three nodded eagerly, and he knew he had won them over.
Now they were stalking two different kinds of prey, one human, one animal. Tall Tree knew that eventually they would all come together. He sensed the spirits manipulating earthly events to create that intersection. His medicine was good. He had killed many white men. Today he would kill another.
Tall Tree knew the trail they were following led to a small clearing along a creek that wildlife in this area used as a watering hole. Before his people had been so brutally torn away from their homes, so had they.
It was possible Flamehair knew of the spot as well. He came to these hills frequently, and it was likely that he was well acquainted with them. Tall Tree decided that was where he and his men would set their trap. The buck would be the bait.
They circled to reach the creek ahead of the buck and concealed themselves in the thick brush a short distance downstream from the clearing. A fallen tree lay across the creek. Tall Tree had looked at that log before and suspected Flamehair had been the one who cut it down.
As they waited, Tall Tree began to worry that the buck wasn't really headed here after all and would lead Flamehair somewhere else. In that case Tall Tree would just have to be patient and kill the white man some other day.
But he was looking forward to seeing if the man's blood was as red as his hair, and he hoped it was today.
A few minutes later he heard the buck moving through the brush and felt a surge of satisfaction and anticipation. He had guessed correctly, and soon the white man would be here, too. He leaned closer to his companions and whispered, "Try not to kill him. I want to take him alive and make his death long and painful."
Big Head and Bear Tongue frowned a little at that. They had killed plenty of whites, too, but not by torture. Water Snake just nodded, though.
A few more minutes passed, then the buck appeared. Almost immediately a shot rang out, and the buck went down hard, killed instantly. It was a good shot. Tall Tree spotted the powder smoke on the far side of the creek and knew that if all they wanted to do was kill Flamehair, they ought to riddle that spot with arrows.
Instead he motioned for the others to wait. He was convinced he knew what the white man was going to do next.
He was right, too. Flamehair appeared, looking even bigger than Tall Tree expected, and stood on the creek bank reloading his rifle, apparently unconcerned that he might be in danger. Reloading after firing a shot was just a simple precaution that any man took in the woods. Any man who was not a fool.
The other three warriors looked at Tall Tree, ready and anxious to fire their arrows at Flamehair. Again Tall Tree motioned for them to wait. A cruel smile curved his lips slightly as he watched Flamehair step onto the log bridge and start across the creek. He raised his bow and pulled it taut as he took aim.
This was the first time he had gotten such a close look at Flamehair, and a shock went through him as he realized the white man was barely a man at all. For all his great size, he was a stripling youth.
That surprise made Tall Tree hesitate instead of loosing his arrow as he had planned. He wanted to shoot Flamehair in the leg and dump him in the creek, which would make his long rifle useless and ruin the rest of his powder.
Instead, as Tall Tree failed to shoot, Big Head's fingers slipped on his bowstring and it twanged as it launched its arrow. Big Head's aim was off. The arrow flew at Flamehair's red-thatched head, missing as narrowly as possible.
But somehow it accomplished Tall Tree's goal anyway, because as Flamehair twisted on the log, possibly to make himself a smaller target in case more arrows were coming his way, the soles of his high-topped moccasins slipped. He wavered there for a second and fought desperately to keep his balance, but it deserted him and he toppled into the stream with a huge splash.
Tall Tree forgot about his plan to capture Flamehair and torture him to death. All that mattered to him now was that this white intruder on Chickasaw land should die. He leaped up and plunged out of the brush as he shouted in his native tongue, "Kill him!"CHAPTER 2
Breckinridge had good instincts. They told him where there was one Indian there might be two — or more. He knew he was an easy target out here on this log, so he tried to turn and race back to the cover of the brush on the creek's other side.
Despite his size, he had always been a pretty graceful young man. That grace deserted him now, however, when he needed it most. He felt himself falling, tried to stop himself, but his momentum was too much. He slipped off the log and fell the five feet to the creek.
He knew how to swim, of course. Like shooting a gun, swimming was something he had learned how to do almost before he could walk.
So he wasn't worried about drowning, even though he had gone completely under the water. His main concern was the charge of powder in his rifle, as well as the one in the flintlock pistol he carried. They were wet and useless now. The powder in his horn was probably all right, but he figured his attackers wouldn't give him a chance to dry his weapons and reload.
Sure enough, as he came up and his head broke the surface, he saw four Chickasaw burst out of the brush. Three of them already had arrows nocked, and the fourth was reaching for a shaft in his quiver.
Breckinridge dragged in as deep a breath as he could and went under again.
He still had hold of his rifle — it was a fine gun and he was damned if he was going to let go of it — and its weight helped hold him down as he kicked strongly to propel himself along with the current. The creek was eight or ten feet deep at this point and twenty feet wide. Like most mountain streams, though, it was fairly clear, so the Indians could probably still see him.
Something hissed past Breckinridge in the water. He knew it was an arrow. They were still trying to kill him. He hadn't expected any different.
When he was a boy, he had befriended and played with some of the Chickasaw youngsters in the area. The medicine man Snapping Turtle had sort of taken Breckinridge under his wing for a while, teaching him Indian lore and wisdom. Breck liked the Chickasaw and had nothing against them. He didn't really understand why the army had come and made them all leave, but he'd been sorry to see them go.
Not all the Chickasaw had departed for Indian Territory, however. Some of them — stubborn holdouts, Breckinridge's pa called them — had managed to elude the army and were still hidden in the rugged mountains, venturing out now and then for bloody raids on the white settlers. Breck figured he had run into just such a bunch, eager to kill any white man they came across.
He had known when he started into the hills that he was risking an encounter like this, but he had never let the possibility of danger keep him from doing something he wanted. If that made him reckless, like his pa said, then so be it.
Now it looked like that impulsiveness might be the death of him.
His lungs were good, strengthened by hours and hours of running for the sheer pleasure of it. He had filled them with air, so he knew he could stay under the water for a couple of minutes, anyway, probably longer. He had to put that time to good use. Because of the thick brush, the Indians couldn't run along the bank as quickly as he could swim underwater. All he needed to do was avoid the arrows they fired at him, and he had to trust to luck for that since he couldn't see them coming while he was submerged.
Breckinridge continued kicking his feet and stroking with his left arm. Fish darted past him in the stream, disturbed by this human interloper. It was beautiful down here. Breck might have enjoyed the experience if he hadn't known that death might be waiting for him at the surface.
He didn't know how long he stayed under, but finally he had to come up for air. He let his legs drop so he could push off the rocky bottom with his feet. As he broke the surface he threw his head from side to side to sling the long red hair out of his eyes. When his vision had cleared he looked around for the Indians.
He didn't see them, but he heard shouting back upstream a short distance. He had gotten ahead of his pursuers, just as he'd hoped, and once he had grabbed a couple more deep breaths he intended to go under again and keep swimming downstream.
That plan was ruined when strong fingers suddenly clamped around his ankle and jerked him under the surface again.
Excerpted from The Frontiersman by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2015 J. A. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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